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In Search Of Horace Warner

February 17, 2021
by the gentle author

All titles in the Spitalfields Life Bookshop are half price in our Valentine’s sale. Some are already sold out and others are running low, so – with weeks of lockdown yet to come – this is the ideal opportunity to complete your collection.

Enter the code VALENTINE at checkout to claim your discount.


Today I explore the life of Horace Warner, photographer of SPITALFIELDS NIPPERS which is included in the sale.

Horace Warner (1871-1939)

This is a self-portrait by Horace Warner taken when he was around thirty years old at the time he was photographing the Spitalfields Nippers, the pictures by which he is remembered and that establish his posthumous reputation as a photographer. If you look closely you can just see the bulb in his left hand to control the shutter, permitting him to capture this image of himself.

With his pale moon-like face, straggly moustache and shiny locks, Horace looks younger than his years and yet there is an intensity in his concentration matched by the poised energy of his right arm. This is how he chose to present himself – wielding a brush, indicative of his profession as a wallpaper designer in the family business of Jeffrey & Co, run by his father Metford Warner (1843-1930), where he and his brother Marcus worked. The company was established in 1836 and Metford was a junior partner who became proprietor by 1869 and, under his leadership, they became a leading manufacturer. He was committed to representing artists’ designs more accurately than had been done before and commissioned William Burges and Walter Crane, among other leading designers of the time – most famously, collaborating with William Morris.

I set out to visit three places that were familiar to Horace Warner in an attempt to better understand the connections between the different aspects of his life that found their expression in these locations. First, I took the train to Highbury and walked up the hill beside the long eighteenth century terrace bounding the fields, turning off into the quiet crescent of Aberdeen Park, a private estate laid out in the eighteen-fifties.

The turret of the former Warner family house stood out among the other comfortably-appointed villas, as testimony to the success of Jeffrey & Co, supplying wallpaper to the artistic classes in the growing capital at the end of the nineteenth century. A woman pushing a pram along the pavement in front of me turned out to be the nanny employed by the current residents and, when I explained the reason for my visit, she volunteered that there were a series of old photographs still hanging in an upper room, which also retains its turn of the century embossed wallpaper.

Leaving the ghosts of Aberdeen Park, I turned south, following Horace’s route to work by walking for half an hour down through Canonbury, past the Tower and along the route of the New River, to meet the Essex Rd where the Jeffrey & Co wallpaper factory stands. An elegant turn-of-the century utilitarian building with three well-lit floors above for manufacturing and a showroom on the ground floor, it is currently occupied by a wholefood chain. William Morris’ wallpaper designs were all printed here until the thirties when they were taken over by Sandersons and the factory closed in 1940 but, if you go round to the side street, the loading doors remain as if another delivery might arrive at any time.

From here, the East End is a couple of miles south. In her nineties, Horace Warner’s surviving daughter, Ruth Finken, still remembers accompanying her father on this journey as a small child to deliver Christmas presents in Quaker St, where he was Sunday School teacher. She recalls how dark, dirty and frightening everything looked, and being told to hold her father’s hand and keep close. Ruth reports that her father was always one for getting the family to pose for his photos and that he spent ages getting everyone in exactly the right position. She also has a memory of one of his photographs of a pair of child’s boots upon the drawing room wall, along with a couple of his portraits of the Spitalfields Nippers, as reminders of those who were less fortunate.

Horace Warner’s participation as Superintendent at the Bedford Institute continued an involvement for his family in Spitalfields that stretched back to the seventeenth century when the Warner Bell Foundry was established. The Warner family were part of the Quaker movement too, almost since its inception, and the naming of Quaker St derives from the Friends Meeting House that opened there in 1656.

Yet the Quaker Mission at the Bedford Institute, that Horace Warner knew, owed its origin to a revival of Quakerism that happened a century later in Spitalfields – encouraged by Peter Bedford (1780-1864), a philanthropist silk merchant who devoted himself to alleviating poor social conditions. Rebuilt in 1893, the handsome red brick Bedford House that stands today would have been familiar to Warner.

In The Condition of The Working Class in England, Frederick Engels referred to the tragedy of a family living in the courtyards south of Quaker St as an example of the degradation of the poor in London and it was these people, living almost upon the doorstep of the Bedford Institute, that Horace Warner befriended and photographed. It was a small area, a narrow rectangle of shabby dwellings circumscribed by roads upon four sides, and no more than a hundred yards wide and five hundreds yards long. Today there is nothing left of it but Horace Warner’s photographs, yet since he annotated them with the names of his subjects we hope we can now discover more about the lives of these people through research into the records. Ultimately, what we can discover about Horace Warner exists in his response to others and their response to him, as manifest in his photographs.

