NOTES ON THE SILVERTOWN EXPLOSION, 19th JANUARY 1917
In 1800 the population of West Ham was 6,485; by 1900 it had grown to 289,030. A major cause of this growth was the Metropolitan Buildings Act of 1844. This restricted noxious trades such as the manufacture of chemicals within the boundaries of London. Since West Ham was just outside these boundaries, and also because of the development of new docks, the borough expanded speedily: the Stratford to North Woolwich Railway was opened in 1847, the Victoria Dock in 1855. Factories began to be established, to take advantage of the rail and river transport.
In 1894 the chemicals firm Brunner, Mond & Company opened a factory in Silvertown on a site stretching from the North Woolwich Railway to the Thames. Initially, the factory produced soda crystals from ammonia soda; shortly afterwards, it began to produce caustic soda. By 1912, this process had been discontinued, and at the outbreak of World War I the factory was lying idle. In 1915 it was adapted for the purification of the high explosive T.N.T.
World War I had been dragging on since 1914 and there was a shortage of high explosives. In 1915 a Ministry of Munitions was established to improve the supply and quantity of high explosives. Little was known about the methods used for large scale purifying of T.N.T. and until 1915 it had been regarded as relatively safe. Purification was far more dangerous than actual manufacture, and early in 1915 it was decided that purification should be carried on in separate and preferably isolated factories.
In June 1915 the Director of General Explosives Supply decided to adapt the idle plant at Silvertown for T.N.T. purification, and although Brunner Mond later claimed to have expressed great reluctance to carry on such a dangerous manufacture in a densely populated district, the plant commenced operations in September 1915.
What happened on 19th January 1917
James Betts, a fireman stationed at Silvertown West Fire Station, opposite the Brunner Mond factory, later recalled the atmosphere on the night of the explosion:
"From all sides came the din of racing machinery, the mournful treble whine of the sawmills and the rattle of the cranes as the barges lying in the adjacent Thames were loaded. Pedestrians hurried past the fire station to and from their work, for it was about the hour when shifts were changed. Children carrying blankets of provisions and enamel tea cans containing the evening meal of parent working overtime hurried on their way."
At Brunner Mond's chemical works, work was continuing as usual on the 2 to 12 shift. A tour round the sections of the factory paints the picture:
Hetty Sands was looking forward to the tea-break she was entitled to take at about 7pm. She was employed on the first stage of the purifying process, the loading of bags of crude T.N.T. onto a hoist and then sending them up to the corrugated iron 'box-room' that had been specially built above the main melt-pot. At about 6.40pm she decided to leave her friend Ada Randall and to go up to see whether any more bags were needed. Work was proceeding very much as normal in the sparse room which had been built specifically to facilitate the loading of the crude T.N.T. into the giant cauldron that was the heart of the purifying process. Walter Mauger was in the process of removing the last three bags from the hoist when Hetty entered. His assistant, a young girl named Lawrence, was busy cutting the strings of the bags and emptying them into the hopper, a small funnel in the centre of the floor which led directly into the melt-pot. Then there occurred the most devastating explosion: at 6.51 the chemical works was streaked with red and orange flames. At 6.52 there was no chemical works.
Seventy-three people, including Dr. Angell the chemist, died; sixty-nine were killed on the spot, ninety-eight were seriously injured and of these four later died, 328 were slightly injured and between five and six hundred were treated for cuts and bruises. In total, about 900 houses were damaged by the blast. The sound of the explosion was heard over 100 miles away.
Stratford Express, special report, 27th January 1917
In two short sentences the government on Saturday morning announced to the people of London that an explosion had occurred at a munition factory. It was not till late on Saturday afternoon that the government issued, or allowed to be issued, any details of the terrible calamity of the previous evening. On Friday evening, just before 7 o'clock, those who were busy in shops and offices had their first intimation that something was wrong, by the partial failure of the electric light. It was, however, only momentary, but immediately there was the sound of a stupendous explosion. The firing of a heavy gun is as nothing compared with the noise. The report was heard throughout London and Greater London, and windows, pictures and ornaments miles away from the scene of the accident were smashed by the violent displacement of the air.
The explosion was followed by a scene that will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it. It seemed as if some vast volcanic eruption had burst out in the locality in question. The whole heavens were lit in awful splendour. A fiery glow seemed to have come over the dark and miserable January evening, and objects which a few moments before had been blotted out in the intense darkness were silhouetted against the sky.
