The Spitalfield Nippers
Photographer Horace Warner took these portraits to highlight the East End living conditions in 1900. Horace was the Sunday School Superintendent of the Bedford Institute, one of nine Quaker missions in the East End.
At first, all he wanted to do was record the children’s lives, but in 1913 around two dozen of the photographs were used by Quaker activists to raise funds for poor relief. The rest of Warner’s archive was preserved by his family after his death in 1937.
Journalist Fred McKenzie filed a report in 1901, a description of just one road around the district’s famous Christ Church, an architectural gem designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor.
Running west from the church, alongside the market hall, was Dorset Street. Now demolished, today it is remembered as the scene of Jack the Ripper’s fifth and last killing — at the time it was known as ‘the worst street in London’.
‘Policemen go down Dorset St in pairs,’ wrote McKenzie. ‘Hunger walks in its alleyways, and the criminals of tomorrow are being bred there today. Boy thieves are trained as systematically as they were in the days of Oliver Twist. Children’s first lessons are in oaths and crimes. They learn ill as they sip at their mothers’ gin, and you can see them aged six and eight, gambling in the gutterways.’
Not all were petty villains, though. If they had younger brothers and sisters, it fell to the elder children to mind the baby, as well as boiling the laundry in metal cans and hanging the rags out to dry. Many nights, especially in the summer, the children slept on the streets. If they had parents, and their parents had money, they might doss down on the bare floorboards of a lodging-house room, 12 people, adults and children, each with a penny apiece, for one night’s shelter.
One way for children to earn a few coins was to sell firewood. They would go to factories and shops, begging for packing-cases, pallets and tea-chests. Chopped into sticks, wood could be sold on the street in bundles for a ha’penny.
A familiar face in these hard streets, Horace Warner eventually earned the trust of the people and persuaded the children to sit for his astonishing portraits.