“Suddenly there was a deafening roar”: 100 years on from London’s biggest explosion

View of A, B, C and D silos, Royal Victoria Dock following the explosion. Image © Museum of London / PLA Collection.

It was the most destructive explosion ever to blast London. A century ago, Silvertown, a small community in east London, was devastated by an explosion at a TNT factory so big that is was heard in north Norfolk and Cambridgeshire. Entire streets were destroyed, 73 people were killed and hundreds were injured. As World War I raged across the Channel, it was a terrible echo of the horrors taking place on the continent.

The following vivid account was published soon after the disaster (in a leaflet raising money for a church that was almost entirely destroyed by the explosion):

A few minutes before seven, on the evening of January 19, 1917, people who happened to be out of doors in London noticed a vivid red glow in the sky in an easterly direction... [in Silvertown] many of the people were standing at the doors watching the fire that had broken out, and not realising the terrible danger they were in.

And it really was terrible danger. The fire that had appeared as a vivid glow was just the preamble to a much more destructive tragedy, as the blaze ignited a huge stockpile of TNT, destined for munitions on the Western Front.

Suddenly there was a deafening roar, a fountain of flaming debris was projected high into the air and this spread out like a fiery rose, dropping death and destruction over the whole district. The force of the explosion sent pieces of machinery, some weighing several tons, flying through the air with the result that cottages and factory buildings that were not wrecked by the concussion, were crushed and battered by the hail of fragments that came raining down upon them.

Several streets of houses were converted into heaps of rubble in a second. Those that escaped total destruction remained as mere skeletons among the wreckage.

Worse still, the blast ignited a chain reaction, causing fires that swept through a neighbourhood that soon emerged dazed from the rubble to be confronted by the tragedy’s terrible human cost.

General view of sheds, Royal Victoria Dock, after the blast. Image: © Museum of London/PLA Collection.

The scene immediately after the explosion beggared description. The burning debris had started fires in many of the factories and mills nearby, which became roaring furnaces as the night progressed. In all directions, people who had escaped serious injury were picking themselves up in a dazed condition. Mothers were frantically looking about for their little ones, many of whom were buried in the ruins, while on the pavements were the bodies of the pedestrians who had been struck as they were walking along.

As a spectacle, England will probably never see its equal. In all directions, great buildings were blazing, fire engines and ambulances were dashing up from all parts of London, hundreds of volunteers were at work rescuing the injured and searching the ruins for bodies. Homeless people were wandering off to neighbouring districts where every available hall had been thrown open to give them shelter.

England’s horror

The (anonymous) author likened the scene to ruined villages along the firing line of the Western Front, as well they might, as the cause was exactly the same high explosive used in the shells that destroyed dozens of French villages. Some very moving accounts of bravery and suffering have been gathered recently. Photographs of the torn girders among the rubble of ruined factories and houses in Silvertown might remind later generations of Ground Zero following the 9/11 attacks in New York, or perhaps a current scene of destruction in Aleppo, Syria.

So why was TNT being purified for shell-making in a highly populated area, surrounded by factories processing combustible paint, oil, wood and sugar, when the danger of explosives factories was so well known?

Compared to gunpowder, trinitrotoluene (TNT) is relatively stable and only becomes explosive when put under great pressure or heat. In 1910, it was even exempted from the 1875 Explosives Act, which would have applied a host of planning and safety regulations on its manufacture.

The government was also doing whatever it could to provide high explosives for the huge guns on the Western Front. A shortage of ammunition led to the “shell scandal” of 1915 which brought down the government and a successful campaign by David Lloyd George for a national munitions policy. The result was a coalition government with Lloyd George as minister of munitions, and a huge demand for existing factories to be quickly converted to munitions production.

An explosive issue

The Brunner Mond Factory in Silvertown had been built in 1893 to produce caustic soda. Production had stopped in 1912 which meant a fully equipped chemical plant lay idle. When approached by Lord Moulton who headed the Explosives Supply Department, Brunner Mond & Co agreed to convert it to TNT purification, despite the fact that 3,000 people lived nearby.

An improvised surgery in the vestry of Barking Road Wesleyan Methodist Church. Image: © Newham Archives and Local Studies Library.

A subsequent account published by Brunner Mond in 1923 claimed this permission was reluctantly given:

The company strongly expressed their reluctance to carry out such a dangerous manufacture in a densely populated district; but the urgency was so great they eventually consented.

Lord Moulton was well aware of the danger to civilians, but later explained that the Brunner Mond works were effectively requisitioned because “we could see no other way of obtaining purifying works within the time that they were necessary”.

