Ninety-five years ago today, East London was rocked by the biggest explosion the city has ever seen.
Those who happened to be facing in the right direction saw a huge fountain of flame, crowned by a myriad of sparks, shoot up to a great height; and this awe-inspiring spectacle was immediately followed by a sharp crack and roar and a general vibration that made everything tremble
That was the account of the West Ham and South Essex Mail. The people who saw, heard or felt the explosion could only speculate about what had just happened – was it an air raid, sabotage by spies, or a terrible accident? Just before 7pm that evening (19 January 1917), Georgina Lee in central London wrote an entry in the diary she kept for her infant son:
I am still shaking from the shock of a terrible concussion and distant roar which occurred ten minutes ago. It seemed to me as if our roof were giving way, but it was only one explosion, over in a few seconds, so it can’t be a Zeppelin blowing up munitions works. Daddy went out into the street and spoke to two ladies who said that the whole sky was lit up like a red sunset and then came the roar. …It may be a big gasometer blown up. It sounded more like that than a munitions factory.
It was a munitions factory, the explosion at 6.40 of the Brunner, Mond & Co factory at Crescent Wharf, Silvertown. The explosion was heard from as far away as Cambridge. Oddly the sound did not carry into Essex, but from the middle of the county people could see a light shooting into the sky. A young woman in Brockley, SE, wrote to her parents that it felt as if every house was going to collapse – and it brought the soot down the chimney.
Initial rumours suggested up to 1,000 killed or injured. In the end a combination of a relatively few being on that afternoon’s shift and a quick response meant that under 100 were killed and only a few hundred more injured. Several factories were destroyed along with three rows of houses. The Newham Story website has a record of those killed: 69 at the time and four later. Ninety-eight more were seriously injured and 328 slightly injured.
Among the dead were four of the children of Leonard Patrick and his wife Ada Jeanie Patrick. They had married in 1906 and by 1917 had five children: Percy William Leonard (b 1907), Cyril John (b 1909), Ruby Lilian (b 1911), Rosa (b 1913), and Royden (b 1915). Of the children, only Cyril survived the Silvertown blast, although both parents seem to have survived.
The newspapers reported the surprisingly low casualty rates accurately within days of the explosion (although without stating exactly where it had happened), but this didn’t stop the rumour-mill suggesting much higher figures even when the real number was announced. It was not the largest munitions explosion of the war, or the worst industrial accident, but it certainly left an impression on the Londonders who saw, heard and felt it.
There is now a memorial marking the site of the factory.
Georgina Lee – Home Fires Burning
Andrew Clark’s diaries: Mary Arnold’s letter reported Clark, 25/1/17; conversations recorded 20-2871/17
Exploring 20th Century London’s Silvertown page