The Silvertown Explosion —Page 2

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

The mayor of West Ham was attending a meeting at the West Ham Conference Hall. Within an hour of the explosion he was at the scene of the disaster and making arrangements to deal with the calamity, together with the Town Clerk. Staff of West Ham Council and various organisations were soon on the scene to provide assistance for the injured and those made homeless. The explosion took place in January and the weather was very cold. Over 300 women and children left homeless took shelter on the first night in different institutions or in private homes, many worried about missing husbands or injured children.

The following day the mayor formed the Explosion Emergency Committee. Nine shelters were opened at local schools, churches, and halls to immediately provide accommodation for 600 homeless. The Salvation Army, led by Mrs. Bramwell Booth, wife of General William Booth, established shelters in every available building, providing food and hot drinks.

Many escaped with their lives but little else, and with clothes in shreds.  In the following days a clothing depot was started at the North Woolwich Council School, which was to deal with thousands of people. Charities, local companies, and government departments provided food, blankets, transport and storage. An information bureau was opened and a register of those affected compiled. Lists of those killed and injured were obtained from hospitals and mortuaries and provided a means of helping people to obtain news of family or friends. The Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, authorised financial aid. Donations arrived from around the country. King George, Queen Mary, and Queen Alexandra each sent money.

West Ham Council opened an office at Canning Town for the payment of funds to sufferers. It was managed by staff of the Town Clerk and the Borough Treasurer, assisted by teachers from the schools damaged in the explosion. Recipients included those whose livelihoods were affected by the destruction of their workplace, as well as casualties. Contributions were made for funeral expenses and towards replacing essential furniture. Those left out of work were given a chance of employment at Woolwich Arsenal.

Considering the scale of the explosion it is remarkable that only 73 people were killed and several hundred injured. Amongst them were those who lost limbs or were blinded for life. The majority of the dead were residents of the nearby houses. Of those in the TNT factory, ten men died and two escaped, while one woman perished and nine survived. The dead included PC George Greenoff, the constable on duty outside the building, and two firemen, Henry Vickers and Frederick Sell. It is fortunate that the disaster happened at that particular time. Earlier, and a greater number of day-shift workers would have been in nearby factories and children would have been in school. The bedrooms in the upper floors of some houses were severely damaged by flying debris while the occupants downstairs survived.

Several people later stated they owed their life to the warnings given by PC Greenoff, who remained at his post to help others and died nine days later from his injuries. The remaining five firemen were injured, two very seriously. Having been discharged from hospital, the station officer found his wife in the mortuary, three of his children also dead, and the remaining two missing. Seven children were taken to hospital with injuries but whose parents had perished.

The TNT plant’s Chief Chemist was Dr. Andrea Angel, a respected tutor in chemistry at Oxford University, who had volunteered for war work. His body was found in a crater where the factory had stood and could only be identified by his clothing. He was widely praised for his efforts to stay in the building in the face of certain death in order to save as many lives as possible. Angel was posthumously awarded the Edward Medal by the King, as was factory worker George Wenbourne for his attempt to distinguish the fire.

Thousands of people assembled for a service, at which the King was represented, immediately prior to the funerals of eleven victims. The public funeral of the two fireman and their daughters took place at the end of January. Their coffins were draped in Union Jack flags and carried on fire engines. The funeral of PC Greenoff took place in early February, attended by many police officers and a police band. He was posthumously awarded the King’s Police Medal and is commemorated at the Watts Memorial at Postman’s Park near St. Paul’s Cathedral.

At the beginning of February the King, the Queen and Princess Mary went to the scene to express their appreciation of the work that had been done by rescue workers. They also visited the London Hospital and Poplar Hospital where they saw some of the injured. The Prime Minister and his wife visited the injured at Poplar Hospital. The Chairman of the Great Eastern Railway, a branch of which ran into the Brunner Mond works, attended an inquest of the deceased to express his heartfelt sympathy.

It was impossible to disguise the location and scale of the disaster from the East London community, but the place was kept from the wider public due to strict censorship during the war. Even the local Stratford Express newspaper, subject to censorship, was no more precise than a “munitions factory” in “East London” in their many reports of the event. On the morning following the disaster the government issued a mere two-sentence announcement and a short news-piece appeared two days later in The Times. Coverage of the disaster gradually diminished as other events occurred during the course of the war.

Eight hundred people were rendered homeless and West Ham Council took on the duty of re-housing them. The work of restoring damaged houses was undertaken by H.M. Office of Works, with large bodies of men employed. Nineteen schools in the district had to be closed pending repairs. The London Hospital’s convalescent home at Swanley in Kent was used to house and educate children who were injured or left homeless, with over 380 passing through during the next few months.

Around £3 million was paid out by the government in compensation, equal to around £40 million pounds today. Claims were made to the Ministry of Munitions. The largest, totalling over £350,000, was from the Port of London Authority.

The explosion was widely rumoured to have been caused by a German agent. An inquiry was immediately ordered by the Home Secretary and the committee reported its findings within just a few days. The idea of a German agent was easily dismissed. No clear reason for the disaster was identified but the report concluded that the mostly likely cause was a ‘detonation spark produced by friction or impact’, or ‘spontaneous ignition of the TNT in or about the melt pot.’ The official report was kept secret until the 1950s and thus very few people knew of its findings.

The production of TNT was thereafter restricted to less residential districts. Yet the manufacture and storage of flammable products continued in proximity to housing, leading to many tragedies during the Second World War, particularly in the docks areas of East London.

For decades the site of the disaster at Silvertown was left undeveloped, although the fire-station was replaced. In recent times the whole area has been redeveloped with new apartment buildings and the Docklands Light Railway passes over the former entrance to the TNT plant. It is now difficult to imagine how the place looked in 1917. A memorial to those who died stands in a small park on the site of, or adjacent to, the Brunner Mond factory.

Sources include: Graham Hill & Howard Bloch ‘The Silvertown Explosion’; (Forgotten Stories)

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