Spitalfields Nippers: East London street-urchins of 1912

From Spitalfields Life, a collection of Horace Warner's "Spitalfields Nipper" photos, of the barefoot urchins that haunted the neighbourhood around London's Spitalfields Market in 1912. I'm typing these words within spitting distance (ahem) of Spitalfields, and I'm pretty sure I recognise some of the buildings. The kids' expressions are a mix of plucky cheek, premature cynicism and desperation.
Little is known of Horace Warner and nothing is known of his relationship to the nippers. Only thirty of these pictures survive, out of two hundred and forty that he took, tantalising the viewer today as rare visions of the lost tribe of Spitalfields Nippers. They may look like paupers, and the original usage of them to accompany the annual reports of the charitable Bedford Institute, Quaker St, Spitalfields, may have been as illustrations of poverty - but that is not the sum total of these beguiling photographs, because they exist as spirited images of something much more subtle and compelling, the elusive drama of childhood itself.

Update: Bill Gibson's Twitter comment on these photos: "Those Spitalfields nippers grew up to successfully fight the battle of Cable Street, breaking Moseley's British Union of Fascists."

Spitalfields Nippers (via How to Be a Retronaut)



  1. Many of these children have old, tired eyes. They have seen and felt too much, been forced to grow up too soon.

  2. I find photographs like this enthralling. Jacob Riis was famous for similar work in New York, if you do a google image search for him + children you’ll get an idea… There are similar such images for Toronto’s slums (“the ward”) at the turn of the century.

    On the one hand it is heartbreaking to see the level of physical hardship, but on the other we can’t assume that the poverty the kids experienced necessarily continued for the rest of their lives. Those kids could have been my grandparents, who grew up in appalling poverty and hardship but managed to make good lives for themselves, and better lives for their kids.

  3. Excellent photos that capture a lot about what street life does to people. That’s certainly more poignant when the people are kids.

    I’m wary, though, of old photos of this sort, because they can have a distancing effect from today’s street children. Too many cameras and not enough food–that’s still a painful reality.


  4. Fascinating pictures. I wonder about their stories after these pictures, but I suspect they are very sad.

    Reminds me of the very excellent, but little known, book by Jack London, The People of the Abyss. He went to London to meet with his publisher there, but had a few days on his own. So, being who he was, he bought some shabby clothes and mingled with the poor of East London to learn their stories. Very interesting stuff.

  5. I’ve never heard of this group. These pictures are very depressing. Their eyes are old and their stances make them look tired and haggard for the most part. Children growing up with no childhood.

  6. I don’t see such an extreme difference between photos of these children and others from the same time period. Many of the children have shoes, and the photos of the ones who don’t, seem to be taken in summer. Having one pair of shoes which had to be preserved as much as possible was pretty common in those days. Washing windows, watching the baby, chopping wood, etc.? Pretty normal chores, actually. And most of the children have haircuts that are being maintained. Only a few have hair that hasn’t been trimmed recently. (Bangs can only go a few weeks before they end up in a child’s eyes.)

    The photos are lovely, and preserve a place and time for posterity, which is wonderful on many levels. But I don’t think these particular children in this particular major city of the world in this particular year stand out as being more desperate than others. This was the norm, not the exception. This was how almost all of our grandparents and great-grandparents lived.

  7. In regard to the romantic suggestion that these urchins “grew up to successfully fight the battle of Cable Street, breaking Moseley’s British Union of Fascists”, you do realize that contrary to popular myth, the only people who actually *fought* that day were the Metropolitan Police and the Fascists? The Communists, Anarchists, and other anti-Fascists of various stripes *protested* but never got in contact with the Fascists themselves (the police saw to that).

  8. “you do realize that contrary to popular myth, the only people who actually *fought* that day were the Metropolitan Police and the Fascists? ”

    @Jonathan Badger – nonsense! The police not only helped the fascists march, extra cops from all over London were drafted in to make sure the “march” went ahead! There was huge popular pressure against what was a blatant attack on Jews. The Met didn’t fight with the fascists at all, they were protecting the fascists.

    Pictures are fantastic, and the Cable street connection is very touching.

    1. I’m sure some police personally sympathized with the fascists, but the point is 1) that the police were physically located *between* the fascists and the counter protestors, specifically to prevent a battle between them, not to promote either side and 2) The fascists were ultimately dispersed by the police, not the protestors. You won’t find any pictures of anarchists battling fascists in the street as per the popular myth, because it never happened.

      1. “the police were physically located *between* the fascists and the counter protestors … not to promote either side”

        Well yes, geographically, but they were there that day not to stop confrontations but to ensure the “march” went ahead. There were battles between the police and the anti-fascists all day, because the Met protected the fascists. That is promotion in my book.

        “The fascists were ultimately dispersed by the police, not the protestors”

        Without the anti-fascists there, the Met would never have had to disperse the blackshirts. They did this because the fascists were about to be slaughtered (which they deserved).

  9. As someone who plays an urchin in a steampunk community in Second lIfe (i win the archgeek award) these pictures are perfect inspiration.

  10. Thank you Cory (et al) for posting this. Really neat photography. Don’t feel sorry for the kids – they are not feeling sorry for themselves – they are living and doing and being. Wonderful clothes, lots of money and position don’t create the self-sufficiency these kids developed, even though they may never have met some of “today’s expectations”.

  11. If you bought his outfit from All Saints in Spitalfields today it’d cost you about £1200.

  12. In today’s paranoid and uber commercialized world taking those pictures would be almost impossible, the prospective photographer would be just starting to focus on the subject and he would have people harrasing him already for all kind of idiotic reasons.

    This may be the first time since the arrival of photography that we may not have a record of children in many countries where paranoia has got the best of people.

  13. Haven’t looked at the pics yet, but I’m blown away by the Battle of Cable Street… surprised I’d never heard of it before.

    I love how a diverse crowd of 300,000 turned up to deliver Mosley’s mob a sound thrashing : D

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