The Silvertown Explosion hit London’s Royal Docks in the East End of London on January 19 1917. It claimed 73 lives, injured almost 500, destroyed over 900 houses, left up to 70,000 badly damaged, and left thousands of families homeless. This year marks its 100th anniversary.
In this special edition of Forgotten Stories we remember The Silvertown Explosion through the memories of relatives and friends of those who lived and worked around London’s Royal Docks on the fateful day. Many of the stories of what happened that day were passed on to them.
Brunner Mond had established a factory at Crescent Wharf in 1893 to manufacture soda.
Two years into the First World War, the Army was facing a crippling shell shortage. The War Office decided to use the factory’s surplus capacity to purify TNT from 1915 onwards, despite opposition from Brunner Mond and the fact that the factory was in a highly populated area.
Their fears became a reality at 6.52pm on January 19 when a fire in the melt-pot room caused an explosion of 50 tonnes of TNT.
The TNT plant was destroyed instantly, as were many nearby buildings, including Silvertown Fire Station opposite. Much of the TNT was in railway wagons awaiting transport.
Many buildings in the immediate vicinity, including Vanesta’s plywood factory as well as streets of houses were destroyed in what is still regarded as the biggest explosion in the history of London.
Fires raged in the nearby flour mill and on ships in the dock. Silvertown Lubricants Oil, which stood on a site next door, was ravaged. Around 70,000 properties were damaged and the red glow in the sky could be seen for miles around.
The final death toll was put at 73 and those injured numbered 400, but these figures have always been thought to have been an underestimate.
Among the dead was Dr Andreas Angel, an Oxford professor doing voluntary war work as the plant’s chief chemist. He was attempting to help put out the fire when the explosion happened.
West Ham MP Lyn Brown, who grew up in Silvertown, said: “My nan Catherine Oates, who was known as Katie, lost her left arm in the explosion. She was hurt as she was walking down the street when the blast occurred. Her brother was killed in the disaster.
“And a young Esther Wilson – an amazing woman who was the local Brownie leader from Silvertown, lost her sight. She was a teenager at the time. Her sight was damaged and eventually she went blind.
“She went away to learn braille and was still able to run the Brownie group in St Barnabas Church in Silvertown and later St John’s Church in North Wooolwich. She was my Brownie leader and taught generations of local children the correct values in life. She was an amazing woman.”
Esther’s plight was also remembered by Joan Plant, aged 90, who still lives in the house in which she was born in North Woolwich.
“I understand that Esther was blinded when she was being carried along the street by her mother – she was a babe in arms and they were blown up in the air by the force of the blast. She lost her sight a year or two after, but went on to lead a remarkable life,
Joan, was often told about the explosion by her mother Florrie, who was born Florrie Larkins. Her father Fred Plant, was away in India on National Service at the time of the fatal explosion.
At the time, her mother was working ‘over the river’ at Woolwich Arsenal as a lathe operator as part of the First World War effort.
“They often worked late into the night preparing vital items, like shells for the troops.,” said Joan. The complex had two huge solid iron gates.
“Mum told us how these were blown shut by the force of the blast. It was incredible. But as they came home that night the women weren’t allowed to go into that part of Silvertown. Having come through the Woolwich tunnel they were told by police to go straight home and stay indoors.
“There was nothing official about what had happened. Everyone was frightened that the explosion may have been down to the Germans and they were fearful of what might be about to follow in the hours, days and nights ahead.”
It was only as the days passed that the full scale of the disaster became apparent.
Joan revealed that her church, St. Johns in Albert Road, Silvertown, houses a memorial wooden plaque for those who died in the disaster. On a visit to the church, we found it is in remarkable condition, having been made 99 years ago, detailing how St Barnabas Church in Silvertown, was destroyed, but giving thanks to God for saving the lives of all the children who were in the hall when the building collapsed.
Joan said: “Mum would tell us about people who were walking along the road getting blown off their feet and killed or being badly hurt. Because of the German sounding name of the factory, all kinds of rumours began to circulate about who or what was responsible. Anyone with a German sounding name was seen as suspect. Even the chemist Dr Angel was seen as a possible suspect for a time.
“Mum said it was so lucky that the blast had not happened during the day time when the other factories and the school would have been occupied, “ added Joan.
St Barnabas Church and hall were among hundreds of buildings destroyed.
She said rumours were rife that a tall suspicious looking man had been seen acting strangely near the factory, shortly before the blast, there were some reports that he was seen inside the grounds.
“The community never found out what really happened. When the war ended certain stories trickled out but it took 50 years for the truth to be revealed. There were restrictions on what the press could say, just like there was in the Second World War. Mum said the fear that something like it could happen again never really left them.”
Joan saw many changes in the community growing up but it has always been the view of locals that the explosion was “ an accident waiting to happen.”
“Having something like that in our community was ridiculous. And let’s be honest, the lessons were never really learned. Look at what we had on our doorsteps 23 years later in The Blitz. So many factories with inflammable materials were still located in the area.
