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Story Of London

The Silvertown Explosion

The Silvertown Explosion
by Bill McCann

At 18:52 on the evening of January 19th 1917, the largest explosion ever to have taken place in the London area destroyed a large area in Silvertown on the East End. The resulting shock wave was felt across the city and the county of Essex. The explosion was so large that it was heard as far away as Southampton on the south coast and in Norwich in the north-east of England. The glare from the resulting fires could be seen as far away as Maidstone in Kent and Guildford in Surrey. The explosion was so huge that red hot lumps of metal rained down on the surrounding areas and started fires for miles around. Seventy three people lost their lives, more than four hundred were injured and thousands were left homeless.

The Silvertown Explosion

Aftermath of the explosion

In 1894 the firm Brunner, Mold & Co opened their chemical works at Crescent Wharf in Silvertown and began to manufacture soda crystals and, in a smaller plant, caustic soda. Production of the latter ceased in 1912 and the smaller plant was closed. At the outbreak of the First World War that plant was adapted by the Government for the production of TNT. There was a degree of reluctance on the part of the Brunner Mold management, not least because of the fact that the surrounding area was densely populated. Eventually, under pressure from Lord Moulton at the Explosives Supply Department, they agreed to the government’s demands and production of high grade TNT began in September 1915.

At 18:52 on the evening of January 19th 1917, the largest explosion ever to have taken place in the London area swept through the works and the Silvertown locality. The resulting shock wave was felt across the city and the county of Essex. The explosion was so large that it was heard as far away as Southampton on the south coast and in Norwich in the north-east of England. The glare from the resulting fires could be seen as far away as Maidstone in Kent and Guildford in Surrey. The Brunner-Mold factory was instantly obliterated together with several adjacent streets and their houses. The Silvertown Fire Station across the road and an adjacent plywood factory also disappeared.

The explosion was so huge that red hot lumps of metal rained down on the surrounding areas and started fires for miles around. These badly damaged a flour mill at Victoria Dock in Canning Town and the church of St Barnabas. Nine Hundred homes in the area were destroyed or badly damaged and the total number of buildings affected has been put at between sixty and seventy thousand. A local reporter, writing in the Stratford Express wrote that ” 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 minutes before had been blotted out in the intense darkness were silhouetted against the sky.” The final bill for the damages came to an enormous £2,5 million.

First Aid in the surrounding streets

The day after the explosion the London Newspapers carried the following announcement:- “The Ministry of Munitions regrets to announce that an explosion occurred last evening at a munitions factory in the vicinity of London, It is feared that the explosion was attended by considerable loss of life and damage to property.” In fact, sixty nine people lost their lives in the immediate blast and a further four died shortly afterwards from their injuries. More than four hundred were injured, ninety four of them seriously. The death toll would undoubtedly have been much higher had the explosion occurred a few hours earlier when the plant and the surrounding factories were full of workers. As it was, the majority of them had left for home at the end of the working week. In addition, many people living in the immediate vicinity, knowing what was produced at the factory, fled with their children when they saw the first signs of a fire at the plant. A number of those who lost their lives were fighting the initial fire at the time of the explosion. These included the chief chemist at the plant, Andreas Angel, a professor from Oxford who was stationed there as a war-work volunteer. He was posthumously awarded the Edward Medal. Two firemen from the Fire Station also died as they were laying hoses and preparing to tackle the blaze. The casualty list also included on policeman and a number of workers from the Port of London Authority.

Government Notice

The precise cause of the explosion has never been established. Inevitably, the initial speculation was that the factory had been hit in an air raid but there were no raid that night. Another popular theory at the time was that the factory had been sabotaged by a German spy. It is suspected that a fire broke out in the melt-pot room of the plant. This quickly spread and ignited approximately fifty tons of TNT, much of it sitting in railway wagons waiting to be transported from the plant.

Providing shelter for the homeless

The immediate civic response was massive as the emergency services, charities, local government officers and ordinary people rushed to the scene. First aid stations were set up in the surrounding streets to deal with the thousands of minor injuries. Hundreds of ordinary people scoured the rubble in the search for survivors and in providing shelter for the homeless. Over the weeks and months that followed the task of rebuilding the lives of those affected continued. The site was never again built upon and is still an empty space, used for car parking, at the north end of the Thames Barrier. It can be seen in the modern photograph of London City Airport.

Silvertown today, looking west