The awful illumination lasted in its eerie glory only a few seconds. Gradually it died away, but down by the river roared a huge column of flame which told thousands that the explosion had been followed by fire and havoc, the like of which has never been known in these parts.
Throughout the night the blaze came from this particular locality. Miles away from the spot, trees and houses were clearly defined against the red background in a strange but awful manner. Fire engines and fire apparatus were brought from all parts to combat the flames, but the conflagration continued, and it was not till Sunday afternoon that it was finally subdued. One of the buildings which gave the firemen the greatest trouble was a neighbouring flour mill which has been practically gutted by the fire. Immense volumes of water were poured into it before the flames were overcome.
How the fire was started will never be probably known, but at any rate firemen were at work before the explosion occurred. Of this gallant band of firemen who were first on the spot two were immediately killed by the explosion, and the engine badly damaged. The chief chemist at the works, Dr. Angell, also met his death in heroic manner. He urged the employees to seek safety, but for his own part stopped to assist in quelling the fire, and in doing so lost his life. The deceased gentleman was only forty years of age. Educated in Exeter Grammar School and Christ Church, Oxford, he took a first class in chemistry in 1899, graduated M.A. in 1903 and took his B.Sc. degree three years later. He was a lecturer in natural sciences at Brasenose College.
One of the workers employed in the factory made the following statement to a press representative: "There were not more than forty people on the premises, the day shift having gone. About 35 of these were on the high explosive plant, the rest being in the offices and elsewhere. I was at work in the office when I heard women shrieking. I came down on the door and saw the highly explosive building thoroughly afire. Somehow, providentially, I was able to get away without a scratch, though others going along the road were knocked down beside me by flying missiles hurled in all directions by the explosion. The force of the explosion seemed to take a curious zig zag course and it must have missed me, though I could not have been more than 200 yards away. My first thought when I saw the whole plant aflame, was "This is the end of all things for me." All I clearly was conscious of was a heavy rain of things falling continually in front of me. I know that six of us managed to get out safely."
Soon after the catastrophe occurred, all kinds of agencies were at work. Large numbers of firemen, special constables, soldiers, nurses and ambulance people from all parts of London were hurried to the scene, and everything possible was done for the injured and homeless. Great assistance was rendered by the Salvation Army, the Y.M.C.A. and other agencies. The Y.M.C.A. authorities sent vans loaded with food and hot drinks, so that those who had to remain on the scene at work should be supplied with food.
On Saturday the Mayor and several members of the Council were present, and the Mayor gave orders that everything necessary should be done to alleviate the sufferings of the homeless people. They were housed and fed at various public buildings and church halls in another part of the locality. The Minister of Munitions also visited the scene on Saturday morning, and on Sunday the Prime Minister, accompanied by Mrs. Lloyd George and some members of his family, also were there. The Prime Minister was shown the remains of the factory and the other buildings involved, and was greatly touched by the sight of the wrecked homes of the former residents of the locality.
A visit to the scene after the explosion was sufficient to give anybody an idea of the terrific nature of the calamity. It is not too much to say that the whole aspect of this busy manufacturing centre has been entirely changed. Where the munition works once stood there remains nothing but a great heap of bricks, rubbish and ironwork, twisted into strange shapes by the fire and explosion. In the main road lay a huge mass of iron, which at one time was a powerful boiler. It is said to have weighed 15 tons, but it was wrenched from its place when the explosion took place and dropped in the roadway. Here it had to remain in place until Monday morning when a large body of soldiers, by means of a windlass, managed to remove it to the side of the road.
Close to the scene of the explosion is - or rather was - the local sub fire station. The place had been literally demolished, and all that now remains of it is the high tower which the firemen used for practice purposes and for the drying and mending of the hose. Everything in the house appears to have been demolished and the place stands in a heap of rubbish with the front torn off, leaving the wires bare. Near to it is a huge piece of iron, and it seems as if this must have fallen on the building.
The official account states that "three rows of small houses in the immediate neighbourhood were practically demolished, and considerable damage was done to other property." The statement hardly conveys a full idea of the damage which has been done. Dwelling houses, factories and even the barges moored in the vicinity have been damaged, in some cases in such a way that were it not for the tragedy of the whole thing it would be laughable. For instance a well known member of the local authority on Saturday morning found a horse lying dead. It had been killed by a mass of falling metal, but in the yard close to the carcass there was a hen still sitting quietly on her eggs.
(Originally published as Local Studies Notes No. 13 by Newham Lirbay Service)