“And 16 out of those 17 factories running parallel with the Albert Road were bombed. As Silvertown, North Woolwich and Canning Town and Custom House took more bombing than anywhere else in London.”
Back on the fateful night, in every street around Silvertown, groups of people, dazed by what had happened, and many suffering seriously injuries surveyed the ruins of homes and shops. Rescuers used their own clothes to wrap around the injured in the cold night air.
There were many courageous acts that night that have been remembered over the 100 years that have since passed.
Former North Woolwich PC Alan Godfrey worked as the local Home Beat officer for over 30 years until he retired in 1993 and helped many local youngsters with school projects on the explosion with some records that were once stored in the former police station.
Now 78, Mr Godfrey talks with great pride about the heroism of former officers who died in the line of duty.
“Two officers stationed at North Woolwich during the time of the explosion gave their lives. One, Sidney Newbury PC 975K was killed in action at sea 16th September 1918. He was a Royal Marine, who served in the First World War. The other died in the Silvertown Explosion.
“The self sacrifice of PC 389K George Greenoff was incredible. He was on duty outside the factory when the fire broke out. He remained at his post to warn others of the dangers, as the explosion was imminent,” said Alan.
The Police Review of February 1917 added to the story of his heroics.
It revealed: “PC Greenoff got many people out of the burning building and prevented a stampede. Regardless of his own personal danger he devoted himself to duty. In this he was heroically occupied when the terrible explosion occurred.”
Mr Godfrey said: “He was struck on the head by a large missile and died in hospital a few days later. The message from the King sent to his family and colleagues at the time was said to have given those that were left in service the inspiration to carry on and that he did not die in vain. The 30-year-old Pc was posthumously awarded the King’ s Police Medal.”
The Watts Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice in Postman’s Park, Central London, also commemorates, PC Greenoff, who helped to evacuate the factory. When that explosion did happened, the head injuries he suffered proved fatal. He died nine days later.
At the time of his death, PC Greenoff, who lived in Rhea Street, North Woolwich, had an eight-year-old son, Edward, who would later become a police officer himself.
And one day wile serving at North Woolwich nick, Alan got the surprise of his life – and learned so much more about one of the heroes of the Silvertown Explosion. Edward walked into the station as part of a trip see the area again for himself and talked Alan through his father’s life.
“He told me how his father had been in the Navy before the war and at this time, the famous explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott was planning a reconnoitre mission to the South Atlantic to prepare for the mission to the South Pole in 1910-12.
“It was to suss out exactly what they needed and George Greenoff became part of it.
“He received the Bronze Polar Medal for his service, and his son came to tell us about it. He was living in a cold place on the Isle of Sheppey and my wife and I went to visit him. He was looking to sell the medal to raise money to help him survive. I did not have the authority to buy it on behalf of the police, but told him I would get back to him.”
Later Alan found that his son had sold the medal to a museum in New Zealand, where it went on display.
“When Edward Greenoff returned from the South Pole to England and the Navy he was asked, according to his son, what career he was now interested in, and as a result, he was taken on as to serve in the police. The rest, as they say, is history and he became a true local hero.”
This week, we tracked down the original memorial laid to mark the deaths of those who lost their lives. We found it in the middle of the new Royal Wharf development in West Silvertown. It is still in remarkably good condition, with multi-million pounds homes being built around it.
The inquest into his death in the Explosion, revealed that Mr Greenoff had crawled some distance after regaining consciousness. PC Cyril Roberts, who took his friend’s advice and went away to warn others, told the hearing that his heroism and devotion to duty saved his life.
I also tracked down another memorial featuring PC Greenoff, and PC Newbury, which is now at Romford Road, Forest Gate, at Forest Gate Police Station. A new stone was erected to mark the sacrifice of all K division officers killed during the First World War. PC Greenoff, though not killed in War Service, was considered as much a hero for his devotion to duty as those who were drafted and killed in action.
Factory worker George Wenbourne was posthumously awarded the Edward Medal for his efforts in trying to fight the fire, as was Dr Angel.
Firefighter Frederick Sell, 45, of Fort Street, Silvertown, and sub officer Henry Vickers, 49, also of Fort Street, were also killed fighting the fire and other colleagues injured.
The London Gazette recalls: “On January 17, (a very serious incident took place) in Silvertown. West Ham Fire Brigade were summoned and on arriving with their engine were told to save themselves as they could do no good. Nevertheless, though well aware of the danger they began to couple their hose. The explosion took place blowing away their engine. Sub officer Henry Vickers and fireman Frederick Sell were killed and Station Officer Samuel Betts and firemen James Betts, Henry Chapple and James Yabsley were injured.”
The men were awarded King’s medals and other bravery awards and ribbons for their efforts.
Eastside Community Heritage are planning an exhibition of photographs and memories on January 19, with a talk by Graham Hill and will include a moment’s silence in honour of those who lost their lives at the time of the explosion.
This will be at St Luke’s Church in Canning Town. More on their website.
A commemorative event is also being planned at the Royal Wharf Development.