Skip to content

An Astonishing Photographic Discovery

February 3, 2023
by the gentle author

Back in 2014, Spitalfields Life Books published Horace Warner’s SPITALFIELDS NIPPERS. Now there are only a few copies left and I am giving my final lecture on this subject at 6pm next 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.




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

12 Responses leave one →
  1. Andy permalink
    February 3, 2023

    An intensely moving experience seeing children who have bonding but significantly have no chance of climbing up their dreams.. G-d bless them.

  2. Milo permalink
    February 3, 2023

    They are certainly quite a find. I’ve got photos of me taken in the 60’s in which i’m all but an amorphous blob. (Hang on, maybe i WAS an amorphous blob in the 60’s…) These are so clear and sharp and beautiful. What a wonderful discovery.

  3. David Ellison permalink
    February 3, 2023

    Superb collection – thanks for sharing.

  4. Cherub permalink
    February 3, 2023

    I like to think some of these children were able to have a good life as adults. The photos of the very poor ones dressed in rags with no shoes are upsetting, they all look so malnourished. God bless them all, whatever was ahead of them in life.

  5. Pat Wilkey permalink
    February 3, 2023

    Absolutely fantastic photographs, so clear.
    Thank you

  6. Paul Loften permalink
    February 3, 2023

    Thank you for the remarkable photos . They show a generation of children living in the East End just prior to the influx of Jewish immigrants in the early 1900’s . I have a school photo of my father taken in Spitalfields,with his class in the mid 1920’s and it shows perhaps a slight improvement in the children’s dress . At least they were receiving some education by then . I can’t say the children were living in better conditions by then as the houses were still the same. tiny back street hovels . Perhaps the overcrowding was a bit less . When you look at the school photo of my fathers class, the faces and posture of the children had a similarly rough and ready appearance. Scruffy with real attitude and ready to challenge anyone despite their size . It doesn’t surprise me that some of these kids made their way to the top .

  7. Robin permalink
    February 3, 2023

    Excellent bit of archival sleuthing, Gentle Author! An exceptional photographic archive for the humanity with which it documents the East Ender pride that poverty could not dampen.
    We have Dickens to describe the East End in words; now we have Horace Warner to match Dickens’ brilliance through his photographs.
    Are there any further plans for making these astounding images available to the public? Future exhibitions, perhaps?

  8. Rick Armiger permalink
    February 3, 2023

    Exceptional in every way
    – the saga of the sleuthing
    – the photographer’s immense skill
    – the gentle authors enthusiasm and diligence
    – and the solidity of those kids is breathtaking over 120 years later.

    Just terrific

  9. February 3, 2023

    Since 2014, I have had this wonderful book in dark green cloth and pasted-in frontispiece in my library (with dedication from the G.A.). It is without doubt one of the most beautiful of the Spitalfieldslife book range. I love it!

    Love & Peace

  10. Marcia Howard permalink
    February 4, 2023

    Truly amazing images which makes me feel very emotional looking at them.

  11. Keith permalink
    February 7, 2023

    Interesting group picture of the Spitalfields Nippers of Pearl Street, Spitalfields. My Paternal Great Grandmother’s family were Irish Catholics who lived in and around Little Pearl Street, Spitalfields in Victorian and Edwardian London. It’s remarkable to see Horace Warner’s pictures in such great detail showing so many happy smiling faces and look back at possible family members in those hard times.

  12. Michelle permalink
    June 11, 2024

    I am so curious about the life of the boy on that front cover. He looks like the Artful Dodger, come to life. I hope he had a lovely successful life; he certainly looked like he could take on any challenge.

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS