Tag Archives: Times Digital Archive

The Silvertown Explosion

London's disasters, by John WithingtonWe 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.

Silvertown Explosion Memorial, near Pontoon Dock station.

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.

Plaque, Postman's Park, City of London

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.

[Malcolm]

Interesting times (1)

As 2016 draws to a close, we have probably all read our fill of celebrity obituaries. Many of us will also have seen other, more local or personal losses. While the argument rages on about whether this was indeed an unusual year or just appeared to be so, we’re likely to have found ourselves thinking or wondering about some of the people whose deaths have been reported in the news – people we’ve heard of, people we’ve not (but feel we should have), and people whose summarised lives turn out to be a whole lot more interesting and varied than we originally thought.

If you want to find out more about a person and their life, use the library. Below, librarian Owen uses Fidel Castro as an example to show the amazing resources Westminster Libraries members have at their fingertips for researching history and biography, but you could apply the same principles to find out more about any of the people below, lost in 2016:

Owen writes:

We recently saw the death of former Cuban leader and revolutionary Fidel Castro. He was seen in death – as he was in life – as someone to celebrate and support, but also someone to despise and oppose, a great leader or a terrible dictator. We can look at how his death was met in newspaper stories, obituaries and images from around the UK (eg: through NewsBank) and around the world (eg: through Library Press Display which includes some newspapers from Florida).

However, your delve into newspaper articles does not have to end there. Why not look back further? Newsbank goes back a good 30 years for a start. But go back further still and you will find yet more. Have a look in The Times Digital Archive; you will find it interesting to see how events in Castro’s life unfolded eg: 1956 saw a failed revolt (the final revolution came in 1958/59). Ironically, considering some of the celebrations recently in Florida we see that on 12 November 1958 people were caught attempting to send Fidel Castro arms to support the uprising.

Don’t stop there though, have a look as well in the Guardian and Observer archive and continue on to the missile crisis (1962 – you can search by date on all databases). In 1968 it begins its article Ten years of Fidel Castro with

‘It’s hard to believe that Fidel Castro’s regime has now been in power for ten years.’

All this can be found via our Online Resources: Newspapers section accessible in any Westminster Library and from home with a Westminster Library card. The newspapers are a great way to get started, but – depending on the person’s field of activity and nationality – take a look too at the Quick Reference, Art & Design (especially Oxford Art), Biography or Music & Performing Arts (especially Oxford Music Online) sections. You never know what you might find!

[Owen]

The great and the good

George Ryan, pictured in bas relief at the base of Nelson's Column, London

All of us who live or work in Westminster have walked through Trafalgar Square dozens of times, but how many of us have actually looked at Nelson’s Column  properly? Certainly not me until recently when I happened to look at the bas-reliefs at the base of the pillar and wondered what they actually represented. Coincidentally on the bus home I heard a trailer for an excellent-sounding radio programme, Britain’s Black Past which mentioned the reliefs and revealed that at least one of the sailors pictured was black. A bit of research revealed that a third of the crew of the Victory, Nelson’s ship, were born outside Britain (including, somewhat surprisingly, three Frenchmen) and that one of the men pictured, George Ryan, was black.

As we celebrate Black History Month, what other memorials of interest can we find in Westminster?

Well, for a start there’s the oldest monument in London – Cleopatra’s Needle. Nothing to do with Cleopatra, it actually predates her by 1500 years, being made for Pharoah Thotmes III. One slightly odd feature of the Needle is that the four sphinxes, ostensibly there to guard it, actually face inwards so you’d think they’d be fairly easy to surprise…

Cleopatra's Needle, London

Moving forward to the eighteenth century brings us to Ignatius Sancho (1724-1780) who, despite pretty much the worst possible start in life (he was born on  slave ship and both his parents died soon after) became butler to the Duke of Montagu and, after securing his freedom, was the only eighteenth-century Afro-Briton known to have voted in a general election (in Westminster). He wrote many letters to the literary figures of the time such as the actor David Garrick and the writer Laurence Sterne, was painted by Thomas Gainsborough and was also a prolific composer.

IgnatiusSancho

You can read more about Sancho in several books available to view at Westminster City Archives, and listen to some of his compositions.

And if you happen to be passing the Foreign and Commonweath Office, see if you can spot the memorial to him.

A more famous near-contemporary of Sancho, was Olaudah Equiano (1747-1797), another former slave and author of one of the earliest autobiographies by a black Briton.

Olaudah Equiano

Like George Ryan, Equiano (or Gustavus Vassa as he was known in his lifetime) was a sailor who travelled to the Caribbean, South America and the Arctic, having been kidnapped from Africa as a child. While still a slave, Equiano converted to Christianity and was baptised in St Margaret’s Westminster. His autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano was one of the first slave narratives and was reprinted several times in Equiano’s lifetime. He became a leading member of the  abolitionist movement, as one of the Sons of Africa, a group of former slaves in London who campaigned against slavery. You can see a plaque to him at 73 Riding House Street, Paddington and see him portrayed  by Youssoo N’Dour in the  film Amazing Grace.

Olaudah Equiana Plaque, London

One black Briton who needs almost no introduction is Mary Seacole (1805-1881), who fought racial prejudice to nurse and feed  soldiers in the Crimea and who was so popular with her former patients that the Times reported on 26th April 1856 that, at a public banquet at the Royal Surrey Gardens:

“Among the illustrious visitors was Mrs Seacole whose appearance awakened the most raputurous enthusiasm. The soldiers not only cheered her but chaired her around the gardens and she really might have suffocated from the oppressive attentions of her admirers were it not that two sergeants of extraordinary stature gallantly undertook to protect her from the pressures of the crowd.”

You can follow the famous war correspondent WH Russell in the Times Digital Archive (log in with your library card number) – he was a great admirer of Mrs Seacole. And if you haven’t already, do read her extraordinary autobiography The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands. There are two plaques in her honour in Westminster – one at 147 George Street and one at 14 Soho Square.

Mary Seacole

Less well-known than Mary Seacole  is Henry Sylvester Williams (1869-1911), a Trinidadian teacher who came to London in the 1890s, studied Latin at King’s College and qualified as a barrister in 1897 (though he earned his living as a lecturer for the Temperance Association). He was a founder-member of the Pan-African Association, whose aims were

“to secure civil and political rights for Africans and their descendants throughout the world; to encourage African peoples everywhere in educational, industrial and commercial enterprise; to ameliorate the condition of the oppressed Negro in Africa, America, the British Empire, and other parts of the world”

In 1906, Williams was elected as a Progressive for Marylebone Council and, along with John Archer in Battersea, was one of the first black people elected to public office in Britain. You can read more about Williams (and the other people listed here) in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and see a plaque erected by Westminster Council in his honour at 38 Church Street.

Bringing us nearer the present day are two former residents of Westminster who everyone knows. Guitarist Jimi Hendrix, discussed before in this blog, lived for a short time in 1968 at 23 Brook Street, Mayfair, and you can see a blue plaque to him there.

Jimi Hendrix, blue plaque

And we finish on perhaps the most famous memorial of recent years – in 2007 a bronze statue of Nelson Mandela was erected in Parliament Square in the presence of Mr Mandela himself.

Nelson Mandela stature, Parliament Square

You can find out more about the people in this blog by checking out our library catalogue and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as well as our Newspaper Archives. Plus if you want to know who the first Black British woman to write an autobiography was, don’t miss the event at Paddington Library on 27 October!

[Nicky]

The Fairytale of Leicester City

King Richard IIILast week saw the rather unexpected news of Leicester City clinching the football Premier League title. Was this really as significant as many newspapers described? The most uplifting story in British sporting history, or perhaps the biggest upset/shock? The team’s odds were 5000 to 1 at the beginning of the season having narrowly avoided relegation last year, after all. It was that and more, according to the papers.

