The Silvertown Explosion

The ruins of the Venesta factory after the explosion. The company, adjacent to the Brunner Mond works at Silvertown, produced wood veneer packing cases for the tea industry. © Imperial War Museum

During the First World War TNT was being purified at a factory in East London, close to the Royal Victoria Dock, to use in munitions for combat use. The disaster that occurred there in January 1917 holds the record of being the largest single explosion in London.

Silvertown and North Woolwich is an area three miles from east to west. The districts became virtually an island on the north bank of the River Thames after the creation of the Victoria and Albert Docks in the 19th century that separated them from the rest of East London.

At the start of the 20th century Silvertown was an industrial part of London. Together with neighbouring Canning Town and West Ham it formed the largest manufacturing area in the south of England, its residents employed in the local factories. It was said that every household in the country owned at least one item manufactured in Silvertown. The district was named after the S.W. Silver & Co. India rubber factory established there in the 19th century. Other businesses included soap-makers, flour mills, oil storage, dye works and timber yards. The sugar-refiner Tate & Lyle was, and remains, at Silvertown.

Brunner Mond & Co. opened a chemical factory at Crescent Wharf in 1893, producing soda crystals. A separate section of the plant manufactured caustic soda but that was discontinued in 1912 and the building lay idle two years later at the start of the First World War. There was a great need for high explosive shells and new factories for their production were in short supply at the beginning of the war. The disused part of the Brunner Mond works was ideal for that purpose. The company were reluctant for such a use, however, because it was surrounded by other businesses containing highly combustible materials such as oil, creosote, flour, and wood, and only 200 yards from dense rows of workers’ houses. However, such was the shortage of other suitable sites that they eventually consented to the request from the Department of Munitions.

Production of TNT began at Brunner Mond in September 1915, with 63 workers in three shifts of 21 to ensure continuous round-the-clock production. Seventy tons of TNT were purified each week. After crude TNT arrived it was unpacked by hand and loaded into a large melting pot. At the end of the process ‘flake TNT’ was collected in cotton bags ready for dispatch.

On the evening of Friday 19th January 1917 ten men and ten women were working in the TNT factory at Brunner Mond, as well as two coopers. Outside the building railway wagons were filled with TNT waiting to be transported. Shortly after 6.45 pm a fire began in the melt-pot room, or the room above it. It was noticed by two workers who ran from the building shouting “fire” and several other workers quickly followed. A police constable on guard outside the building did what he could to evacuate the factory.

People in the street watched as events unfolded, not realising the danger they faced. The local fire-station was located across the street. The seven officers on duty were alerted to the danger by a boy in the street. The fire-fighters rushed over to tackle the blaze but by then the building was burning fiercely. There was then a mighty explosion, completely destroying the factory. Large pieces of machinery, some weighing many tons, flew through the air, crushing nearby factories and workers’ cottages. A huge mass of iron, weighing 15 tons, which had been the factory’s boiler, landed in the roadway. Bodies lay on the streets. Children were separated from their parents and mothers were frantically looking for their offspring, some of whom were buried in rubble.

The blast could be heard across London and as far as Cambridgeshire and Norfolk. People in the capital noticed a momentary failure of the electric lights. Windows a great distance away were broken by the violent displacement of air. The organist at the Finsbury Park Empire, many miles away, was said to have been blown across his seat. Buildings in the immediate area were demolished, including the fire-station, several streets of small houses, and the local church. The fire-engine was found a quarter of a mile away and damaged beyond recognition. Two nearby oil tanks caught fire and a gas-holder on the other side of the Thames was destroyed. Flying hot metal set alight two major flour mills, one of which was gutted. Thirty-two local schools had varying degrees of damage. Between 60,000 and 70,000 properties were affected. There was extensive damage to the nearby Royal Victoria Docks and it would take two years for the Port of London Authority to clear debris and re-erect or repair buildings.

Fire-engines from all parts of London converged on Silvertown. Millions of tiny, burning grains of wheat from the flour mills fell from the air. Fires continued for several days but rescue workers were still finding burning embers weeks later.

While fire-fighters fought the blaze a large army of volunteers helped to search for the dead and injured. The 1st Battalion Volunteer Regiment soon arrived, under the command of their captain. Members of the St. John Ambulance Brigade arrived within 15 minutes. St. Barnabas church became a dressing station for the injured. The police reported that between 500 and 600 people who received cuts and bruises were treated in the street or by private practitioners. Most of the volunteers worked through the night, and then from midday until midnight the following day. The district was sealed off by a military guard and the police to prevent looting. Soldiers called in to help included some from other parts of the Empire and it was the first time some local residents had seen men wearing turbans. One hundred injured were taken to Queen Mary’s Hospital for the East End and a mortuary was set up in a school.