“There isn’t a great deal of information we know about Horace,” his grandson Ian McGilvray admitted to me, “and, in any case, I imagine he would probably have been quite content to have it that way.”

The Warner family home in Aberdeen Park, Highbury

Jeffrey & Co, Wallpaper Factory & Showroom, 64 Essex Rd – the family business run by Metford Warner, where Horace worked with his brother Marcus

Bedford Institute, Quaker St, Spitafields, where Horace Warner was Sunday School Superintendent

Horace Warner’s photograph of one of the yards off Quaker St

Horace Warner’s photograph of Union Place off Quaker St

Horace Warner’s photograph of the children who lived in the yards beside Quaker St in 1900

Washing Day, Horace Warner’s photograph of children boiling up hot water for laundry

Little Adelaide’s Best & Only Boots – a photograph by Horace Warner that Ruth Finken, his daughter, remembers upon the drawing room wall as a child – the Bedford Institute distributed boots to children

Click here to buy a copy of SPITALFIELDS NIPPERS at half price

You can see more of Horace Warner’s photographs here

An Astonishing Photographic Discovery

11 Responses leave one →
  1. marianne isaacs permalink
    February 17, 2021

    Love the Nippers book. I find it so moving .It is amazing to think of the great improvement in ordinary peoples lives over the last 100years. There is still poverty but not like that . My grandfather in law came to Australia from this sort of grinding poverty and made a great deal of money before losing it all again !. It would be wonderful to know what happened to the nippers and if there are descendants . What a wonderful man Mr Warner was . Is he buries at Stoke Newington in the big cemetery there?

  2. James Harris permalink
    February 17, 2021

    I treasure the book Spitalfields Nippers. Poverty is relative to the wealth of others at any point in time. This collection of Horace Warner’s photographs is a stark illustration of absolute poverty in financial terms but it gives me a feeling of their personal wealth in social togetherness, love and care amongst immediate families.

  3. February 17, 2021

    I can only recommend it: the SPITALFIELDS NIPPERS is one of the greatest books of THE SPITALFIELDS LIFE BOOKSHOP.

    Love & Peace

  4. February 17, 2021

    The children of today wouldn’t last a week doing the work that these youngsters had to do. No shoes no matter how cold it was, ragged clothing, not much to play with. Now days they must have designer labels, the latest and most up to date cellphones, computers, laptops, etc.

  5. paul loften permalink
    February 17, 2021

    This is a book worth owning, specially if it is offered at a discount . My experience of meeting Quakers has been limited although very favourable. I was once learning to play the saxophone and had nowhere to practice living in a flat, the noise would drive my neighbours mad . I knew of a local Friends house in Tottenham and I would call on a Quaker family to collect the key . They were truly wonderful and friendly people and allowed me to practice twice weekly in the secluded hall. Unfortunately after a while the arrangement had to stop , due to their new insurance regulations they could not allow anybody on their own into the meeting house. I remember how sorry they were . I then tried a to hire a local church hall in Stoke Newington and when I called at the rectors house, next to the hall, to explain why I wanted to hire the hall he replied to me “Why don’t you try your local synagogue “and shut the door in my face . I still wonder to this day what playing the sax has to do with religion

  6. Mark permalink
    February 17, 2021

    It seems some of the commentators on here think that present day kids live in a land of milk and honey. Not heard of food banks, parents having to choose between heating or food?
    His pictures are a grim reminder that things were terrible for the poor, but only improve when governments, like Atlees, post 2nd world war, set up the N.H.S., Benefits System, Nationalisation, etc.
    We have been going backwards for since Thatcher the milk snatcher. Never trust a tory. Wicked. They don’t care.

  7. Cherub permalink
    February 17, 2021

    That poor wee lass Adelaide, her only pair of boots are falling apart. My late mother grew up in a poor mining village in Scotland between the wars and she told me it wasn’t unusual to see children with no shoes. She was from a family of 9, they were very poor and my granny was widowed by the time she was about 40, her husband had been gassed in the trenches; after WW1 he worked as a miner which finished his lungs off. When I see old photos of very poor children living hard lives I never complain about my lot. My mother was a weaver in a carpet factory at the age of 14. We are so lucky now.

  8. Boudica Redd permalink
    February 18, 2021

    Bravo great pics and story

  9. Jenny permalink
    February 22, 2021

    A very interesting read. I worked in the Essex Road building back in the 1980s and had no idea of its history until now. I can see why it had those large windows that let in so much light.

  10. Nuala Kiely permalink
    April 10, 2021

    My friend’s Nan was one of the Nippers. Do you know where the photos are kept and whether there is access to them.

  11. the gentle author permalink*
    April 10, 2021

    The album of Horace Warner’s photos remains in the safe keeping of his family. I published them all in the book SPITALFIELDS NIPPERS and Bishopsgate Institute has a scan of the album in its archive.

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