To compare this victory with other surprise wins and ‘rise of the underdog’ stories, we should first take a look at how Leicester City’s story was reported last week:

  • Go to the library to look at the recent newspapers held there
  • Use NewsBank to search through all the stories about Leicester City being champions – you can even read Leicester’s local paper The Leicester Mercury. You could go further, following how the story unfolded throughout the season, starting all the way back in August 2015.
  • Read through more stories and see the papers themselves on Library Press Display – the Foxes’ victory was reported as far afield as Thailand, India, the US and more.

But why stop there? Have a look through other resources we have to see whether other sporting shocks had comparable headlines. Explore the tabloid newspapers on UK Press Online and take your search back further and further using the Times Digital Archive or The Guardian and Observer archive. Have a look at some of the suggested shocks mentioned by others: Boris Becker winning Wimbledon in 1985, Denmark winning the European Championships having not qualified, Nottingham Forest’s winning of the league and then European cup just after being promoted from the second division, Wimbledon’s crazy gang’s rise to prominence and FA cup glory in 1988… the list goes on. The headlines and stories are fascinating.

Football stories almost always involve a heroic manager, amazing team work and  notable individuals (Leicester’s stories even discuss the importance of Richard III!). Whatever the sport you will see that the English press – and people – always love an underdog; often more than their own team!

The above is just an illustration of how library resources can help you dig deep, research and analyse a story through looking at how it was reported in the media. The same principles can be applied to any story for personal interest, school projects or other research.

You can find free access to all these great databases – and much more – in the Newspapers and magazines section of our Online resources by subject page. Just log in from wherever you are using the number on your library card. In the Biography section you can also find out more about many of the people involved in the stories mentioned above by looking at Who’s who and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

[Owen]

The Queen is 90! Let’s look back to April 1926…

The Queen by AN WilsonSo this year Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II celebrates her 90th birthday. Or rather birthdays, as while her actual birthday is today, 21 April (she was born in 17 Bruton Street at 2.40am on 21 April 1926), her formal birthday with all the pomp and ceremony is on the second Saturday in June. This year there will be a weekend of celebrations, such as the Patron’s lunch on Sunday 12 June.

But as the title says – what was said and what happened on the day itself? Using our online newspaper archives it is possible to have a glimpse of the news as it would have been read by the people of 1926.

First of all, the time of the then Princess Elizabeth’s birth was important for the daily newspapers. Normally an event which occurred on the 21st would be reported on the 22nd once it has had a chance to be written and printed. However, because the event took place so early in the morning it made it into the headlines of the day!

Check the Times Digital Archive to see how the news was reported (log in with your library card number). You could limit your searches to just 21 and 22 April, or simply browse through each day’s newspaper. Then take a look at some of the other papers, for example The Guardian – different publications can give you different types of story and varying headlines. Some, such as The Daily Mirror (available through UK Press Online), will have pictures.

Online newspapers for members of Westminster LibrariesThink about your search terms; which words will you use? Try out different ones. Remember that the baby born that day had not yet been named, was not yet Queen or even the heir to the throne. Here are a few tips for possible keywords: granddaughter, daughter, birth, Duchess of York, and royal are just a few.

From my searches I discovered that The Times managed to get an announcement into its 21 April ‘News in Brief’ section, and the next day mentions that the princess is third in line for succession to the throne (an important fact, as we would find out later on).

The Daily Mirror provides us with a front page image and headline the day after the birth. Disappointingly there is not much from the Illustrated London News but there are one or two images. The Guardian also provides a picture and headlines “The birth of a princess” and also reminds us that she is “The King’s first granddaughter”.

Book list to celebrate HM The Queen's 90th birthday

Lots of stories to explore! Why not go further and see what is written about each of the birthdays and life events over her 90 years? You can read more in one of the many books featured in our new book list celebrating the Queen’s birthday (pictured above), and find dates and events to then research in the newspapers. Be imaginative with your search terms; you never know what you might discover!

[Owen]