Spitalfields Lives: An interview with The Gentle Author

The Gentle Author is best known as the keeper of a blog, Spitalfields Life, which records — the clue is in the name — life in the East End of London. Their most recent publication, produced with help from the blog’s loyal readers, is Spitalfields Nippers: a collection of photographs taken by Horace Warner around the turn of the twentieth century. Unlike the more famous Barnado’s images, Warner’s pictures show the children in their own environment and there is a sense of playfulness that is both arresting and bittersweet. I met up with The Gentle Author in East London’s Fournier Street to discuss the Nippers, philanthropy, social history, record-keeping, re-development, politics, and how the East End is resisting those who might erase its past.

Let’s go back to the start: tell me about how you found the Spitalfiends Nippers.

At The Bishopsgate Institute. Stefan Dickers, who’s a very extraordinary archivist there, has the idea that everything in the archive is public property and it’s his duty to put it out there so people can see it. The opposite of a lot of archives now. He came up with this booklet, published in the 70s, of the Spitalfields Nippers, and it said, “Here are twenty pictures selected from many hundreds that Horace Warner took at the time”.

I was astonished in two ways: firstly, because of the quality of them. When we think of people in the East End in the 19th century, especially children, we think of these images of degradation.  They were constructed for Barnardo’s. Sometimes they would do a ‘before’ and ‘after’ picture, but they’d do the ‘after’ picture on the same day and paint the children’s faces with makeup, red cheeks, give them toys and new clothes. There’s a whole discredited school of photography there.

And those images were constructed for a purpose that you might respect: they wanted to raise money. But I would argue that those pictures actually degraded the children further, because they became emblems of poverty. They became part of this more widespread myth that in the 19th century everyone in the East End lived lives of unmitigated depravity and everyone was prostitutes and thieves. Social campaigners came here and wanted to draw attention to the want and suffering so they only wrote about that. But the truth is that there’s always been an incredible mixed group of people in the East End, all levels of income, living cheek by jowl.

In this context, the portraits by Horace Warner were a complete breath of fresh air, because he allowed the children to present themselves as they pleased. It’s clear from the pictures that he and the children had a relationship of trust and affection, that they felt free in front of the camera. So you look at those pictures and you see a child, you see the person, and second to that, you see the poverty. To me that’s the shocking irony of it; those children had a life, they had joy, they had a childhood, and it does beg the question: do these children know that they’re poor? Do they actually have any sense of the world beyond? I find the pictures quite disquieting, because you get this sense of joy and trust, and then you see the appalling conditions those children lived in. Research has revealed that half of those children didn’t make it to adulthood. 

Celia Compton. Photo: Spitalfields Life/Horace Warner

Celia Compton. Photo: Spitalfields Life/Horace Warner

What about the rest of the albums?

Those were the first ones we knew about. I wanted to reproduce them for the London Album, put them on the blog. They were huge — hundreds of comments. Everyone asked what happened to these children and I said, “I expect they all died in World War I”, but William Gibson left this extraordinary comment, saying “The Spitalfields Nippers grew up and organised the first organised resistance to fascism in Europe and they won”. He was referring to the Battle of Cable Street. [laughs]

It really got people. And then, well, I had a brilliant researcher. Because we knew Walpole was a Quaker, she found the twenty prints in the Quaker Archive on the Euston Road, and with them was this letter from Horace Warner’s granddaughter asking if she could have some copies of the little booklet to make up for “the missing pictures and the albums”. This was from 1989, or something. So we knew albums still existed in 1989. Although she gave an address it was clear that she was no longer alive, but she did list the names of her children. It was a very unusual surname, McGilfray, with one l; we had six first names and the surname. We went through every kind of search you can imagine, and we found Ian, in East Anglia, on the register around 1986. That’s all we found: him, with an address.

So when the album came out, we thought, ok, let’s just take pot luck, let’s address an envelope to him with a note saying we thought you’d like to see your grandfather’s pictures. And within a week I got this long, typed letter back, saying, “I’m so touched by this… would you like to come and see the albums?”

For more than a hundred years the family had cherished these albums. They contain a single print of each of these photographs and no one outside the family had seen any more than that set of twenty. And it was so obvious that they were such an important set of pictures — I would argue that most important set of pictures of a group of Londoners taken in the 19th century — that I immediately said, “Can we do a book?” Ian was from the start very magnanimous, and he was very eager that more people should get to see them.

