On Friday 19 January 1917, a small community in the East End was ripped apart by an enormous explosion – the biggest London had seen before or has since. But this blast wasn’t caused by enemy action. The horrible irony was that it was Silvertown’s own munitions factory that went up. Working flat out to meet a chronic shortage of shells for the war effort, the Brunner Mond works exploded, killing 73 people and laying waste a huge expanse of Silvertown.
Yet curiously for a disaster that destroyed whole streets and left hundreds injured, the incident quickly disappeared from the papers, from public knowledge and even from the folklore of the East End.
A new book, The Silvertown Explosion* examines the disaster anew, and asks why a high-explosives factory was built in a crowded, residential area of the capital.
Silvertown was still a new suburb in 1917. Until the 1850s, the area between Bow Creek, Barking Creek and the modern A13 had been marshland. The opening of the Royal Victoria Dock in 1855 provided a magnet to industry. Factories (and housing for the workers) quickly followed. One of the biggest ‘manufactories’ was SW Silver & Co’s India rubber, gutta-percha and telegraph works, and the buildings gave Silvertown its name.
The Royals (the Royal Albert Dock opened in 1880) became ‘the warehouse of the empire’. By the turn of the century it was said that every home in the country owned or had used at least one product that had come from Silvertown. Jam, soap, chemicals , varnish, paint, boxes, oil and sugar from Tate & Lyle were just a few of the goods that came from this crowded little corner of London.
By now, the once fresh air of the Essex marshes was heavy with the stink of chemicals. One of the worst offenders was Brunner Mond, a chemical works established at Crescent Wharf in West Silvertown in 1893. But by the outbreak of the First World War, Brunner Mond was lying idle, its production of caustic soda discontinued.
Britain had entered the war unprepared for a long conflict and by 1915 the generals were privately blaming British losses on the shortage of high-explosive shells. News leaked, and in spring 1915 the ‘Shell Scandal’ brought down the Liberal government. A coalition was formed, and a new Ministry of Munitions under David Lloyd George was charged with finding new sources for TNT production.
Eyes soon fell on the idle Silvertown works. From the beginning the government understood that locating a TNT factory in the midst of housing was ‘very dangerous’, but needs were such that the Ministry felt it ‘worth the risk’. Dr FA Freeth, Brunner Mond’s head chemist went further, saying:
‘It worked but was manifestly dangerous. At the end of every month we used to write to Silvertown to say that their plant would go up sooner or later, and we were told that it was worth the risk to get the TNT. One day it did go up … with well-known results’.
The ‘results’ were horrific. At 6.52pm that Friday the streets were busy, with workers going on and off shift. A fire in the melting-pot room of the factory caused 50 tons of TNT to explode. The works became a bomb, showering large, red hot lumps of metal for miles around. Electric lights all over London flickered and the blast was heard as far away as Cambridge and Guildford.
Millions of windows were shattered across the river at Charlton and Woolwich. Up to 70,000 properties were damaged, costing around £2.5m worth of damage. 69 people died immediately and four more in hospital. A dozen people closest to the blast were never found. 400 more were injured in the blast.
It was three days before news leaked into the papers. Wartime censorship added to the sense of unreality, with stories merely saying that ‘a munitions factory in the neighbourhood of London’ had gone up, attended by ‘considerable loss of life and damage to property’. With such vague details, and a war going on, perhaps it’s unsurprising that the event soon drifted from public consciousness. Those who knew the details speculated that German spies had been to blame, but the truth is probably more prosaic.
A Government report appeared within days, mentioning packages of TNT with missing stoppers and bags of the unstable stuff sitting on railway sidings in torn bags. They found production and storage of the refined TNT taking place in the same building. By housing the unstable production process with stored TNT, Brunner Mond had witlessly provided fuel for the explosion – Silvertown was an accident waiting to happen.
By the 1960s the blast had been largely forgotten. Lal Cook worked in a factory next to the Brunner Mond site. ‘I often wondered why, in a crowded area, there a huge unbuilt site. Older employees said they’d heard an explosion happened there during World War I and no-one wanted to build there’.
By bringing together Government and newspaper reports and first-person accounts, the writers shed fresh light on a scandalous and unnecessary loss of life. Going through the roll of dead, and seeing the names of the four Patrick children – Roydon aged two, Rosa four, Ruby six and William nine – it is hard not to feel anger today at the men who decided that a Silvertown explosion was ‘worth the risk’.
The Silvertown Explosion: London 1917
Graham Hill, Howard Bloch, £12.99, Tempus Publishing; ISBN: 075243053X