(c) Museum of London
I recently contacted by the Museum of Docklands who are making available some photographs that illustrated some of the aftermath of the Silvertown Explosion of January 19th 1917. Knowing little about the disaster, I decided to undertake some research and came across the following newspaper report from 1935 which includes a harrowing eye-witness account of the disaster by Fireman James Betts who was awarded the King’s Medal for bravery.
The Story of the Silvertown Explosion
Eighteen years ago to-day London had a narrow escape from being blown sky-high when the Silvertown explosion occurred.
Ex-Fireman James Joseph Betts, a survivor, who was awarded the King’s Medal for bravery, described in the London “Sunday Express” the following story of what happened on that terrible evening.
It was ten minutes to seven; a chilly, starry night on January 19th 1917. The war had dragged on for two and a half years. I was on night duty with a number of others of the brigade at Silvertown Fire Station in Poplar.
On every side loomed the black shapes of factories. Behind screened, windows — for every precaution was taken in those days of air raids, and not a light showed — vast armies of war workers were engaged on their various tasks of turning out munitions, food, and clothing for the troops. Opposite the fire station was the munitions factory of Messrs. Brunner Mond, Limited. Behind it the flour mills of W. Vernon and Sons. A little to the east were the oil refineries of Silvertown Lubricants, Limited, and the saw-mill and creosote works of Messrs. Burt, Boulton and Haywood. To the west stretched the sugar factory of Messrs Lyle, Limited.
Nearly 5,000 workers were there in all — hundreds of them women and girls who were “doing their bit” in the absence at the front of husbands, fathers, sons and sweethearts. Perhaps the most important of these factories was that of Messrs. Brunner Mond, for it was here that, night and day, the ceaseless task of manufacturing shells and armaments was taking place. The hourly cry from the front was “More munitions.”
Not the least important branch of this vital work of munitions making was carried out in the chemical laboratories which lay a little away from the main works. These were the “danger” buildings, where high explosives were manufactured. From all sides came the din of racing machinery, the mournful treble whine of sawmills, and the rattle of cranes as the barges lying in the adjacent Thames were loaded. Pedestrians hurried past the fire station to and from their work, for it was about the hour when shifts were changed. Children carrying baskets of provisions and enamel tea-cans containing the evening meals of parents working overtime, hastened on their way. There was in the air the electrical tension brought about by high-speed production in an urgent cause.
General view of “A”, “B”, “C” “D” silos, Royal Victoria Dock
John H Avery © PLA Collection / Museum of London
Suddenly, without warning, a bright orange tongue of flame shot up from the very heart of the Brunner Mond works high into the air, all the more vivid on account of the enveloping blackness of the night. Into the station rushed one of the men. “Brunner Mond’s is alight!” he shouted. None knew better than we the terrible implications conveyed by that brief warning. For, once those rising flames reached the danger, buildings, there was little hope for the lives and property in the vicinity.
There was, too, a further danger, for besides the vast quantity of T.N.T. contained in the “danger” building there lay on the permanent way that ran close to the building four railway trucks containing enough of the deadly stuff to” blow up half London.
Within a few seconds fire alarms rang through the station, and our chief immediately rapped out orders.
We rushed to get out the escape and the pump. There was not a second to lose if we were to quell the fire and avert an explosion. But I felt it was such a forlorn hope that I yelled to my wife who, with our twelve-year-old son, lived in the quarters behind the station. Get out of it, Polly, for God’s sake. We’re all going up in a minute!”
The next second we were tearing across the road into Brunner Mond’s yard. Outside the fire station people stood transfixed as though fascinated by that now fiercely burning building across the way. Others were fleeing helter-skelter anyhow, anywhere from that flaring presage of imminent danger, yelling warnings as they went. Some lay flat, on their, faces on the pavement, some prayed against the walls of the street.
As we entered the factory gates we were met by the flying figure of the timekeeper, a burly Scotsman. “Run for it, mate, we’ll be gone in a minute,” he yelled to me as he almost staggered past, hatless, distraught, his face distorted by a terrible fear.
They were his last words. Then it was as though heaven and gravity plunged to meet the earth in a shattering upheaval. In one second the whole world seemed to have crumbled. It might have been seconds, minutes, hours before I next remembered. I was lying on my back on a piece of waste ground 200 feet from the spot where I and other firemen had been fixing the hose ready to play on the flames.
45 feet girder near silo loading shed, Royal Victoria Dock
John H Avery © PLA Collection / Museum of London
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 debris, the rattle of rafters and girders being feverishly overturned by rescuers who had rushed to the shattered area, the shrill resonance of ambulance bells, the imperious clang of fire alarms, the roar of flames. On every side great fires were blazing.
In all nine factories and mills had caught alight, ignited by red-hot iron girders, flung sky-high by the explosion, falling in their midst. Something of tire terrific force of the explosion can be imagined when I tell you that parts of our fire-engine were found a quarter of a mile away, smashed and twisted beyond recognition.
Enormous boilers were hurled into the air and landed several streets away. Houses we’re left with cracking walls, windows gone, doors blown in, and roofs with gaping holes. In places which received the full force of the explosion it was as though a giant pestle had descended from the heavens and pounded them to powder.
Every building in London was shaken. Half a million windows in shops and houses across the river a mile away at Charlton and South Woolwich were broken. The explosion was heard in districts as far apart as Salisbury and King’s Lynn. Meanwhile the surrounding factories burned fiercely, and the task of rescuing workers in their blazing depths began.
Every available fire-engine and escape from all parts of London converged on Silvertown. It was a grim and awe-inspiring scene.- For , three or four hours after the explosion the whole of London was lit by the flames.
