Posted by: michaeldaybath | January 19, 2017

The terrible explosion at Silvertown

When I started working in London a few years ago, I often stayed in a hotel in London’s Docklands, near London City Airport. The hotel was located in Silvertown, an industrial (and dockland) area on the north bank of the River Thames east of the River Lea. While industry still survives in Silvertown, not least in the form of two large Tate & Lyle sugar refineries, by the mid-2010s, the area was well on its way on being redeveloped into a glittering new residential district for London.

Brunner Mond war memorial, Silvertown

Brunner Mond Ltd. war memorial, North Woolwich Road, Silvertown, London E16 (2014)

The closest Docklands Light Railway (DLR) stop to the hotel was Pontoon Dock, on the line from Canning Town to King George V that opened in 2005 (and extended to Woolwich Arsenal in 2009). One morning, while exploring the area around Pontoon Dock station, I found a  war memorial and an associated information board. The memorial had four sides, two of which represented the war memorial for employees of the Brunner Mond chemical works. A third side contained the names of 16 employees killed in an explosion at the works in 1917. It read: “and to the memory of those who whilst serving their country by making T.N.T. perished in the explosion in these works, January 19th, 1917.” This was my first introduction to the Silvertown Explosion, an event that happened one-hundred years ago today.

I took a few photographs of the memorial at the time, but when I went back a few weeks later to take a few more in better light conditions, I found that the memorial had been enclosed in a wooden box, to prevent it getting damaged during the Royal Wharf redevelopment project (apparently, it has since been moved to a location much closer to the centre of that development).

The “Great Explosion”

The information board nearby contained more information about the Silvertown Explosion and its aftermath. In short, the War Office in 1915 decided to use spare capacity at Brunner Mond’s chemical works at Silvertown to purify TNT. The process adopted was acknowledged to be very unstable. On the 19th January 1917, a fire broke out in the melt room, resulting at 6:52 pm in a massive explosion that destroyed the works and a very wide area beyond it, which included many houses. The explosion was so large that it was felt and seen from much of central London. An early newspaper report (in this case from the Western Daily Press (Bristol) the following Monday) commenced [1]:

The catastrophic explosion which occurred in the East End of London at a quarter to seven on Friday night, and which was officially announced in a few bare lines by the Press Bureau at 11.40, is now known to be, beyond doubt, one of the most terrible happenings of its kind which has ever shaken the Metropolis. The word “shaken” may be taken in its most literal sense, for the whole of the vast city, with its outlying suburbs, and even the small towns and villages beyond its farthest confines, felt with consternation the force of the terrific impact which occurred. Immediately the echoes of the ear-splitting noise had died away, while yet an angry scarlet glaze filled the whole of the eastern sky, the wildest rumours took being, and spread far and wide. These were current and even increased for a while, then, slowly, some filtering of the facts became known, and these were found to be almost as dreadful and harrowing as the worst surmises, save only that the fear of enemy machinations was unfounded.

Newspaper reports also included numerous accounts from eyewitnesses, some of which still make for gruesome reading. Even from slightly further away, the effects of the explosion were profound. The Western Daily Press report cited above also included a quote from a railway worker from the Great Eastern Railway:

I was working on the line about a mile and a half away. There was a great flare in the sky — followed by a terrible explosion — and a huge flash of flame. The ground underneath me seemed to heave. It was a terrible experience. I felt as if I had been suddenly paralysed.

The scale of casualties was horrendous, even though the timing of the explosion (early evening on a Friday) probably saved many others from being killed. Sixty-nine people died on the scene; four died later in hospital from injuries suffered. Hundreds of others were injured, some seriously.

The Committee of Inquiry

Inevitably, there was a committee of inquiry, which reported remarkably quickly – although the full contents were not made publicly available for many years. A summary was published in the Newcastle Daily Journal in March 1917 [2]:

THE GREAT EXPLOSION IN LONDON.
NO EVIDENCE OF MALICE.
ACCURATE RETURN OF THE TOTAL DEATH ROLL.

