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Silvertown 1917

I was alerted by an article in Genealogists Magazine to the Silvertown Explosion, which it describes as “the largest disaster in London in World War One - and not due to enemy bombing”.

History of Silvertown
The area had been open marshland, but development started c.1850. Crescent Wharf in West Silvertown lay between the railway station (west) and Bardfield St (east).  The Brunner-Mond company, founded by John Brunner and Ludwig Mond, started two factories there in around 1893, a main one to produce soda crystals from ammonia, and a second, smaller, plant to manufacture caustic soda.  The latter was discontinued in 1912 and the second plant was lying idle at the outbreak of the First World War.  Also on Crescent Wharf were works producing packing cases and paint work and oil refiners.  Nearby were James Keiller’s Preserves, John Knight’s soap works, and Tate and Lyle’s sugar refinery. It was said that by 1900 every household in the country used at least one product that had come from Silvertown: jam, soap, chemicals, varnish, paint, boxes, oil and of course sugar.

The name Silvertown comes from the works of Samuel Winkworth Silver. It is sandwiched between the River Thames and the Royal Victoria Dock. Silver established a factory  in the area in 1852, when they moved to the area from Greenwich and established a rubber works, originally to make waterproof clothing. This subsequently developed into the works of the India Rubber, Gutta Percha and Telegraph Cable Company, which constructed and laid many submarine cables. Of the Brunner Mond factories in the area, the one used for the manufacture of caustic soda was not used after 1912. It also had the basis for being adapted to TNT purification.  As Paris says (ref [2]) “it seems strange that Moulton should stress that the Rainham factory was ‘well-removed from any habitation’ yet consider carrying out the same process  at Silvertown … less than 200 yards from densely-packed streets”, and right in the middle of other factories and wharves containing flour, oil, varnish, wood and chemicals. On the North Woolwich Road there were 4000-5000 local inhabitants, many no doubt workers at the docks. Nevertheless, this was the site the government decided to use for the ‘purification’ of TNT for the war effort.  Most of the equipment needed for the purification process was already fitted at the Brunner-Mond site, hence its ‘suitability’ . This process was considered dangerous, and was not allowed to be carried out at the same site as manufactured the basic TNT.

The War background
When WW1 started there was the famous quote “home by Christmas”, which as we now know was wildly optimistic. whilst there was no shortage of men, there was a shortage of some munitions. Sir John French, commander in France blamed his failure at the battle of Festubert on this shortage, and his views were leaked to the Times and, it is claimed, caused the collapse of the government in 1915 and the creation of the ministry of munitions under the then PM Lloyd George
   The early years of the war had led to the conclusion that the best munitions were high explosive shells.  What explosive should they contain, and where to get it.  The answer to the first was TNT (Tri-nitro toluene). Raw TNT was available, it could be produced at a low grade as a derivative of coal, but it needed purifying to turn it into the material used in the high explosive shells used in WW1. Emergency buildings had to be found and the Brunner Mond building was one of them.
   Lord Moulton in 1915 said “we had stablished a place at Rainham, which was well removed from any habitation and was well suited to the process of purifying crude TNT”, but he went on to say that the capacity was insufficient. The Silvertown site started work in the summer of 1915, and was in constant use until January 1917, when the famous explosion occurred that totally destroyed it. The distillation process produced  9 tons a day, sadly, short of the expected 15 tons target.
   Crude TNT arrived at the works in sacks or wooden barrels. It was unpacked and loaded by hand into a large melting pot heated by steam coils. Molten TNT was then run off into dissolvers, containing alcohol, where it was then stirred in a partial vacuum to crystallise it. The cooled TNT was then spun in centrifuges to remove impurities. This process was then repeated in a separate melting pot to further purify the TNT after which it was run into a pan where a water-cooled roller caused it to solidify.    It was then scraped off the coolers with a blade to form ‘flake TNT’ which was collected into cotton bags for despatch. Once established the main factory employed 268 workers and 63 worked in the ‘danger building’ in three shifts of 21 to ensure continuous 24 hour production.
   The purification process has been described as more dangerous that the production of the raw TNT. There was work: the docks, and the trade coming though the docks giving rise to the associated industries (Tate and Lyle had, and still have, a sugar refining plant in the area), made the area heavily populated. It was understood from the start that a TNT factory in the heart of a  densely populated area was ‘very dangerous’ but it was felt by the Ministry of Munitions to be ‘worth the risk’. At 6:52 on the evening of  19 January 1917, a fire caused about 50 tons of TNT to explode and turned Brunner Mond into a bomb. There were 83 tons of TNT on site at the time of the explosion, including 28 raw and processed TNT, of which 54 tons exploded at 6:52 pm. Nearby buildings, including Vanesta’s  plywood factory and the oil tanks at Silvertown Lubricants caught fire while the fire station opposite and several streets of small houses were demolished. Timber sheds were set on fire. There were flour mills in the area, and the flour was set on fire by the heat, raining down as articles of light, “a golden rainstorm”.
    The blast was heard all over London and damaged between 60,000 and 70,000 buildings. Three rows of nearby houses were practically demolished. The nearby Silvertown fire engine was blown to pieces by the blast and lay scattered 400 yards from where it had been parked.
   73 people were killed and several hundred injured. One man was thrown 70 yards by the force of the blast, apparently survived. The chief chemist, and others at the munitions factory were killed, and two of the firemen on the spot at the time lost their lives. Amongst those killed were PC Edward Greenoff, who told people to get away from the area: many survived form following his advice. He was thrown to the ground by the explosion, but survived that and was helped home, where he died of his injuries.
   The explosion occurred during a period of cold snowy weather, which added to the misery of those whose homes were damaged. The temperature between 13th and 27th of January in central London that year never exceeded 1C: many homes were heated by gas fires, and gas would have been needed. Greenwich gasholder, a mile away a, was set ablaze by the explosion and 10million cu.ft. of gas became a vivid torch, and was seen 25 miles away, although war-time blackout and low clouds to reflect the light assisted this.
   The church of St. Barnabas in Eastwood Road, built in 1882, had its chancel blown away and an iron hall destroyed. West Silvertown board school, Boxley Street, was wrecked by the explosion.
   Official reports naturally tried to play down the tragedy of the events, and referred to Silvertown as ‘Sailortown’. And in war-time the problem should not get to the hands of the enemy.

Some of the people named:
Ada Randall, a worker at the site, is reported as saying “Good god, it’s all afire”: together with Alice Davies and Hetty Sands, they made their way to the fence that separated the site from Vanesta, when the blast occurred, knocking down the fence. Alice survived the blast and gave evidence at the enquiry: she thought the three of them were the last to leave alive. She spotted the fire at 6:45pm
Dr Angel was killed after trying to telephone for help and going back to help those still inside when he blast occurred.
George Galloway was an engine driver on the railway passing the site: just before he died in hospital he reported he remembered a loud roar.

Further research
If you want to take this further, these sources I have used may help.
The archive at Stratford Library (at 3 The Grove, London, E15 1EL) has copies of contemporary newspapers and reports about the event, but they need to be pre-ordered: at the time of writing (January 2017) it is open only 3 days a week.
Books :
[1] The great explosion : Silvertown, 1917 by Lewis Blake.
[2] Silvertown 1917 by Michael Paris.
[3] The Silvertown Explosion by Graham Hill and Howard Bloch.
Online: There are several references to the explosion in the West Ham section of the Victoria County History volume for Essex, which can be found online, see link above left.