General view of damage from silo granary Royal Victoria Dock. Image: © Museum of London / PLA Collection.

If the war effort was mainly to blame for the location of the TNT plant, what actually caused the terrible explosion? To help answer this we now have access to the detailed government report, kept secret until 1957, into the likely cause of the disaster which took evidence from 36 experts and witnesses immediately after the disaster.

By this time, the danger of TNT explosion in the purifying process was well known – the inquiry report lists 29 previous fires or cases of accidental TNT detonation. In 1915, a big TNT explosion occurred at the crystallising plant at Ardeer, Scotland causing one death and several injuries. A committee looked into the causes and recommended that TNT should no longer be exempt from the 1875 Explosives Act, but this was ignored by the government. Had they taken this advice, perhaps the Silvertown explosion may never have happened.

On the night of the Silvertown explosion there was a fire on the upper levels of the building, where the TNT was melted in a pot as part of the purification process. Four or five minutes later, the TNT in the melting pot exploded, along with more TNT stored on the site – 53 tons in total. The two workers near the melting pot died in the explosion which meant that it was impossible for the inquiry to discover exactly how the fire started.

Alien enemies?

At the time, many Londoners thought it was the result of a Zeppelin raid, but there were no sightings anywhere in the country that night (there had not been an air raid for months). Another common explanation was arson by a German spy, and the inquiry looked into this carefully. They found adequate security and no “alien enemies” working there. A 57-year-old German man worked at Brunner Mond, but not in the TNT plant. He also had been living in England since he was ten, had an English wife and 12 children, three of whom were serving in the British Army. Moreover, he had left at 6pm that day and was considered beyond suspicion. However, the inquiry did identify a major security issue that may have been exploited by an enemy.

Tragedy: a memorial to the fallen. Image: Gordon Joly via Flickr/creative commons.

Raw TNT came to Silvertown from a factory in Huddersfield and took several weeks to arrive via rail, barge and lorry. The inquiry found that barrels and kegs of TNT often arrived broken, and the contents were not checked before melting. The inquiry reported that it would have been quite easy for an enemy agent to add a chemical, like a freely available stick of caustic soda coated in varnish, into a barrel along the route. As caustic soda can ignite molten TNT as temperatures as low as 82C, it could easily cause a fire in the melting pot. No evidence or accounts of sabotage have emerged in the German records, but it remains a possibility.

A more prosaic, and I think more likely cause, identified by the inquiry was a detonation spark caused by friction or impact. A government safety inspection, just three weeks before the explosion, revealed some unsafe practices. TNT was left on the floor around a hopper and if degraded, it could have been ignited by a boot nail, grit or something metal. There were no regulations to prevent grit on the floor and, astonishingly, metal tools (which could easily create sparks) were found in the TNT building.

Another possibility was a fire caused by alkali left over from the caustic soda making years before, but we will probably never know exactly what caused the fire that night. There is no doubt, however, that the resulting explosion had huge consequences.

A terrible legacy

The hardest hit were the families and friends of the 73 victims, who ranged in age from four-months-old to 76 years. Hundreds more had to cope with injuries. Six hundred families were made homeless and an estimated 70,000 properties were damaged in some way. The government paid compensation to the victims and repaired remaining houses in Silvertown (the patched up Victorian terraces can still be seen today).

The fire station opposite was blown away along with two incredibly brave firemen who ran to put out the fire, knowing full well it was an explosives factory (a memorial can still be found at the new fire station). There is also a memorial to the workers who died in the explosion on the site of the factory.

The inquiry recommended that security of TNT should be improved and it should be stored in magazines away from processing plants. It also called for the inspection system to be strengthened and that TNT should be regulated as an explosive under the 1875 Explosives Act.

But it took another explosion at a TNT factory, which killed more than 40 people at Hooley Hill in Manchester, for action finally to be taken on the report findings. The Special Service Branch of the War Office was put in charge of munitions factories to improve security and in August the Ministry of Munitions finally classed TNT as an explosive under the Explosives Act. All future factories would require a licence following rigorous safety checks and procedures.

We may roll our eyes at “health and safety” these days but anniversaries like this remind us that some of the industrial and workplace regulations we inherit are based on lessons learned the hard way, and paid for with people’s lives.

The Museum of London will be releasing a digitised photo album of the 24 images of the explosion damage taken by John H Avery for the Port of London Authority. Newham Archives and Local Studies Library holds archives on the disaster and has organised a touring exhibition in Newham.The Conversation

Toby Butler is reader and programme leader in MA Heritage Studies at the University of East London.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Is Britain’s housing crisis a myth?

