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Horace Warner, Photographer

January 22, 2023
by the gentle author

Back in 2014, Spitalfields Life Books published Horace Warner’s SPITALFIELDS NIPPERS. Now there are just the last copies left and I am giving my final lecture on this subject at 6pm on Tuesday 7th February at the beautiful Hanbury Hall in Spitalfields, explaining how we discovered the photographs, who Horace Warner was and why he took his pictures, and revealing what we discovered about the lives of the Nippers.




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 daughter, Ruth Finken, still remembered accompanying her father on this journey as a small child to deliver Christmas presents in Quaker St, where he was Sunday School teacher. She recalled how dark, dirty and frightening everything looked, and being told to hold her father’s hand and keep close. Ruth reported 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 had 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 discovered 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, remembered upon the drawing room wall as a child – the Bedford Institute distributed boots to children

Click here to buy a copy of SPITALFIELDS NIPPERS

You can see more of Horace Warner’s photographs here

An Astonishing Photographic Discovery

2 Responses leave one →
  1. January 22, 2023

    The photo of the shoes………. Goodness.
    When we visited the Van Gogh Museum, it was easy to become overstimulated by his
    legendary familiar works. Yet it was his painting of empty shoes that has stayed with me, years later. And The Holocaust Museum in Washington DC has an exhibit that consists of a plexiglass vitrine full of hundreds of worn shoes. Each one a story. Unforgettable.
    We can only imagine these young lives revealed in Mr. Warner’s photos, and be grateful for his diligence and dedication to chronicling their world.

    Thank you for shining a light, GA.

  2. marianne Isaacs permalink
    January 23, 2023

    I bought your book when it came out and love to look at it especially when I am feeling sorry for myself ! I live in Australia and so cant get to your lectures . I wonder though if you have more information about these children and what happened to them than you did when the book came out . I would love some way of seeing it if you have .
    My husbands family all lived in the area around Cutler street and harrow Alley before coming to Australia in the early 1900.s so see where they lived and what life was like is just so moving .Also with rising levels of social inequality all over the world it is a big reminder of the need to pay our taxes and to work for a more equal society . Horace was a good man and a very handsome one too.

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