Spitalfields used to be one of the worst slums in London. Only 30 years before these pictures were taken one of Jack the Ripper's victims died in its streets. These fabulous images were taken in 1912 by photographer Horace Warner who wonderfully captured the emotions and living conditions of these children.
The boy pictured here may be grinning, and the glint in his eye implies he hasn't a care in the world, but the reality of living in the area would have been very different, as you can see by the rags he is wearing for clothes.
The images tell a tale that everyone can understand; young children, mostly without shoes and other basic provisions, doing what they can in the circumstances. As Gentle Author of Spitalfields Life says, "Imaginatively, theirs is a discrete society independent of adults, in which they are resourceful and sufficient, doing their own washing, chopping wood, nursing babies and even making money by cleaning windows and running errands."
They already have the eyes of the adults they will become, a wisdom and knowledge rarely seen in the children living in the Western world today. They have seen too much and heard too much. Some good, of course, but some bad as well. Chopping and selling kindling for firewood was a way to help bring some money in to their family, nearly all of whom were destitute and desperate to find the next bit of money. This young girl seems a little annoyed that her time was taken up with having to pose for a photograph.
Some, like the boys pictured here, have a toughness and swagger you expect to see on more mature faces – they are young adults in all but age. They would have had to rely on a quick intelligence and steely determination if they were to have any hope of surviving the poverty and squalor of their living conditions. Often entire families would live in just one crowded room.
In 1912, Jack London had published his People of the Abyss, where he said "I have talked with these children, here, there, and everywhere, and they struck me as being as bright as other children, and in many ways even brighter. They have most active little imaginations. Their capacity for projecting themselves into the realm of romance and fantasy is remarkable. A joyous life is romping in their blood. They delight in music, and motion, and color, and very often they betray a startling beauty of face and form under their filth and rags."
A little girl holding her cat – a lovely portrait of childhood and one most of us can relate to. She seems to exemplify the kind of imagination and natural joy of childhood that Jack London talks about.
This young boy is carrying his wares in a basket, probably back from the market. These photos were used by the Bedford Institute, a charitable organization, to highlight the extent of poverty in the area. The institute tried to take the children to the forest for a day in the summer, to show them greenery and trees.
Speaking of a group like the Bedford Institute (or it might well have been that same organization), London said: "The people who try to help, who gather up the Ghetto children and send them away on a day's outing to the country, they believe that not very many children reach the age of ten without having had at least one day there."
London continues: "Of this, a writer says: 'The mental change caused by one day so spent must not be undervalued. Whatever the circumstances, the children learn the meaning of fields and woods, so that descriptions of country scenery in the books they read, which before conveyed no impression, become now intelligible.'"
A brother and sister looking out, two flower pots on the window. The poor still tried to make things pretty or attempted to keep things clean, no matter how difficult the task.
The First World War was soon to cast a shadow over these children's lives, but until the trials and difficulties of becoming young adults arose these children spread smiles and joy by playing their games, playing make believe and just being children, as children are everywhere, no matter what their circumstances. Yes they had chores and a hard life. Some had no parents and had to make do by themselves. Others had parents so worn down from their own desperate attempts to make ends meet that they had no time for their children or even use for them except to help in that never ending task. Others were luckier, with two rooms for the family, not just one, and jobs for the father or mother. Yet all of them shared one thing in these photos: "The elusive drama of childhood itself."