On 19 January 1917 at 6.52 pm, a catastrophic explosion at the Brunner Mond and Company’s high explosive TNT factory in Silvertown, East London, killed 73 people and injured hundreds.
Most were local residents, including children and babies.
The force of the explosion was tremendous. Streets of houses were flattened. Across the river from Silvertown, on the Greenwich Peninsula at a gas works, now the site of the O2 Arena, one of the gas holders exploded.
Up to 70,000 properties in the wider area were damaged. The blast and its shock waves were heard and felt all over the city, and as far away as Salisbury in Wiltshire and King’s Lynn in Norfolk. The sky was lit up with a red glow visible for miles.
At the time, the Silvertown disaster was the largest explosion ever to have taken place in the United Kingdom.
The devastating explosion was one of the most notorious accidents of the First World War and illustrated the folly of hastily adapting unsuitable premises for TNT production in a densely populated area.
In France and Belgium, as the Western Front stagnated into trench warfare, there was a desperate need for huge numbers of TNT-filled high explosive shells.
By spring 1915 the so-called ‘Shell Scandal’ (too few being produced and many failing to explode) led to the creation of the Ministry of Munitions. Before new, purpose-built factories could be designed, there was an urgent need to identify existing premises that could be quickly converted to manufacture TNT.
The Brunner Mond and Company chemical works in Silvertown, East London was one such factory. The management reluctantly agreed. But the plant was only 200 yards from rows of workers’ cottages and near riverside wharves containing other highly combustible materials such as oil, varnish and chemicals. Their chief chemist in 1917 predicted the tragedy. He was later quoted as saying: ‘…it was manifestly very dangerous…the plant would go up sooner or later…we were told (by the Ministry of Munitions) it was worth the risk to get the TNT.’
Slide show images of St Barnabas’ Parish Hall and firemen’s homes courtesy Newham Archives & Local Studies Library.
Fireman J.J. Betts, based at Silvertown Fire Station, who rushed to the disaster, recalled:
‘It was as though heaven had giddily plunged to meet the earth in a shattering upheaval…I was lying on my back…200 feet from the spot where I and other firemen had been fixing the hose…Around me was a vast plain of rubble. The factory had gone. There were fearful sounds in the air, the screams of injured women and children, the groans of those imprisoned under the debris…parts of our fire-engine were found a quarter of a mile away…Enormous boilers were hurled in the air and landed several streets away…’
The fire station itself was destroyed, as were firemen’s houses.
Local constable PC Greenoff saved many lives by getting as many people as possible out of the burning area, warning them that an explosion was imminent. He stayed at his post but was caught up in the blast and died from his injuries. An enormous crowd attended his funeral and King George V sent his sympathies.
Slide show images of surgery & feeding the homeless courtesy Newham Archives & Local Studies Library.
Hundreds of people were made homeless and destitute by the explosion, requiring temporary accommodation in schools, churches, and other similar institutions. 1,700 men were quickly employed on reconstruction.
A government report into the accident did not rule out sabotage – it was widely thought at the time that enemy agents were to blame – but concluded that it was likely a spark started a fire which ignited the 53 tons of TNT. Brunner Mond and Company was criticised for negligence and unsafe practices. Press coverage of the explosion was subject to wartime censorship, neither the name of the factory nor its location, or any local buildings were named for fear of alerting the enemy. The report remained secret until the 1950s.
This memorial to the 73 victims of the explosion was re-sited in 2016 to a new public park created on the site of the former Brunner Mond and Company factory and within the modern Royal Wharf Silvertown development.
- The Silvertown Explosion: London 1917 (The History Press). By Graham Hill & Howard Bloc 2003. Reprinted 2017.
- First World War Centenary: The Home Front Legacy – explore more information and photo galleries about the impact of the First World War on England.