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An Astonishing Photographic Discovery

December 10, 2020
by the gentle author

Today is the last day of our ADVENT BOOK SALE with all titles in our online shop including Horace Warner’s SPITALFIELDS NIPPERS at half price until midnight. Enter code ADVENT at checkout.


Below you can read my account of how we found Horace Warner’s photographs and brought them to publication.

These breathtaking photographs were taken by Horace Warner in Spitalfields at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Before I published them on Spitalfields Life, they had hardly been seen by anyone outside his immediate family. We were granted permission personally by Horace Warner’s grandson, Ian McGilvray.

Previously, only a handful of Warner’s sympathetic portraits of the children who lived in the courtyards off Quaker St – known as the Spitalfields Nippers – were believed to exist, but through some assiduous detective work by researcher Vicky Stewart and a stroke of good luck upon my part, we were able to make contact with his grandson who keeps two albums comprising more than one hundred of his grandfather’s pictures of Spitalfields, from which the photographs published here are selected.

Many of the pictures in these albums are photographic masterpieces and, after I published the book, David Bailey contacted me to say he believed they are the most significant set of portraits ever taken in the East End.

There is a rare clarity of vision in the tender photography of Horace Warner that brings us startling close to the Londoners of 1900 and permits us to look them in the eye for the first time. You can imagine my excitement when I met Ian McGilvray and opened Horace Warner’s albums to discover so many astonishing pictures. I experienced a sensation almost of vertigo, like looking down the dark well of time and being surprised by these faces in sharp focus, looking back at me.

It was no straightforward journey to get there. I first published a series of Horace Warner’s Spitalfields Nippers in these pages in 2011, reproduced from a booklet accompanying a 1975 exhibition of the handful of pictures once published in fund-raising leaflets by the Bedford Institute in 1912. When I sought to reproduce these pictures in The Gentle Author’s London Album, Vicky Stewart established that the photographic prints were held in the Quaker archive at Friends House in the Euston Rd.

This discovery which permitted me to include those pictures in my Album was reward enough for our labours. The story might easily have ended there, if we had not been shown a 1988 letter from Horace Warner’s daughter Gwen McGilvray that accompanied the prints. In this letter, Gwen mentions the ‘albums’ – this was the first tantalising evidence of the existence of more of Horace Warner’s Spitalfields photographs.

Even as our hopes of finding these other pictures were raised, we were disappointed to realise that Gwen was unlikely to be still alive. Yet through online research and thanks to his unusual surname, Vicky was able to find an address for one of Gwen’s four children, her son Ian, in Norfolk. It was a few years out of date but there was a chance he was still there, so we sent off a copy of The Gentle Author’s London Album to Ian McGilvray.

Within weeks, Ian wrote back to ask if I would like to visit him and see the ‘albums.’ It was my good fortune that the one of Horace Warner’s grandchildren we had been able to reach was also the guardian of the photographic legacy. And so it was that on a bright winter’s day I made a journey to Norfolk to meet Ian and see the complete set of Horace Warner’s Spitalfields Nippers for the first time. My fear was that I had seen the most important images among those already known, but my shock was to recognise that the best pictures have not yet been seen.

These wonderful photographs revolutionise how we think about East Enders at the end of the nineteenth century since, in spite of their poverty, these are undeniably proud people who claim a right to existence which transcends their economic status. Unlike the degraded photographic images created by charitable campaigners or the familiar middle-class studio portraits, Horace Warner’s relaxed intimate pictures draw us into a personal relationship with his subjects whom we meet as our equals. The Spitalfields Nippers are a unique set of photographs, that witness a particular time, a specific place, a discrete society, and an entire lost world.

As a designer managing the family wallpaper-printing business, Horace Warner had the income and resources to explore photography in his spare time and produce images of the highest standard technically. As superintendent of the charitable Bedford Institute, he was brought into close contact over many years with the families who lived nearby in the yards and courts south of Quaker St. As a Quaker, he believed in the equality of all and he was disturbed by the poverty he witnessed in the East End. In the Spitalfields Nippers these things came together for Horace Warner, creating compassionate images that gave dignity to his subjects and producing great photography that is without parallel in his time.

Excerpt of 1988 letter from Horace Warner’s daughter Gwen McGilvray referring to the ‘albums’ and giving the name of his grandson, Ian McGilvray. (Reproduced courtesy of Friends House)

Sisters Wakefield

Walter Seabrook

Celia Compton

Photo referred to by Gwen McGilvray with headlines at the end of the Boer War, dating it to 1902

At the Whitechapel Gallery to see the Burne Jones exhibition 1901

In Pearl St (now Calvin St)

See the man looking over the wall in Union Place

Click here to order SPITALFIELDS NIPPERS by Horace Warner

22 Responses leave one →
  1. Ron Wilkinson permalink
    December 10, 2020

    Great pictures. Handsome looking folk. Narrow streets full of kids.

