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Snapping waifs and strays Horace (left) was a keen amateur photographer, and spent hours snapping waifs and strays such as ‘the sisters Ellis’, clad in their funereal best, sat on a windowsill, bearing a tray of flowers. see below History Got a story to tell? If you have a tale about East End history, write to John Rennie or email him at johnrennie@gmail.com www.eastlondonhistory.com Nippers immortalised by a Quaker’s camera Spitalfields pictures published 100 years after they were taken BY JOHN RENNIE THE eyes stare coolly out of the photographs, arresting the viewer. Sometimes challenging, occasionally despairing, often full of humour and cheek. Horace Warner’s stunning photographs of the ‘Spitalfields Nippers’ are captivating viewers all over again, more than a century after the amateur snapper captured the waifs who were everywhere in the streets around his Quaker Street mission. These were the children who lived in the ‘alleyways, byways and yards’ around Spitalfields at the turn of the 20th century. Victorian cameras were big, heavy and slow of shutter speed. Shots had to be laboriously set up and executed, and woe betide any subject who moved while the seconds were ticking by – we see their blurring, ghost images everywhere in pictures of the time, alongside their more-patient, statue-like fellows. None of the candid, moving shots of modern imagery then, rather the ‘all in a line, faces to the camera’ we’ve come to expect from early photography. But what’s special about Horace’s pictures is their freshness, and part of that is down to his subjects’ refusal to put on a show for the camera. What makes Horace Warner (born in 1871, died in 1939) different from the typical Victorian upper-middle class do-gooder – heading east to peer for a moment into the abyss then scuttling back to moneyed comfort – is that he and his clan had the streets of Spitalfields in their blood. The Warners had made their business here for generations – and their religious convictions meant the local nippers were far more than future factory fodder. Is it too fanciful to suggest that his empathy came through in the pictures he took? Horace would make trips to Spitalfields from the family’s comfortably appointed villa in suburban Islington; a grand, turreted residence paid for by the proceeds of the Warners’ two successful businesses – first as bell-founders, and latterly as wallpaper designers and manufacturers. John Warner & Sons, incorporated in 1739 and wound up in 1949, had a number of foundries around, including one in Stockton on-Tees, but their base was the City and the East End. The Spelman Street foundry in Spitalfields was destroyed in World War II, as was the Cripplegate works, which now lies under the Barbican. One of the company’s proudest boasts was that it originally cast Big Ben for the new Houses of Parliament in 1858 – though it judiciously omitted to mention that the bell cracked, and had to be recast by rival firm, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. In the Warners’ defence, part of the blame was laid at the feet of the bell’s designer, and the recast bell also cracked – it remains cracked to this day, accounting for its characteristic, slightly flat tone. By the late 1800s, Metford Warner had moved into wallpaper manufacture. He owned and ran Jeffrey & Co from a factory in Essex Road, just a short walk from the family home in Aberdeen Park, Highbury, with his sons Horace and Marcus at his side. Metford had invented a way to print wallpaper without using arsenic, and his mission was to reproduce artists’ designs more accurately than ever. Working alongside designers such as William Burges and William Morris, the trio made Jeffreys one of Britain’s top wallpaper producers (and at the turn of the 20th century, everybody had wallpaper on their walls). But success hadn’t seen the family forget their roots, and for the Warners that meant a devout life of service as Quakers. The Society of Friends had enjoyed a revival in 19th century Spitalfields, inspired by local businessman Peter Bedford. The successful silk merchant had poured his money into improving social conditions in Spitalfields, building the Bedford Institute in Quaker Street, to replace the Friends Meeting House raised their in 1656. The Institute was in turn rebuilt in 1893, and still stands today; this is the building to which Horace came as Superintendent and Sunday school teacher at the turn of the 20th century. Interviewed earlier this year, his one surviving child, Ruth Finkin, remembers heading to Spitalfields at Christmas, to hand out presents to the nippers who lived nearby. Horace was also a keen amateur photographer, and spent hours snapping the waifs and strays who lived round about, such as ‘the sisters Ellis’, clad in their funereal best, sat on a windowsill, bearing a tray of flowers. Their fix on the lens is challenging, determinedly unimpressed, with all the confidence of an adult. But then, despite their age, these nippers are all but adults. They wear mini-versions of their parents’ cloth caps, rough suits and boots, and are seen hard at work, stewing the week’s washing in a zinc tub, or with brush in hand, sweeping off the pavement. A marvellous exception is ‘Parsley season in Crown Court’, where the oldest subject (she could be 16, she could be 30), fixes the camera with a confident smile. Alongside, a lad is head-down, picking through parsley – work is too important to be interrupted. On her other flank, a cheeky nipper, maybe five years old, peeps over the basket, head on hands, grinning broadly. Biographical details are scant, though the modest Horace did produce one photo of himself, sable brush in hand – clearly he was keen to portray himself as artist and designer first. The photos first came to light when they were used in a fundraising leaflet by the Bedford Institute in 1913, but his daughter Gwen believed they were taken from the 1890s and complete by 1905. How many of these beguiling faces survived to adulthood we can’t know – but life expectancy in one of the poorest parts of England would suggest that around a third would die in childhood. They live on through these timeless pictures. Spitalfields Nippers Hardcover by Horace Warner and The Gentle Author is out now, published by Spitalfields Life, £20. Right: Parsley Season in Crown Court Left: Boys and Barrow 17 – 23 NOVEMBER 2014 N E W S F R O M T O WER HAMLETS COUNCIL AND YOUR COMMUNITY 13


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