“Suddenly there was a deafening roar”: 102 years on from London’s biggest explosion
The Silvertown explosion occurred in Silvertown in West Ham, Essex (now part of the London Borough of Newham, in Greater London) on Friday, 19 January 1917 at 6.52 pm.
The blast occurred at a munitions factory that was manufacturing explosives for Britain’s World War I military effort.
Approximately 50 long tons (50 tonnes) of trinitrotoluene (TNT) exploded, killing 73 people and injuring 400 more, as well as causing substantial damage in the local area.
This was not the first, last, largest, or the most deadly explosion at a munitions facility in Britain during the war: an explosion at Faversham involving 200 long tons (200 tonnes) of TNT killed 105 in 1916, and the National Shell Filling Factory, Chilwell exploded in 1918, killing 137.
The factory was built in 1893 on the south side (River Thames side) of North Woolwich Road (now the A1020, nearly opposite Mill Road) by Brunner Mond, a forerunner of Imperial Chemical Industries, to produce soda crystals and caustic soda. Production of caustic soda ceased in 1912, which left part of the factory idle.
Two years into the war, the Army was facing a crippling shell shortage. The War Office decided to use the factory’s surplus capacity to purify TNT, a process more dangerous than manufacture itself, although the factory was in a highly-populated area. Despite opposition from Brunner Mond, production of TNT began in September 1915.
The method used was invented by Brunner Mond chief scientist F. A. Freeth, who believed the process to be “manifestly very dangerous”. The plant continued to purify TNT at a rate of approximately 9 long tons (10 tonnes) per day until it was destroyed by the explosion.
Another plant, at Gadbrook, was built in 1916 and was producing TNT at a higher rate than the Silvertown factory, away from populated areas, with more stringent safety standards. Both factories were in full production.
On 19 January a fire broke out in the melt-pot room, and efforts to put it out were underway when approximately 50 long tons (50 t) of TNT ignited at 6:52 pm. The TNT plant was destroyed instantly, as were many nearby buildings, including the Silvertown Fire Station. Much of the TNT was in railway goods wagons awaiting transport. Debris was strewn for miles around, with red-hot chunks of rubble causing fires. A gasometer gasholder was damaged on Greenwich Peninsula, creating a fireball from 200,000 cubic meters (7,100,000 cu ft) of gas; the holder was later repaired and remained until 1986.
Several thousand pounds’ worths of goods were also destroyed in nearby warehouses, estimated by the Port of London Authority to span 7 hectares (17 acres). The chancel and church hall of the local church, St Barnabas’, were destroyed, only to be replaced in 1926.
73 people were killed (sixty-nine immediately, and four later from their injuries), and more than 400 injured. Up to 70,000 properties were damaged, 900 nearby ones destroyed or unsalvageably damaged; the cost was put at either £250,000 or £2.5 million. The comparatively low death toll for such a large blast was due to the time of day.
The factories were largely empty of workers (there were fewer than forty in the TNT factory itself), but it was too early for the upper floors of houses (which sustained the worst of the flying debris damage) to be heavily populated. Also, it occurred on a Friday, when fewer people were around the factory.
However, several professional firemen and volunteers fighting the earlier fire were killed or seriously injured in the explosion. For comparison, 8 long tons (8.1 t) of TNT exploded at the National Shell Filling Factory, and killed 137 people; an explosion at Split Rock, New York in 1918 killed 50–52 people with 1–3 short tons (0.9–2.7 long tons; 0.9–2.7 t) of TNT.
Reportedly, the explosion also blew the glass out of windows in the Savoy Hotel and almost overturned a taxi in Pall Mall, London, the fires could be seen in Maidstone and Guildford, and the blast was heard up to 100 miles (160 km) away, including at Sandringham in Norfolk and along the Sussex coast. Although the blast was heard at a great distance, it was not heard uniformly across the whole intermediate distance, owing to atmospheric effects caused by the refraction of the sound waves.
The emergency services immediately became involved in putting out the fires caused by the explosion, treating the wounded, and beginning to repair the damage caused. First-aid stations were set up in the streets to treat minor injuries. A Salvation Army rescue team was sent into the area under Catherine Bramwell-Booth, and the YMCA also rendered aid, including food and hot drinks.
1,000 were left homeless, requiring temporary accommodation in schools, churches, and other similar places. 1,700 men were employed in the reconstruction task by February. £3m in aid was paid to those affected by the blast, equivalent to approximately £40m in 2007, of which £1m was paid to local businesses and factories, including £185,000 to Brunner-Mond.
The clear-up was under the direction of Sir Frank Baines, and a report in the Manchester Guardian of 12 February 1917 stated 750 to 1000 men were on site. Six hundred houses had been demolished by the explosion and 400 new ones were being built. Three hundred others had been repaired and many more re-slated.
Henry Cavendish-Bentinck and Alfred Mond, son of the eponymous Ludwig of Brunner-Mond, debated in Parliament the living conditions of residents during the reconstruction; conditions were said to be “gravely prejudicial to the public health” and “not fit for human habitation”. It was mooted that the residents should be relocated to a newly built garden city, rather than spending £1.3m rebuilding the present, dilapidated, area. John Joseph Jones, MP for Silvertown also maintained an interest in the disaster.
The Ministry of Munitions announced the explosion in the following day’s newspaper and ordered an investigation led by Sir Ernley Blackwell, published on 24 February 1917. A definite single cause of the explosion was not determined, invalidating early theories such as German sabotage or an air-raid, but it was found that the factory’s site was inappropriate for the manufacture of TNT.
Management and safety practices at the plant were also criticized: TNT was stored in unsafe containers, close to the plant and the risky production process. The report was not disclosed to the public until the 1950s. Other newspapers, including the New York Times, also reported the explosion.
On 20 June 1917, Andrea Angel, the plant’s chief chemist, who was attending to the initial fire, was posthumously awarded the Edward Medal (First Class) as was George Welbourne. Police Constable Edward George Brown Greenoff was posthumously awarded the King’s Police Medal and is commemorated with a plaque on the Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice in Postman’s Park, in central London.