  2. Lesley permalink
    December 10, 2020

    The unbelievable hardship, shown on the faces. My Nan used to tell me that lots of the children had no shoes. I remember being really shocked. I imagined them n the winter, freezing cold. Still shocks me today. Her mother used to say. Don’t take your boots off. She was lucky. Born n 1907. Lovely lady. Thank you GA. also to Horace and his family.

  3. Gregg permalink
    December 10, 2020

    Wonderful photos the quality of which is so good they could have been taken yesterday! Great detective work for finding them. The young lady on the left in the second photo [Wakefield Sisters] I am sure I have seen before which probably means in a photo on your website. Impossible to forget those piercing eyes & remarkable, shiny hair for a Spitalfields Nipper.
    Thanks for this.

  4. Herry Lawford permalink
    December 10, 2020

    Wonderful photos; superb!

  5. December 10, 2020

    A very special and fine Book — I got it already some time ago and love it!

    Love & Peace

  6. Wendy Lowe permalink
    December 10, 2020

    What wonderful photographs. Thank you for all your work in tracking them down and to the family they belong to for keeping them in such good condition over the years. I agree with David Bailey.

  7. December 10, 2020

    Beautiful and heart-rending.

  8. Hilda Kean permalink
    December 10, 2020

    I really like this book which I obtained a few years ago. The images are not simply of ordinary children in Spitalfields but of their relationships with companion animals, including cats.

    Also the work has much information drawn from names in Warner’s notes and then census returns so we find out what many of the children were to do in later years. This is unusual for photographs published from the later C19 / early C20th – and very interesting.

    Cheer yourself up at Xmas with this book in these dire times!

  9. December 10, 2020

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, Horace Warner’s portraits of these children are so moving. The effects of poverty are recorded on their faces in many instances. Just looking at the condition of their shoes (or lack of footwear) says it all.

  10. December 10, 2020

    The sensation of “vertigo” — So well put. A perfect description for the inexplicable, sudden feeling of recognition as we study each long-ago face. I was caught up in the range of emotions depicted here, almost relieved to find some happy elation in the midst of so much sobriety.
    I found it impossible to look at these faces and not root for these folks to succeed, flourish,
    endure, and rise.

    Stay safe, all.

  11. Jennifer Newbold permalink
    December 10, 2020

    It is not the first time I’ve seen these beautiful photographs, but they never cease to be moving. I feel as if I could speak to them. (They certainly speak to me!) The photo of the boy on the barrow makes me want to scoop him up and hold him; even while knowing he must have departed this world many years ago.

  12. K Parrish permalink
    December 10, 2020

    Wonderfully written article and lovely photographs. Thank you!

  13. December 10, 2020

    Wonderful book I bought in Town house when you did a talk about the book and gave us a poster of the cheeky boy cover picture. A friend of mine notices that most of the boys appear to be wearing rudimentary scarves. Was their a practical reason for that or just fashion of the time

  14. Ann Vosper permalink
    December 10, 2020

    What amazing images. I have ordered a copy of the book today and look forward to seeing more of these remarkable photographs.

  15. Eva Radford permalink
    December 10, 2020

    Very moving and elegiac. I hope these beautiful children made it through. Those poor little feet! There is a great deal of affection, camaraderie, love in these children. Wonderful that your efforts saved these photos so they could be shared. Thanks to the family.

  16. paul loften permalink
    December 10, 2020

    Now you have left me with a poser. These are such clear and striking images. Which one should I go for John Claridge or Horace Warner? I have until midnight but I think I have decided on Horace. What a snip!

  17. Sue permalink
    December 10, 2020

    Wonderful portraits.

  18. Desiree Michael permalink
    December 10, 2020

    Today my daughter hardly sends a message without a photo alongside, so we are inundated with lovely closeup portrait photos. However, Horace’s photos are so different. I keep scrolling up and down through these unable to pinpoint quite why they are so alive… Almost as if they can see you!

  19. Kate permalink
    December 11, 2020

    What incredibly beautiful photos to have unearthed capturing a time of such hardship when disease, crime and poverty were rife and city living was unhealthy. Very moving to look into these peoples lives.

  20. Pamela Traves permalink
    December 13, 2020

    Sad Vintage Pictures of these children and their families. Life was So Tough for these families.???

  21. Su C. permalink
    December 13, 2020

    I have Nippers on my shelf and look at it frequently. I can’t ever tire of looking into these lives and wonder….

    thanks for all you give us GA!

  22. Cherub permalink
    December 18, 2020

    Some of the children in these photos look very thin, especially the little boy at the front in the first one. It’s sad to think there will be many children going without this Christmas in these difficult times we are all experiencing. Please spare a thought for those little ones and their families and hope for brighter days in spring.

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