The readers paid for it. I told this story of how we found the pictures and published the lot of them for the first time on the blog. It was not long ago, last August. It had something like 350,000 views in one day and the book was funded by the readers in half an hour. That’s the great, extraordinary quality of this blog now: there is this constituency that’s grown over the years and is so passionately engaged that it means that they’re willing to collaborate. You can do things like publish books or get involved in campaigns to save buildings.

This is your second authorship, isn’t it? The Gentle Author, and Spitalfields Life?

Yes. I don’t talk about my life before but I’ve been a writer all my life. My father died unexpectedly in 2001. I’m an only child and my mother had dementia. The only thing she really knew was that she didn’t want to ever leave her home, and the only way that was going to be possible was if I gave up everything and went to live with her in Devon — went back home again. I lived with her for about seven years and was her nurse until she died.

So after that I came back to London, and it was like a time to start again, really. I wanted to use all the experience I had as a writer to find a new way of working; one that would connect me directly to the world. It wouldn’t mean just sitting in a room every day and writing. It would be going out and meeting everybody around me, and also being able to write things and publish them immediately, and have no intermediary, have a very direct relationship with the readership that I could configure however I wanted. To write in a kind of unmediated way, where you choose your own agenda. I mean, the agenda is the place, but out of that comes a certain view of humanity.

I love the title of the blog: that it’s not a Spitalfields Record or Spitalfields History. It’s all iterations of life and living.

Well, for me the word “life” is as operative in the title as the word “Spitalfields”. When I was a carer, I had to care for my mother 24/7. It meant that I couldn’t leave the house. I had two hours a week when I used to go out, and mostly I spent that time running around, collecting prescriptions. After that whole experience was over, it became an extraordinary thing to be able to walk down the street. In a way the blog grew out of that feeling, and the sense that there are so many stories in the world. Our current affairs media has spiralled down to a very narrow window, so I set out to write stories that no one else would ever write.

It’s a wonderful illustration of the importance of public life as well. Going outside and being in public space.

While I was caring for my mother, these extraordinary women turned up. They were volunteers for the local doctor’s surgery. They were mostly senior women who’d taken early retirement and they just spent all their time doing volunteer work. I couldn’t have got through the whole thing without their support, and it made me realise that essentially those women were invisible, publicly. The world couldn’t run without people like that.

There’s a school of thought that would say David Cameron runs the country. I think that’s absolute nonsense. The country is run by all these millions of people doing all these things, most of which are not admitted or acknowledged.

I was very passionate about this idea of creating a wider social picture and giving everybody equal status. I’ve done a lot of work writing about the whole culture of shopkeepers and shops. I’ve also done a lot of work writing the stories of homeless people. I’ve written about all aspects of society and all kinds of people and at the point you meet me now, I’ve done over 2,000 stories — that’s one a day for five years — and interviewed over 1,800 people.

It’s very touching, because there’s a big responsibility. Most people I write about, it’s the first time anybody’s written about them. You have a duty to do them justice. And one of the phenomenons that’s happened, which I never expected, was, of course, that people die. So then we republish the story, after they’ve died, as a kind of tribute to them. I’m fascinated by the idea of a blog as a distinctive literary form, as a kind of writing that’s happened in a particular timeframe. The passing of time, in a sense, is part of the subject.


Spitalfields Market today, from Fournier Street. Photo: John Salmon/Wikimedia Commons

Spitalfields Market today, from Fournier Street. Photo: John Salmon/Wikimedia Commons

I read an interview with you where you quote that wonderful Kierkegaard image, of running through a burning room and seeing what you can grab.

I feel that really personally. And it’s terrible when someone writes to you and tells you that this business that’s been going for 150 years shut last week — and it’s too late. It’s too late. It scares me that an awful lot of stuff I’ve written about has vanished since I wrote about it. You’re just catching it.

That’s partly why we do so many stories about old people. If someone writes and says, “my grandfather is 103 years old and he lived through the Blitz, he was a fireman”, you don’t think, “well, we’ll do it next year”; you do it now.