Council housing in Lambeth, south London. Image: Getty.

I’ve been banging on about the need for Britain to build more houses for so long that I can no longer remember how or when it started. But at some point over the last few years, the need to build more homes has become My Thing. People ask me to speak at housing events, or @ me into arguments they’re having on Twitter on a Sunday morning in the hope I’ll help them out. You can even buy a me-inspired “Build More Bloody Houses” t-shirt.

It’s thus with trepidation about the damage I’m about to do to my #personal #brand that I ask:

Does Britain actually have enough houses? Is it possible I’ve been wrong all this time?

This question has been niggling away at me for some time. As far back as 2015, certain right-wing economists were publishing blogs claiming that the housing crisis was actually a myth. Generally the people who wrote those have taken similarly reality-resistant positions on all sorts of other things, so I wasn’t too worried.

But then, similar arguments started to appear from more credible sources. And today, the Financial Times published an excellent essay on the subject under the headline: “Hammond’s housebuilding budget fix will not repair market”.

All these articles draw on the data to make similar arguments: that the number of new homes built has consistently been larger than the number of new households; that focusing on new home numbers alone is misleading, and we should look at net supply; and that the real villain of the piece is the financialisation of housing, in which the old and rich have poured capital into housing for investment reasons, thus bidding up prices.

In other words, the data seems to suggest we don’t need to build vast numbers of houses at all. Have I been living a lie?

Well, the people who’ve been making this argument are by and large very clever economists trawling through the data, whereas I, by contrast, am a jumped-up internet troll with a blog. And I’m not dismissing the argument that the housing crisis is not entirely about supply of homes, but also about supply of money: it feels pretty clear to me that financialisation is a big factor in getting us into this mess.

Nonetheless, for three reasons, I stand by my belief that there is housing crisis, that it is in large part one of supply, and consequently that building more houses is still a big part of the solution.

Firstly I’m not sold on some of the data – or rather, on the interpretation of it. “There is no housing crisis!” takes tend to go big on household formation figures, and the fact they’ve consistently run behind dwelling numbers. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? By definition you can’t form a household if you don’t have a house.

So “a household” is not a useful measure. It doesn’t tell you if everyone can afford their own space, or whether they are being forced to bunk up with friends or family. In the latter situation, there is still a housing crisis, whatever the household formation figures say. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that’s the one we’re living in.

In the same way I’m not quite convinced that average rents is a useful number. Sure, it’s reassuring – and surprising – to know they have grown slower than general prices (although not in London). But all that figure tells you is the price being paid: it doesn’t tell you what is being purchased for that payment. A world in which renters each have their own property may have higher rents than one in which everyone gets one room in an over-crowded shared flat. It’s still the latter which better fits the label “housing crisis”.

Secondly, I’m entirely prepared to believe we’ve been building enough homes in this country to meet housing demand in the aggregate: there are parts of the country where housing is still strikingly affordable.

But that’s no use, because we don’t live in an aggregate UK: we live and work in specific places. Housing demand from one city can be met by building in another, because commuting is a thing – but that’s not always great for quality of life, and more to the point there are limits on how far we can realistically take it. It’s little comfort that Barnsley is building more than enough homes, when the shortage is most acute in Oxford.

So: perhaps there is no national housing crisis. That doesn’t mean there is not a housing crisis, in the sense that large numbers of people cannot access affordable housing in a place convenient for their place of work. National targets are not always helpful.

Thirdly, at risk of going all “anecdote trumps data”, the argument that there is no housing crisis – that, even if young people are priced out of buying by low interest rates, we have enough homes, and rents are reasonable – just doesn’t seem to fit with the lived experience reported by basically every millennial I’ve ever met. Witness the gentrification of previously unfashionable areas, or the gradual takeover of council estates by private renters in their 20s. 

A growing share of the population aren’t just whining about being priced out of ownership: they actively feel that housing costs are crushing them. Perhaps that’s because rents have risen relative to wages; perhaps it’s because there’s something that the data isn’t capturing. But either way, that, to me, sounds like a housing crisis.

To come back to our original question – will building more houses make this better?

Well, it depends where. National targets met by building vast numbers of homes in cities that don’t need them probably won’t make a dent in the places where the crisis is felt. But I still struggle to see how building more homes in, say, Oxford wouldn’t improve the lot of those at the sharp end there: either bringing rents down, or meaning you get more for your money.

There is a housing crisis. It is not a myth. Building more houses may not be sufficient to solve it – but that doesn’t meant it isn’t necessary.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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