One of worst disasters of the First World War in the country happened at Silvertown in West Ham in the East End of London. This was not down to bombing raids or action by the Germans, but was as the result of a simple accident.
The Silvertown Explosion at West Ham.
This happened in 1917 when TNT in a munitions factory owned by Brunner-Mond caught fire and exploded. This killed over 70 people and injured over 400. It also caused massive damage to properties in the area around the factory.
Silvertown and manufacturing history
At the time, London set controls on where certain “noxious” industries could be housed. The city did not want dangerous manufacturing or processing to take place in certain areas.
Silvertown was outside of the main central area that banned these factories and processes, and it therefore became a popular manufacturing location in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Local factories were set up to deal with often very dangerous products and their workers lived close to their places of work.
Purifying TNT in the East End
Although the factory at Silvertown had been established since the 1890s, its original purpose was the manufacture of caustic soda and soda crystals.
By the time the First World started, the factory was not running at full capacity as it had stopped producing caustic soda.
This made it an ideal location, on paper at least, as a munitions plant for the War Office.
By the time we were halfway through the war, we had a great shortage of shells and the War Office needed to find plants that could become part of the war effort. Due to its free capacity, the War Office decided to use Silvertown. But, although the factory had the space to work on munitions, it was in the heart of the East End in a very populated area.
This made converting it quite dangerous, as was proved when the accident happened. At that point, however, the War Office decided that it was worth the risk.
The War Office decided to use Silvertown to purify TNT. Manufacturing TNT is dangerous enough; purifying it is highly dangerous. Nevertheless, by 1915, Silvertown was purifying around nine tonnes of TNT every day.
The Silvertown Explosion
There weren’t any initial problems at Silvertown until 1917. On the 19th January, however, a fire broke out in the factory and, before workers and firefighters could extinguish it, it reached stores of TNT, which then ignited. It is estimated that over 50 tonnes of TNT caused the blast. The factory was completely destroyed and there was widespread damage to other local buildings. These included the local fire station.
It is estimated that around 900 local properties were instantly destroyed or damaged so badly that they could not be repaired and needed to be demolished. Over 60,000 local properties sustained some damage with millions of windows shattering in the surrounding areas.
An investigation into the blast after it happened did not find a single cause for the explosion, although many people had worried that it had been down to sabotage or a German bomb. The investigation did find that the TNT had not necessarily been stored safely enough. It also finally drew the conclusion that it had not been safe to purify TNT in such as highly populated area, but, by then, it was too late.
Relatively low loss of life
Although over 70 people died and hundreds were injured as a result of the explosion, things could have been much worse. The blast happened in the early evening so the factory did not have that many workers left in it. People living or working in local buildings were also not at work or at home in any great numbers. Unfortunately, some of those who died were local firemen who had been sent to help deal with the initial fire that caused the explosion.
Despite the relatively low numbers of deaths, the Silvertown explosion had a significant effect on the local East End population for a long time afterwards. Thousands of people were left without homes. The rebuilding effort took over 1,000 men and was a long job. They had to build over 400 new homes, repair hundreds of others and re-slate countless more.
A blast loud enough to be heard in Norfolk
We can get an idea of how huge the explosion was at Silvertown by looking at how widespread its effects were. The blast was loud enough to be heard in Sandringham in Norfolk and there were reports of people hearing it on the Sussex Coast. The fire itself could be seen from parts of Surrey.
All over London, electric lights flickered and windows smashed as the explosion happened. Although so many Londoners and people close to London could not fail to notice that something had happened, the press did not report on the disaster for a full three days.