This week we did a story about the Holland Estate: a social housing estate that was handed over by the local authority to a housing association five years ago, along with a £20 million lump sum to refurbish the building. And five years down the line that housing association is in partnership with a commercial developer, and they serve demolition notices on the 800 tenants without any consultation. Because it’s necessary to demolish it to create a new building of luxury flats for City bankers. The residents are told their flats are not fit for human habitation.

On the day the residents took their petition to the council, to ask the council to support them, we went with a photographer into people’s flats and did their portraits in their living rooms. They were very keen to show their flats were in good condition, and cherished — certainly fit for human habitation. That night, they presented their petition to the council and the council voted unanimously, cross party, to support them and hold the housing association to account. You get very excited about that sort of project.

It’s just incredible: going back to the early 20th century context, where you have things like Arnold Circus being built to provide social housing. A hundred years later, we’re trying to reverse that.

The thing I find most upsetting is that in the East End there’s a very venerable tradition of philanthropic culture and institutions created to lift up the lives of people. To see those institutions… A very good example is the Queen Elizabeth Children’s Hospital on the Hackney Road, which was created by two sisters who came here to nurse people during the cholera epidemic. It had sunflowers across the front to the original building because Oscar Wilde gave money to them. It was there for more than a century. Then it was taken by commercial developers to create metal and poise, expensive flats, to make profits for developers. To me that’s a complete betrayal.

Developers want to create Canary Wharf-style blocks full of luxury flats for the overseas market while there’s 40,000 people on the housing list for Tower Hamlets and Hackney. It’s mindblowing.

The Queen Elizabeth Children's Hospital. Photo: Dr Neil Clifton/Wikimedia Commons

The Queen Elizabeth Children’s Hospital. Photo: Dr Neil Clifton/Wikimedia Commons

The thing I find hardest is seeing the place names of old buildings used to market the new development taking their place.

Yes, there was a nursing home called Mother Levy’s on the other side of Spitalfields run by a woman called Alice Model. She was a nurse who was very concerned about the infant mortality levels in Spitalfields around 1900, when one in five didn’t reach it to adulthood. The idea was that women came and had their child, then a nurse would visit the mother and child regularly for the next six months to provide support and make sure the child survived. This building was demolished by social housing, by Peabody, working with a corporate developer — mostly luxury flats. They demolished the building and stuck a plaque on it, saying, this is where the building was where this woman did this thing. That’s not really good enough.

There’s more and more plaques springing up, but none of them seem to be…

The plaques tell you what used to be there: this used to be a hospital where poor people were treated and now it’s a block of luxury flats. 


You must feel a real sense of identification with Warner because it’s very similar to what you’re doing: going out and affording dignity and space for people to tell their stories.

What I’ve learned as I’ve gone on is that there are a lot of precedents for the work I do. Samuel Pepys was the first writer to start collecting the prints of the Cries of London. But what’s interesting is that Samuel Pepys didn’t just buy the Cries of London that were being sold at his time—he also managed to get hold of ones that were a hundred years old, because he realised that they were social history. The other obvious one here is Henry Mayhew. He was the first writer to interview working people in this country, and get them to describe their own lives in their own words.

Obviously the difference with me is that the person I’m writing about is going to read it. That makes for a particular kind of relationship. They have to trust you and you have to respect that trust. You have to be on the side of the person you’re writing about. I think a lot about Montaigne and this idea of moral comedy, that you present people but you never let yourself be wiser than the person you’re writing about. So you’re not judging that person, you’re about putting them forward on their own terms.

In your National Gallery talk, there was a period where you were going through the photographs and telling stories of the people in them. What was it like, going and researching those things?

I must be clear and say that I worked with a team of six people on those photos: they were a team of volunteers, and they spent about two months on it. For a quite small amount of material there was a massive amount of going through records. What happened with all of us was it became very personal and we felt like we knew these people. When we found a bit of someone’s life and you didn’t know what happened with the rest of their life, we all felt a sense of loss. And when details turned up it was a great sense of joy.

For example, Adelaide Springett, the girl with no shoes. There’s a photo of Adelaide Springett that says “Adelaide Springett in all her best clothes”, and she’s got no shoes on. We found out about her life: we found out that her father died when she was a child and the last record we had of her was with her mother, living in a Salvation Army hostel in Hanbury Street. That was it. In 1905, when she would’ve been about twelve. Then we found that she died in Fulham in 1906. It was appalling to realise how many died young; some of those children died months after those photos were taken.

