We live in a time of international terrorism. London is seen as a prime target and is on high alert for such an attack. There have been attacks and bombings in London before of course, especially during the IRA ‘Troubles’.
But it was one hundred years ago on Friday 19 January 1917 when occurred London’s largest ever loss of life through explosion. However, this was not due to enemy action, even though it took place during a World War – it was home grown and totally avoidable.
One of the main industries in Silvertown at the time was the Brunner Mond chemical factory, which produced soda crystals and caustic soda. However the caustic soda plant had been closed down in 1912 and was standing idle. In 1915, this was “practically requisitioned” by the Government agency, the Explosives Supply Department who wanted to use it to purify the explosive trinitrotoluene (TNT) for use in ammunition. This was despite the fact that the plant was located in a heavily populated area, which also had other volatile chemical and refining industries, a point stressed by the Brunner Mond directors who were opposed to the plans. The government thought that the production of TNT was safe as long as the purification process (to be undertaken here) was kept separate from the manufacture of raw TNT. Consequently the processes did not have to comply with the regulations of the 1875 Explosives Act.
Production started in September 1915 on a 24-hour basis, employing three shifts. The protracted battles of trench warfare were consuming vast quantities of ammunition (and lives), while making little tactical advance.
The memorial to the Silvertown explosion. This is located below the Docklands Light Railway near Pontoon Dock station.
On the night of 19 January 1917, the inevitable happened and there was an explosion at 6.52 pm. It is believed that this was caused by a fire in the melt pot room. The reason for the fire breaking out was not established, as the witnesses who raised the alarm were killed in the explosion. It should not have been unexpected though. Only in the previous month, the plant had been visited by a government inspector, whose report stated that
“It is perfectly clear that the management at Silvertown did not pay sufficient attention to the explosion risk attached to the handling of TNT.”
In particular he reported that there were no precautions in place against friction sparks. The explosion was so severe that it destroyed the factory, other local factories, the local fire station (which was opposite the factory and had only opened in 1914) and damaged thousands of homes. The explosion could be heard 100 miles away. Sixty-nine people were killed in the explosion with four more subsequently dying from their injuries. Another ninety-eight people were seriously injured and more than nine hundred suffered minor injuries.
A plaque in Postman’s Park in the City of London commemorates a policeman who was on duty outside the factory when the fire broke out. He stayed at his post to warn people of the dangers of explosion, but later lost his life in hospital from the injuries he received.
The loss of life in the Silvertown disaster would be treated as a major scandal today, but unfortunately then it was just another statistic among the countless lives lost already in the Great War and those still to die before peace came in 1918. With no radio, television, internet or social media in those days, it was far easier for the government to conceal bad news. There was postal and press censorship, designed to prevent contact with the enemy and to ensure that the conflict was presented to the public in a pro-Allied light.
This censorship is illustrated by using the usual research routes. To see how news was reported at the time of an event, one can search newspaper archives such as the Times Digital Archive (log in with your library card number). However, searching for Silvertown explosion or Silvertown disaster brings no results. Neither does a similar search in The Illustrated London News. Even searching Gale News Vault for Silvertown 1917 only brings up an article in The Times from 1925, appealing for funds to rebuild St. Barnabas Church which had been destroyed in the explosion.
Searching the Times Digital Archive by date, on 20 February there is only a brief one line report that
“there had been an explosion in a munitions factory near London, and that considerable loss of life and damage to property were feared.”
A fuller report is given on Monday 22 February (on page 9) but again it refers to ‘The explosion near London’ and does not state the actual location or name of the factory concerned. There are no illustrations. It is interesting to note though, that while there is some ‘positive spin’ in the reporting the paper does make some critical comments about the slack enforcement of safety regulations by the authorities.
The dearth of contemporary reports, while interesting from an historical point of view, means that we have to look elsewhere for more information. One book that contains quite a bit about the explosion is London’s Disasters: from Boudicca to the banking crisis, by John Withington (pictured above), available from your library.