The fire area itself was an astonishing spectacle. Imagine an arc of towering, flat-faced factories, with row upon row of windows. At that moment they were as if they had been filled with burning coal. Every window opening glared like an iron furnace when the doors are opened.
Through long cracks in the walls long flames waved out like fiery serpents. Now a great fragment of iron — it looked as large as a cottage roof — would slide down the sides of the glowing pile. Towards the river another great factory blazed fiercely. Its windows appeared like a series of white-hot ingots. To the right the widespread frame of a row of timber sheds resembled a great main line railway station afire. The scene seemed unreal.
There were these towering bonfires of light spread out across the black landscape, and as their flames leaped up to the sky they threw into relief the broken shells of rows of houses — streets without windows and, what was more, without inhabitants. Some were dead — no one knew yet how many. The rest were gone — anywhere away from that scene of death and destruction.
High overhead poured vast clouds of smoke. Beneath them from the flour mills, where several hundred girls had been at work, came flying showers of millions of tiny particles of light as though a sweeping storm of sleet had become incandescent. No doubt these tiny specks were the glowing ashes of a myriad grains of wheat carried up into the sky by the waves of flame. It was like a golden rainstorm.
The firemen and their apparatus were almost helpless against conflagrations of such number and magnitude.. For days afterwards the heaps of debris in the midst of the mere shells of these mills and factories that remained were smouldering. Weeks afterwards when the task of clearing .away the wreckage began,the workers. came across red-hot embers deep down among the piles of debris.
While the great battle against the fires, was being waged. By firemen, a large arm of helpers was helping to extricate the dead, and injured from the wreckage of their homes.
The heaps of ruins which had been houses were slowly explored. It was like scraping and scratching among great rubbish heaps. Sometimes a distracted mother in search of a missing child would push herself to the forefront of a group of searchers and herself claw at the pile of rubble in a frenzy of apprehension until her fingers bled.
Such scenes were frequent. One of the bodies dug out of the wreckage was that of a young clerk engaged in a large sugar refinery, one of the factories set ablaze. This youth had run from the factory to the manager’s house close by to warn him of the fire. As he was knocking at the door the explosion occurred, and the wall of the house collapsed and buried him.
One woman was putting her babies to bed when the explosion occurred. She rushed out with them, and in her terror ran on and on till she was taken in by some kindly people, at whose house she stayed. A number became mentally unhinged by the shock. One lad’s blood turned to water. He died six months later. My wife was rendered stone deaf: One encountered at every turn stories of simple heroism and human fortitude in the face of this terrible calamity..
There were tales of rescues by those who themselves were seriously injured. One man dragged four badly injured young children from the wreckage of a demolished house, and it was not until afterwards, when he suddenly sank into unconsciousness, that those around realised that he had himself lost a foot. .
There was one brave girl, Norah Griffiths, who helped to hold up a roof that would otherwise have fallen and crushed to death a number of young children attending a Band of Hope meeting at a local mission hall.
People divested themselves of their outer garments, despite the bitterly cold weather, in order to wrap up the shivering forms of homeless children, scores of whom had been separated from their parents in the darkness and confusion.
In every street stood groups of stranded people, gazing ruefully at what once had been their homes. In many cases the roofs and the bed rooms had just disappeared. Only parts of the walls of the downstairs were now left. These rooms were no longer rooms. They had no ceilings. Their fronts had vanished.
One of the most immediate and pressing problems was the housing of the homeless. The Salvation Army did wonderful work. It established buildings and provided food and hot drinks. A nearby chapel was hastily converted into a creche, and hundreds of children were found shelter. Some of the victims sought refuge further afield, at the house of relatives and charitable institutions.
With the coming of dawn there were still hundreds of homeless ones, weary and pale-faced, trudging the dismal streets. The entire district was cut off by a military guard and police forces. And through this cordon passed streams of refugees from the stricken area in search of food and sleep. Some clutched the glass vases which had adorned their mantelpieces, for in many cases it seemed to have been the most fragile articles that had escaped injury. Others carried clothes baskets filled with personal trifles salved from the ruins of their homes. Everyone seemed to bear a load of some sort — trunks, sacks, bundles, even treasures hastily wrapped in sheets and blankets. Some wheeled perambulators loaded with household goods.
And hundreds who had fled from the place as soon as they had overcome the great, shocks of the explosion begged a night’s lodging a few miles away tramped back to see what they could salvage from the wreckage of their former homes.
How little the world at large knew of this and a score of other similar war-time disasters, involving loss of life and injury among the civilian population! Seventy-four lives had been lost, nearly a thousand maimed and injured. The place which had been a munitions works was a waste of black desolation. Nearly a dozen factories and mills had been destroyed.
Thousands of houses were wiped out. Hundreds of people were rendered homeless. The damage amounted to £1,212,661. There were third-party claims running into several million pounds sterling. A dozen people living in the immediate vicinity of the explosion were never seen again. This terrible story of death and destruction was told to the world in the following prosaic announcement which appeared in the daily newspapers.
“The Ministry of Munitions regret to announce that an explosion occurred this evening at a munitions factory in the neighbourhood of London. It is feared that the explosion was attended by considerable loss of life and damage to property.
The official line of the authorities was to suppress much of the information about the disaster. There were rumours that the explosion was due to sabotage by enemy agents and the government did not want to give any credit to the Germans. This media blackout led to a number of theories about what had happened, it was not until the 1950s that information came to light that suggested that a small fire had set off the explosives to devastating effect. The 1950s report also criticised the authorities for allowing munitions to be manufactured in a dense residential area. For much of the 20th century, the disaster was written out of history and therefore we can hope that the centenary of the event raises awareness of the people who died and suffered in one of London’s worst explosions.
If you would like to see the available photographs at the Museum of London Docklands, visit the website here