The following report on the explosion in East London has been received from the Home Secretary:–
The committee appointed by the Home Secretary to inquire into the cause of the explosion which occurred in East London on Friday, 19th January, have presented their report, dated 23rd February.
The report deals with many matters connected with the manufacture of explosives, and it could not be published without giving information which would be of use to our enemies. The following is a summary of the conclusions at which the committee have arrived, after careful consideration of the evidence before them:–
(1). The explosion was preceded by a fire which broke out either in the melt pot or in a corrugated iron structure at the top of the building immediately above the melt pot.
(2). The fire rapidly gained a fierce hold, and, as the melt pot contained a large quantity of explosive material in a state of confinement, it is probable that the initial detonation took place there.
(3.) The evidence available is not sufficient to determine with certainty how the fire was started, but all accidental causes presenting any degree of probability may be eliminated except the two following:–
(a) A detonation spark produced by friction or impact.
(b) Spontaneous ignition due to decomposition of the material in or about the meltpit.
(4.) The possibility of disaster having been maliciously caused cannot be disregarded, but searching investigation by the police and other authorities failed to discover any evidence which would warrant such a conclusion, and no suspicion fell upon any employe [sic] or other person.
The Committee made various recommendations with regard to precautions to be adopted in the manufacture and storing of the explosive in question, and these recommendations have been communicated to the Departments concerned, and are being acted upon.
In view of exaggerated rumours which had been current as to the number of deaths which had been caused, the Committee took particular care to obtain correct record of all casualties. They were as follow [sic]:– 69 persons were killed on the spot; 98 were seriously injured, of whom four have since died in hospital; and 328 were slightly injured.
In addition, the Committee were informed by the police that some five or six hundred persons who received cuts and bruises were treated in the streets or by private practitioners.
Of the ten men belonging to the shift at work in the building nine were killed and one escaped, but of the ten women at work only one lost her life.
In the course of the committee’s inquiry their attention was called to the gallant conduct of Mr. Angel, chemist in charge of the works; Mr Geo. Wenborne, the leading male hand on the shift, and Police Constable Edward George Brown Greenoff, who was on beat duty outside the works. These three men bravely remained at their posts when they could have escaped, and lost their lives in their endeavour to save the lives of others by warning them of the danger of an explosion.
The Home Secretary is glad to announce that His Majesty the King has been pleased to confer the Edward Medal of the First Class upon Mr Angel and Mr Wenborne, and the King’s Police Medal upon Police Constable Greenoff.

Andrea Angel: the “Hero of the Great Explosion”

Of the two Brunner Mond employees posthumously awarded the Edward Medal (First Class), Andrea Angel was the plant’s chief chemist, but he had formerly been a lecturer in chemistry at the University of Oxford [3, 4]. Newspaper reports often referred to him as the “Hero of the Great Explosion.” Shortly after the explosion, the Daily Mirror provided a rather sensationalised overview of Angel’s life and death [5]:

HERO WHO GAVE HIS LIFE FOR OTHERS.
Widow Tells of Her Husband’s Noble End.

NO THOUGHT OF SELF.

Another name has been added to the long roll of England’s heroes.
It is that of Andrea Angel (not doctor, as reported), the brave chemist, who whilst advising the operatives to seek safety stayed heroically at his post.
Mrs. Angel, the widow of the dead hero, who has herself been working since Christmas as lady superintendent at the factory where the explosion occurred, gave some details to The Daily Mirror yesterday.
“I was at home at about seven o’clock at night, that, accompanied by my sister, Miss Peggy Stock, I arrived at the scene of the explosion.
“I cannot tell you what I saw. It was indescribable. Everything was blazing.

RAN TO THE HOSPITALS.

“When I got there I could not find a single soul that I knew.
“I ran round to the hospitals in the hope of hearing some news of my husband. I did not know whether he were dead or alive. Nothing could be found of him.”
At this point two bright-faced children with sparkling eyes and long, carefully-brushed hair, entered the room. They were Marion Muriel, aged nine, and Heather Grace, aged seven, the two daughters of Mrs. Angel.
“They are proud of what their father has done,” said their mother.
Asked for some details of the late Mr. Angel’s career, Mrs. Angel informed The Daily Mirror that he was born in January, 1877.
Son of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Angel, of Glan-y-Mor, Penally, South Wales, he received his early education at Exeter School, where he obtained an Oxford scholarship.