The Sisters Wakefield. Photo: Spitalfields Life/Horace Warner

The Sisters Wakefield. Photo: Spitalfields Life/Horace Warner

But what we found was that the children that did survive obviously were very tough. A lot of those children lived to be really old. There’s one photo of two little girls called “Sisters Wakefield” and I think they’re 9 and 10 years old, these two girls, sitting one on the other’s lap on a doorstep. To me it feels like they’re on the threshold of life. But it gives the photo incredible poignancy to know that they lived to 86 and 96. They made it through.

Another one is Walter Seabrook. There’s a photo of this boy, 9 years old, and everybody immediately said, “well, he would’ve gone in World War I”. It’s true, he went to World War I; but he came back. He got married on Christmas Day, 1918, in Bethnal Green, in the church, and he had four children.

What I like about it as social history is that you can’t make any generalisations about those children.

Walter Seabrook. Photo: Spitalfields Life/Horace Warner

Walter Seabrook. Photo: Spitalfields Life/Horace Warner

It just shows, as well, that life is always going to assert itself. You can’t confine things to history or simplify them.

Yeah, I believe that. And in that sense, I’m an optimist: I believe in the resilience of people and of the spirit. What history tells us is that you get these constant vast political structures that oppress people and it’s in the nature of the human spirit to overcome it and that’s what’s happened.

I’ve found it tremendous. My parents are from Irish immigrant families — this was the first time I’d seen a collection of photographs of people who look like my family.

Well, the Irish are the great lost wave of immigrants because they left the least trace. You know, if you walk around Spitalfields, you can see what the Huguenots did and you can go to the synagogue that’s still here, and you can go to the curry houses. But there’s almost nothing… the only thing there is Donovan’s paper bag shop.

Joyce came here; he wrote to his brother and said, “music hall, not poetry, is the criticism of life”.

It brings us back to the culture of East End. There’s still this widespread idea that the East End of London is the antithesis of culture. When Building Design magazine did a feature about the Bishopsgate Goods Yard, most of the comments were architects and builders and developers and they’re all like, “bring on this development! There’s never been anything else there, it’s just a rubbish heap, it’s a shit heap, people have never had anything good. The best thing that could happen is this gets flattened and we put up these towers”.

The sophistication of the culture here, not whether it’s here or not, but the quality of it is really undervalued. That takes us to music hall. Mary Lloyd, who lived here, she owned a pub on the corner of Hanbury Street and Wilkes Street. The story of My Old Man is about the culture of flitting. You look at the story of Spitalfields Nippers: all those children moved around their whole childhood, everyone was in rented rooms, when a job is lost, they just had to move. So My Old Man is a very sophisticated cultural critique.

Speaking about the waves of immigration and just how visible it is…

It’s overwhelming here, because we’re in a cemetery. When they rebuilt this market, they removed 80,000 bodies. This was the Roman cemetery; Bishopsgate was like the Via Appia in Rome, the cemetery you approach the city by. Spitalfields is made of a cemetery, and then after the Fire of London they put all the rubble here. So really, you’re just walking on the bones of the dead and the rubble of old London. I don’t think there’s anywhere where you’re more aware of that than here.

It must’ve been amazing to move here.

Coming from Exeter, which is a market town with a big cathedral, I remember walking out at the back of the Bishopsgate Institute in 1981 and seeing the market there and the big church and I thought: this is just like Exeter!

There’s a sense in which it’s the only part where I’ve ever been at home. It’s the last place in London where the culture has persisted that you should perhaps greet people in the street and say hello. We don’t have to have this complicity of disregard — which is what prevails throughout the rest of London.

It must be very odd to come back, having been here in 1981, and see the area as it is now.

I was actually very reluctant to come back. I came to live here because I found a house to live in that I really liked and I thought, “Well, even if Spitalfield is ruined, even if the market’s gone and the brewery’s gone, this is a nice house to live in”.

But I was completely mistaken, because what the work that I’ve done over the last five years has revealed is that this whole place is vividly alive; that the culture of the place is alive beneath the changing surface. That’s what’s astonishing about the East End, that in spite of this moving in and out, and all the architectural changes, and the slum clearances, there’s still this kind of amazing spirit here.

