Ammunition supplies soon began to dwindle in World War I as Britain was unprepared for a long conflict. One of the sites the Ministry of Munitions investigated to produce the various components of ammunition, such as the volatile explosive TNT, was the Brunner Mond chemical works at Crescent Wharf in Silvertown.
The directors at Brunner Mond expressed reservations as their works were situated in a heavily populated area and any accidents that might occur could prove catastrophic. Despite their protestations, the government refused to search for an alternative site and large scale purification of TNT began there in September 1915.
Staff at Brunner Mond were instructed to treat the highly volatile substance with the utmost care, and for the first 14 months work continued with no major mishaps. On the evening of 19th January 1917, however, a fire broke out in the works, causing a cataclysmic explosion of around 50 tonnes of TNT which blew apart the factory and several adjacent streets.
Commercial premises at the Royal Docks had their windows blown out and many Silvertown wharves were consumed by the numerous secondary fires that broke out for miles around as the force of the blast threw burning debris high into the night sky. One of the most spectacular of these was a gasometer in Greenwich, on the opposite side of the river, which erupted into a huge inferno.
Under normal circumstances, an event as terrible as this would have attracted the attention of the national press. Desperate to avoid news of the disaster reaching the enemy, however, the government forced the papers to run a hastily prepared statement that read simply:
“The Ministry of Munitions regrets to announce that an explosion occurred last evening at a munitions factory in the vicinity of London. It is feared that the explosion was attended by considerable loss of life and damage to property.”
Although the events at Silvertown suffered from a news blackout, the local authorities responded effectively to the disaster. The day after the explosion, local councillors visited the devastated site and set up an explosion emergency committee to oversee the clearance of debris, organise temporary housing and provide medical assistance for those injured. The committee also set up a relief office in Canning Town where affected residents could apply for aid and seek compensation, which eventually amounted to a massive £3 million.
The resulting enquiry into the tragedy concluded that while the fire had started by accident, the Ministry of Munitions was at great fault for locating such a dangerous works in a heavily populated area. It also criticised Brunner Mond’s management for not taking greater precautions to protect its workers such as employing a 24-hour security team to watch for fires. To this day no firm explanation has been put forward as to what precisely triggered the events that led to the disaster. What started the fire?
The government chose not to make the inquiry’s damning findings public and the report was kept hidden until the 1950s. Due to the lack of press coverage, the explosion and its aftermath passed quickly from public memory and many residents of Silvertown chose not to speak of the tragedy
The site of Brunner Mond was avoided by developers throughout the following decades and is today a car park for visitors to the Thames flood barrier. £3m in aid was paid to those affected by the blast, equivalent to approximately £40m in 2007, of which £1m was paid to local businesses and factories, including £185,000 to Brunner-Mond.