The Silvertown explosion
occurred in Silvertown
in West Ham
(now Greater London
) on Friday, 19 January 1917
at 18.52. The blast occurred at a munitions
factory which was producing explosives
's World War I
military effort. Approximately 50 tons
exploded, killing 73 people and injuring over 400, and also causing substantial damage to buildings and property in the local area. This was possibly the largest single explosion to occur in Britain up to that time, though this is difficult to ascertain as there is not an obvious way to measure the size of past explosions.
The factory was built in 1893 on the south side (River Thames
side) of North Woolwich Road, (nearly opposite Mill Road), Silvertown, London E16, by Brunner Mond
, a forerunner of ICI
, to produce soda crystals
and caustic soda
. Production of caustic soda ceased in 1912, which left part of the factory idle. Two years into the War, the Army was facing a crippling shell shortage
. The War Office
decided to use the surplus manufacturing capacity of the factory to produce TNT. The factory was in a highly populated area, but this was obviously not the prime concern for the military authorities. Despite opposition from Brunner Mond, production of TNT began in September 1915. The method used was invented by Brunner Mond chief scientist F. A. Freeth
, who believed the process to be "manifestly very dangerous". The plant continued to manufacture TNT at a rate of approximately 9 tons
per day until it was destroyed by the explosion.
Another plant, at Gadbrook, was producing TNT at a higher rate than the Silvertown factory, away from populated areas, with more stringent safety standards. The amount of explosives produced at this factory effectively subsumed the Silvertown plant's output, but both were in full production, despite this.
On 19 January
broke out, and efforts to put it out were under way when approximately 50 tons
of TNT ignited at 18.52. The explosive-producing plant was destroyed instantly, as were many nearby buildings, including the Silvertown Fire Station. Much of the TNT was in railway wagons
awaiting transport. Debris was strewn for miles around, with red-hot chunks of rubble causing fires. A gas container was destroyed in Greenwich
, creating a fireball from 200,000 cubic metres
of gas. Several thousand pounds' worth of goods were also destroyed in nearby warehouses
, estimated by the Port of London Authority
to span 7 hectares
Seventy-three people were killed (sixty-nine immediately, and four from their injuries later), and over 400 injured. Up to 70,000 properties were damaged, 900 nearby ones destroyed or unsalvageably damaged; the cost was put at £2.5 million. The comparatively low death toll for such a large blast was due to the time of day. The factories were largely empty of workers, but it was too early for the upper floors of houses (which sustained the worst of the flying debris damage) to be heavily populated. Also, it occurred on a Friday, when fewer people were around the factory. However, several professional firemen and volunteers fighting the earlier fire were killed or seriously injured in the explosion.
Reportedly, the explosion also blew the glass out of windows in the Savoy Hotel and almost overturned a taxi in Pall Mall, London, the fires could be seen in Maidstone and Guildford, and the blast was heard up to 100 miles (160 km) away, including Sandringham in Norfolk and along the Sussex coast. Although the blast was heard at a great distance, it was not heard uniformly across the whole intermediate distance. The explanation is that the sound was transmitted by the wind, which caused the sound waves to be raised into the air, thus they were not audible until they were brought back to ground level. As with the difficulties in measuring the relative size of the explosion, no experimental observations of the "footfall" of the explosion were possible, but contemporary anecdotal evidence suggests that the sound was more audible and travelled further in the downwind direction.
The emergency services immediately became involved in putting out the fires caused by the explosion, treating the wounded, and beginning to repair the damage caused. First-aid stations were set up in the streets to treat minor injuries. A Salvation Army
rescue team was sent into the area under Catherine Bramwell-Booth
. Thousands were left without a home, requiring temporary accommodation in schools, churches, and other similar places. 1,700 men were employed in the reconstruction task by February. £3m in aid was paid to those affected by the blast, equivalent to approximately £40m in 2007.
The Ministry of Munitions announced the explosion in the following day's newspaper, and ordered an investigation led by Sir Ernley Blackwell, published on 24 February 1917. A definite single cause of the explosion was not found, discounting early theories such as a German sabotage or air-raid, but did find that the factory's site was inappropriate for the manufacture of TNT. Management and safety practices at the plant were also criticised. The report was not revealed to the public until the 1950s. Other newspapers, including the New York Times, also reported on the explosion.
The Silvertown explosion was not the only British munitions plant disaster of World War I: The National Shell Filling Factory, Chilwell, in Nottingham, exploded on 1 July 1918, killing 134 and injuring 250.
The former TNT factory's grounds are, as of 2007, empty, not having been built upon since the explosion. The other part of the factory remained open after being repaired, until finally closing in 1961. This is also idle, as of 2007. A triple World War I, World War II and Silvertown Explosion memorial was built in Silvertown, on North Woolwich Road, inside the entrance to the factory location.
The Silvertown Explosion is dramatised in the LWT series, Upstairs, Downstairs
(Series 4, Episode 9, "Another Year"). Scullery maid
Ruby Finch had left her employer, the Bellamy family at 165 Eaton Place, to work in a munitions factory for the war-effort. The explosion is not only heard at the home of her former employer in southwest London, but it literally rocks the house. The residents can see a great fire in the distance, "down the river somewhere." Ruby makes her way back to the house and relates her account of being in the factory when the explosion occurred. She is in tremendous shock, and her face is covered in a sulfurous yellow residue.
In Pat Mills's comic-strip Charley's War the hero, Charley Bourne, is wounded on the Somme and returns home to Silvertown to be confronted by the aftermath of the explosion. Several subsequent strips depict a Zeppelin raid on the munitions factories in the area, and deal with the residents' fears of a repeat of the disaster.
- Sainsbury, Frank (1977). "Largest Wartime Explosions: Silvertown, London, January, 19, 1917". After The Battle, 18, Pp 30 - 34. ISSN 0306-154X.
- Hill, Graham and Bloch, Howard (2003). The Silvertown Explosion: London 1917. Stroud: Tempus Publishing. ISBN 0-7524-3053-X.