Ballymore is hosting a special service at Royal Wharf to commemorate those who died in the largest blast ever to occur in London.
“It was dreadful. Talk about bombing, that was nothing. The whole of Silvertown was one big blood red explosion. To me, it was like the end of the world”.
These are the words of a local eyewitness to the catastrophic Silvertown explosion in 1917, the largest blast ever to occur in London when 50 tonnes of TNT blew up at a local purifying factory, killing 73 people and damaging over 70,000 local properties. The explosion was so enormous it blew out windows in the Savoy and could be heard as far away as Sandringham and Southampton.
At precisely 6.52 pm on January 19, the exact time of the explosion, a moment’s silence will take place at a special centenary commemoration, organised by Ballymore, whose Royal Wharf development is on the site where the factory once stood. A wreath will also be laid at the Silvertown War Memorial to be attended by families of the victims, East Ham MP Stephen Timms and John Mulryan, Ballymore UK MD.
Sir Hugo Brunner, the great-grandson of JT Brunner, chairman of Brunner Mond, owners of the factory- and those who had repeatedly warned the Government of the dangers of treating TNT on the site – will also be in attendance, together with the Mayor of Newham, Sir Robin Wales and other members of Newham Council.
“This was the largest explosion ever to occur on London soil,” explained Vyki Sparkes, the Museum of London Docklands curator of social and working history.
“Had it occurred in the working day, even more people would have been killed. In any event, it was a total disaster for the area. At first nobody knew what caused it – an air raid, German sabotage. There was a climate of secrecy and fear”.
Brunner Mond had been manufacturing caustic soda at the factory since 1893 but during the acute shell shortages of 1915, were commandeered by the War Office to reopen the factory to purify TNT, a practice even more dangerous than manufacture itself.
“Scientists at the company were writing to the government almost weekly to stress the dangers, especially in a densely populated area”, said Sparkes.
The explosion happened after fire broke out in the melt-pot room with TNT loaded onto waiting goods wagons. The plant was destroyed instantly, as were many nearby buildings, including the Silvertown Fire Station and a local church. Debris was strewn for miles around, with red-hot chunks of rubble causing fires. A gasholder was set on fire on Greenwich Peninsula, creating a fireball from 200,000 cubic metres of gas.
Seventy-three people were killed, sixty-nine instantly and four later from their injuries and more than 400 injured. Up to 70,000 properties were damaged, 900 nearby ones completely destroyed or damaged beyond repair. It was not until the 1950s that a report was finally published under the 30-year-rule describing the purifying process as “unsafe”.
Thousands were left homeless, requiring temporary accommodation in schools, churches, and other similar places. More than 1,700 men were employed in the reconstruction task by February. Some £3m in aid was paid to those affected by the blast, equivalent to approximately £40m in 2007, of which a third was paid to local businesses and factories, including the Royal Docks where goods across 17 acres were destroyed.
“Despite being utterly devastated, the local community swung into action in a great example of East End ‘grit’, setting up temporary homes with the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, and evacuating homeless children,” said Sparkes.
On 20 June 1917, Andrea Angel, the plant’s chief chemist, who was attending to the initial fire, was posthumously awarded the Edward Medal (First Class).
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