I’m very positive about the wave of youth culture that’s come here. There was a time in the 70s and 80s when this was all empty and disregarded and nobody loved it and nobody wanted to be here. They often describe Spitalfields as the place where everyone wanted to get out of. And now it’s the place everyone wants to be! It’s often perceived that the young people who come in are all rich, and I know it’s complete rubbish. I’ve interviewed students on Brick Lane who are selling their possessions to go and buy groceries.

You see young people walking around the streets and they’re fascinated, they know that there are stories there. Part of the job of Spitalfields Life is introducing the new East End to the old East End and telling those stories.

What else?

What I’ve found is that there’s a tremendous democratising in quality and the internet that allows me to produce my books. In photography, in the 1970s, the gatekeepers were deciding that some people were going to be great photographers and everyone else can go away. The great photographers are going to have their photos in the Sunday Times supplement and a Thames and Hudson monograph, and they’re going to be in The Photographer’s Gallery, and we’re all going to call them “the great photographers”. There are other people who were told to go away, who just carried on taking photographs their whole lives, and they were equally — if not more — brilliant. And they were not subject to editorial agendas.

A handful of people have come to me over the past few years and I’ve been able to publish their work. There’s an appetite for these other views, and the work is of a level with those people who were anointed. A really good example is Bob Mazzer, a photographer who spent forty years photographing people on the tube. It was his life’s work—is his life’s work. He spent twenty years going to every single damn publisher and nobody would publish his book. We had in excess of 300,000 views when we first published, and after that it was then a very simple process to ask the readers to support us to do a book, and an exhibition, and we did this wonderful book and the exhibition was a huge success and now he has a reputation. To me that’s a beautiful thing.

A lot of our ideas are about lifting things up, saying, “This guy’s not just a has-been, this guy’s a genius”. At the moment we’re doing a book with Colin O’Brian, who was born in Clerkenwell in 1940 and started taking photos in 1948, and is still doing it. He’s photographed the lives of Londoners in aesthetically brilliant but also very compassionate and tender ways. To publish a book which is one person’s views of the ordinary lives of Londoners that shows how we got from 1949 to now is an amazing, wonderful thing.

We did this book Brick Lane with Phil Maxwell — a similar thing. There’s this photographer who’s photographed Brick Lane every single day from 1981 till now and it’s the historic record and somebody had to put that all together and do that book.

They’re all kind of imperatives, I suppose, in that sense. I’m very proud of all those. We do them with care; they sit in Waterstone’s beside books by Thames & Hudson and Phaidon and they’re of equal quality. Everything’s done in a way that dignifies the subject matter.

The cover of Spitalfields Nippers, designed by Friederike Huber. Photo: Spitalfields Life

The cover of Spitalfields Nippers, designed by Friederike Huber. Photo: Spitalfields Life

There’s definitely a kind of insurrectionist spirit to the East End you’re continuing here: “I’m going to snatch this from the jaws of the past. You’re not allowed to dictate what things should be said.”

A very good example is the Marquess of Landsdowne. The Geffrye Museum got a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund for an extension, and they had a public consultation which was obligatory for them because of the grant, and local people who’ve lived their whole lives around there — who’ve been subject to a lot of slum clearance — came to this consultation meeting about the demolition of the pub. The Geffrye Museum wanted to demolish the pub for a new restaurant. The director of the museum stood up and said, “We have no interest in the culture of the labouring classes and so this pub is of no historical importance”.

What year was this?

This was in 2012. I was there in the room. It was mostly old people, and I felt that it was like a slap across the face. Everybody in the room gasped.

There was a whole group of extended families who worked in the furniture trade round there which is why the Geffrye Museum is there, as a museum of furniture. I found this man called George Barker, who’d been born in that pub in 1931. He told me the story of his grandfather, who’d been made unemployed in East Anglia in the 1880s, and walked to London, worked in pubs in the city for ten years and then got the Marquis of Lansdowne about 1911. It was passed through the family. George’s mother ran it alone through World War II: the windows got blown out and she went into the cellar, then she came back up and opened up again.

I published George Barker’s story on Easter Sunday and at the top I wrote, “The Geffrye Museum has no interest in this culture but this is the story of the pub that they want to use Heritage Lottery Fund money to demolish”. And all hell broke loose. It was fantastic. It went to more than a 100,000 on Twitter. “No interest in the labouring classes” — a publicly employed museum director! It was class war here in the East End.

