Silvertown explosion brought the realities of WW1 to Newham

Demolished houses in Fort Road show the extent of the damage from the explosion

Demolished houses in Fort Road show the extent of the damage from the explosion - Credit: Archant

Melanie McGrath, the Romford born writer, once wrote, “there was never any silver in Silvertown. Smoketown, Sulphertown, the place could of been called any of those things and no one would have blinked.”

The Brunner Mond Works, Silvertown, 1895

The Brunner Mond Works, Silvertown, 1895 - Credit: Archant

In 1917 the industrial area became a literal smoke-town as an explosion tore through the area and showed that the dangers of the war effort weren’t exclusive to mainland Europe.

Throughout the 19th century Silvertown was a hub for industry and as Graham Hill, writing in The Silvertown Explosion: London 1917, said: “It was said that by the turn of the century every household in the country owned or had at least one product that had come from Silvertown.”

In the heart of Silvertown stood the Brunner Mond’s chemical works, established in 1893, which produced soda crystals, and caustic soda in a second plant.

The production of caustic soda at Brunner Mond was discontinued in 1912, and with the outbreak of war in 1914 and the growing demand for munitions due to the high numbers of conscription, the site was seen as a potential TNT factory.

Children left homeless by the explosion

Children left homeless by the explosion - Credit: Archant

The Minister of Munitions, David LLoyd George, said: “Even after utilising every workshop and factory capable of turning out munitions, we found that output would be inadequate unless we supplemented our resources by setting up emergency buildings.”

Despite warnings from Brunner Mond’s chief chemist at the time, Dr Francis Arthur Freeth, that there would be a catastrophe sooner or later, the Ministry of Munitions believed it was worth taking the risk and the factory began TNT production in September 1915.

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Another chemist, Dr Andrea Angell, was drafted in to help oversee the production and guide the workers who were inexperienced in chemistry.

On the evening January 19, 1917, a fire broke out in the melt-pot room and caused roughly 50 tonnes of TNT to explode to devastating affect.

Graham Hill wrote: “people all over London heard the explosion and felt the blast, which damaged between 60,000 and 70,000 properties, and saw a red glow in the sky that was visible for miles around.”

The surrounding areas were practically obliterated by the blast, with fires breaking out in nearby building and residential streets demolished by the impact, with reports stating that the blast was heard as far away as Norwich.

Fireman James J Betts and his colleagues went to the factory to put out the initial blaze but were sent 200ft through the air when the TNT exploded.

“Around me was a vast plain of rubble. The factory had gone. There was fearful sounds in the air, the screams of injured women and children, the groans of those imprisoned under the debris,” James recalled.

The blast left 69 people dead, with four more succumbing to their wounds in hospital, and hundreds of people injured.

The government paid out £3m in compensation, £40m in today’s money, and had to provide temporary shelters for the hundreds left homeless.

A memorial to the victims was erected in North Woolwich Road.