Silvertown explosion remembered 100 years on

The remains of a house in Silvertown.

The remains of a house in Silvertown. - Credit: Archant

It was a disaster many people living in Silvertown could see coming.

The story printed in a Strartford Express report from January 24, 1917.

The story printed in a Strartford Express report from January 24, 1917. - Credit: Archant

On January 19, 1917, a fire at the Brunner Mond works, a munitions factory in Crescent Wharf, led to tonnes of trinitroluene, or TNT, going up in an earth-shattering explosion which killed 73, injured 400 more and rendered many homeless.

But before that awful day the works’ employees knew it was just a matter of time before something terrible happened.

Brunner Mond’s chief chemist, Dr F.A. Freeth, quoted in the New Scientist, said: “We used to write to Silvertown to say their plant would go up sooner or later, and we were told it was worth the risk.”

Originally a caustic soda plant, the works were turned into an explosives factory to meet the rising demand for munitions during the First World War.

By September 1915 the factory was ready for production with the addition of a melt-pot housed in a “danger building” where crude TNT was melted and purified before being sent for use in high explosive shells.

With 268 employees, the “danger building” was only 200 yards away from rows of workers’ houses with flour, oil, wood and chemicals factories bordering the plant.

Most Read

To meet demand, staff worked across three shifts to make sure production continued night and day.

On the night of Friday, January 19 at 6.52pm, a fire in the melt-pot room ignited 50 tonnes of TNT causing an explosion felt across the capital.

Dr Toby Butler, a history lecturer at the University of East London, said: “It was like 9/11 in its imapct. That gives a sense of the chaos and bewilderment it caused.”

Six hundred homes were destroyed in the explosion. Sixty to 70,000 properties were damaged. Fires ravaged the Royal Victoria Dock’s flour mills and Silvertown Fire Station was demolished.

Newspaper reports of the explosion followed, including a statement by the Ministry of Munitions which confirmed “an explosion occurred last evening at a munitions factory in the neighbourhood of London.”

“They couldn’t refer to the manufacturer or where it was simply because they didn’t want the enemy to know the location of munitions factories,” Dr Butler explained. The government report into the disaster was kept secret for the same reason.

“One of the interesting things to come out of the report is that there had been a lot of TNT accidents,” Dr Butler said.

“It was quite new as an explosive. It was thought to be relatively safe.”

But before the disaster there had been 29 reports of accidents involving the explosive, some of which, according to Dr Butler, must have happened four or five years before the Silvertown explosion.

“When the Silvertown factory was commandeered there was a shell crisis so finding factories was important to increase the number of high explosives. Not doing so had brought down the last government. They knew it was a stupid place to put it.”

The cause of the fire remains uncertain. Some people believed camouflaged German zeppelins had bombed the factory while others suspected it was the work of foreigners granted permission to work at Brunner Mond, even though there were none at the plant.

In its findings, the government inquiry criticised production practices at the site though it failed to confirm a cause speculating it may have been caused by a spark or “spontaneous ignition”.

The report also criticised Brunner Mond for storing and purifying the explosive in the same building.

It concluded that if the TNT had been stored separately, “a disaster of this magnitude might have been avoided.”

Commenting on the disaster, East Ham MP Stephen Timms said: “It’s absolutely right we should commemorate this cataclysmic event in the borough’s history. It left an indelible mark on the nation’s consciousness.”

Mayor of Newham, Sir Robin Wales, added; “The events of that night 100 years ago are a big part of our borough’s history and had such a massive impact on so many families. It is something we should not forget.”