The Marquis of Lansdown. Photo: Spitalfields Life

The Marquis of Lansdowne. Photo: Spitalfields Life

The Hackney Planning Committee usually take the advice of the planning officers and the Geffrye Museum had the most high-powered planning consultants, Deloitte. They’d worked with the planning officers for three years to push through their new development, which was a concrete block designed by Sir David Chipperfield to replace the 1838 pub. To everyone’s astonishment, the planning commission turned around and refused permission for the demolition. So the pub was saved. And the Geffrye Museum now have a new proposal for their extension, which includes the restoration of the pub.

My belief is that if you’re going to tell the story of the history of the home in the East End, which is their remit, then you need to tell the story of the public house, because that was an extension of domestic space. That’s a really good example of when the storytelling we’ve done has crossed over to the political realm. It’s about not allowing people to just trample on it all.

How are you feeling about the election?

What I don’t understand is what’s happened to the Labour party. I don’t understand why they aren’t talking about housing. I think that the whole country has been hijacked: people need homes and shopkeepers need to be able to have shops and not pay rent that bleeds them dry. It’s up to national government, that has all the power, to put this stuff to right. I don’t understand why isn’t somebody standing up and saying, “If we get elected, we’ll stop the tax evasion, we’ll build social housing, and we’ll protect small businesses”. Those are to me the fundamentals. And they’re not saying that. What’s wrong with these people? 

I’ve been very involved in the New Era housing estate and the women in Newham. What fascinates me is that you’ve got a completely new breed of politician there. These are very young women with a really extraordinary sense of moral force and moral authority. That’s where there’s the life now. The Labour Party have betrayed them and let them down. You know, Sir Robin Wales said to [Newham activist] Jasmine Stone that “if you can’t afford to live in Newham, you can’t afford to live in Newham”. They’re sitting there with 400 empty council houses that they want to sell off to a developer. It’s just not acceptable.

So the question is really: How far can they push everyone before the big strike back? You can feel it. There’s a tremendous public feeling and anger. I don’t understand why people aren’t more angry, and why aren’t politicians paying more attention to that groundswell of emotion that you sense. Why doesn’t somebody wake up to the idea that there’s a huge constituency and if you speak to that constituency, you could get elected? They want representation.

That’s the thing with all these terrible developments. The majority of Londoners don’t want any of this stuff, and the big question is: how is it happening against the wishes of the majority? How can it be redressed? How can these two hundred and thirty tower blocks, most of which are for the international luxury market, how can that be stopped and how can we instead build social housing and how’s all that ever going to be untangled? It’s very alarming.

It’s the same with the closure of public buildings. There’s no money, so they close without a plan to re-open…

Here in the East End there are all these wonderful libraries, opened at the end of the 19th century. John Passmore Edwards, the philanthropist, gave all this money, and they’re all being shut.

And they weathered The Blitz!

They came through everything.All the ideas of the modern compassionate society and the welfare came out of the East End. I totally disapprove of what happened with the Whitechapel Gallery. The whole point of that was that it was a library and art gallery: ‘The University of the East End’. So many famous writers, Isaac Rosenberg and others, studied in that library, but it’s got cleared out for a fancy restaurant for rich people coming to the Whitechapel Gallery.

At the Whitechapel Gallery. Photo: Spitalfields Life/Horace Warner

At the Whitechapel Gallery. Photo: Spitalfields Life/Horace Warner

Samuel Barnett founded the Whitechapel Gallery to be for the people of the East End — that’s why Picasso wanted to show Guernica here. That’s why Horace Warner took The Nippers there. And now the Whitechapel Gallery wants to be part of a circuit that includes the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and they go to Frieze Art Fair, Miami and Geneva. They’d rather be in the Serpentine; it’s just embarrassing to be here, rather than in Hyde Park.

You find yourself doing kind of conspiracy thinking. You go, “If my aim was to have nobody oppose me, the first thing I’d do is to shut down the libraries”. Remove the autodidact culture.

It’s disempowerment of people and taking away the dignity of people. So it’s come full circle. That’s why I do what I do.

The various books mentioned in this interview, including Spitalfields Nippers and Colin O’Brien’s London Life, are available now

Stephanie Boland is an editor at Don’t Do It.