SELFLESS BRAVERY.

Entering Christ Church College [sic], he took first-class honours in science. He became a Bachelor of Science, a science tutor, and Dickson research scholar.
Until the outbreak of the war he remained in Oxford. Then, after seeing his pupils through their finals, he placed his services at the disposal of his country.
“I have never known him think of himself,” she concluded.
That is the epitaph of a great-hearted gentleman whose memory Britain will revere as one of the heroes of the war.

HEROISM AMID FIRE.

Mr. Angel’s action (writes a Daily Mirror representative) was equivalent to any deed performed on the field of battle.
His first act when he heard of the fire was to dash to the workrooms and warn the hands
After warning the workers of their peril he rushed to the chemical operating room where the deadliest of high explosive chemicals are being constantly experimented with, and told his assistants there to fly at once for their lives.
Next Mr Angel sent his calls for help over the telephone wires.
His “S.O.S.” was not merely for the fire brigade’s assistance, but also for ambulances to be sent.
The possibility of escape was still open to him after all this, but the brave chemist saw another duty to perform.
He made his way to that part of the building where the flames were spreading fast, and it was while he was doing his utmost in helping to stay their progress that the explosion came, and with it the end.
Many lives were saved by his heroic sacrifice.

OXFORD’S ‘LITTLE ANGEL.’
By a Former Pupil.

In this appalling explosion Oxford has lost one of her most able tutors.
Mr. Angel was for several years a lecturer in chemistry at Christchurch [sic] and Brasenose College, and was director of the Dr. Lees Laboratory at the former college.
Andrea Angel was a man of much personal charm, and as a tutor he was the essence of conscientious accuracy.
I was with him for three years, and in all that time I have never known him floored in any point, so extensive and minute was his chemical knowledge.
When war broke out and the need for chemists arose Mr. Angel — or “Little Angel,” as we used to call him affectionately — at once volunteered his services for the country.

P.C. Edward Greenoff

Greenoff memorial, Postman's Park, City of London

PC Greenoff memorial, Postman’s Park, City of London

Of the others that had been honoured posthumously, Police Constable Greenoff had helped to direct people away from the initial fire and had thereby undoubtedly saved many lives. Greenoff has a memorial in Postman’s Park in the City of London. Within the “Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice” in the park are a set of ceramic tiles that commemorate Constable Greenoff, stating that, “many lives were saved by his devotion to duty at the terrible explosion at Silvertown, 19 Jan. 1917.”

Firefighter casualties

Firefighters' memorial, Silvertown

Firefighters’ memorial, North Woolwich Road, Silvertown, London E16

Back in Silvertown, there is yet another memorial related to the explosion on the other side of the North Woolwich Road. This is one of a group of three plaques near the current fire station. It reads: “Dedicated to the memory of the firemen and their families killed and injured in the Silvertown explosion 19th January 1917.” An engine from the local fire station had arrived at the Brunner Mond works just prior to the explosion. Two men, Sub Officer Henry Vickers and Fireman Frederick Sell, were killed fighting the fire, and four of their colleagues injured.

The Silvertown explosion was not the only munitions factory accident of the war. Indeed, some of the others had a much greater loss of life. However, it does beggar belief that nobody in authority questioned the wisdom of locating a TNT purification plant in a heavily-populated area like Silvertown.

References:

[1] Western Daily Press, 22 January 1917, p. 5, via British Newspaper Archive

[2] Newcastle Daily Journal, 28 March 1917, via British Newspaper Archive

[3] Christ Church, Oxford, Fallen alumni: Andrea Angel: http://www.chch.ox.ac.uk/fallen-alumni/andrea-angel

[4] Royal Society of Chemistry, 175 Faces of Chemistry: Andrea Angel: http://www.rsc.org/diversity/175-faces/all-faces/andrea-angel

[5] Daily Mirror, 22 January 1917, p. 2, via British Newspaper Archive

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