On 19 January 1917 at precisely 6:52pm, the horrors of war were abruptly inflicted upon an unsuspecting East London neighbourhood. In a matter of moments, the previously tranquil area was transformed into a mirror of the Western Front, featuring chaotic scenes of panic and death. The sky was lit up with fire, people ran for their lives amidst falling debris, some were praying in the streets, while others stood as paralyzed, breathlessly beholding the disaster that was taking place in front of them.
In this guest blog post, journalism student Torbjørn Jørstad shares his research into the disastrous event that took place at the Brunner Mond chemical works in Silvertown, 100 years ago.
- The Silvertown Factory
Following the Shell Crisis of 1915, the newly established Ministry of Munitions sought out Brunner Mond & Co to assist in the time of need. Their Silvertown factory had produced caustic soda up until 1912, and needed few tweaks to become suitable for its new purpose as an explosives factory. Silvertown was a densely populated area, with around 3,000 residents living within a quarter of a mile of the factory, but the potential dangers to the local population were deemed “worth the risk” by the Ministry.
- The explosion
19 January 1917 began as any other day in the factory – indeed, “nothing unusual was noted”. Later that day the youngest worker on shift, 16 year old James Arnell, was sweeping spilt TNT by centrifuges when he noticed “red drops” dripping from the floor above. Quickly realizing the top floor was on fire, the boy ran through the works shouting a warning.
Some hundred yards away, outside the local fire station, fireman Tom Betts noticed “a huge red glow in the sky coming from the munitions plant”. He swiftly warned the seven others on duty, and the crew immediately despatched the fire engine and heroically charged across the road towards the site.
A huge red glow in the sky … from the munitions plant
Tom’s uncle James, also a fireman, knew of the hazardous contents of what was known as the ‘Danger Building’, and warned his wife and 12 year old son to flee. Upon entering the site, the firemen were met by people fleeing, among them assistant chemist Frederick Blevins who warned them of the imminent explosion.
The effects of the explosion hindered the rescue work in the immediate aftermath. The fire station itself was totally decimated, water pipes had been destroyed, telephone wires were cut, and the second nearest fire station in Canning Town had its main door jammed shut by debris.
When the catastrophe ensued on that cold winter evening in January, the effects were disastrous: 73 people were killed and more than 400 injured. An estimated 60-70,000 buildings were damaged, and thousands of people were left homeless.
The Silvertown Explosion stands as a testimony of how “a self-inflicted wound on the home front” brought the horrors of war to the London streets. The nature of war had been for ever changed by rapid technological advancements, and the two giant craters left at the site of the explosion would for years serve as a painful reminder to residents in that area.
However, the “biggest disaster since the Great Fire of London” was largely forgotten by those outside the West Ham area – perhaps suppressed by the longer lasting imprints of the Blitz some 20 years later. Now, using Lives of the First World War, we can pay tribute to all those affected by this tragic episode – this Community reunites them 100 years on.
- Explore the Silvertown Community here