This is not a story of speed, distance or endurance but it is remarkable to think that, until as late as last year, a site of around 30 acres had lain dormant in the heart of east London, sitting on the northern bank of the River Thames, for the better part of a century. This was once the site of the Brunner Mond chemical factory in Silvertown, which opened in 1893 for the production of soda crystals and caustic soda but largely closed down in 1912.
The pressing need for munitions during World War 1 saw much of the site taken over by the War Office for the purification of TNT explosive destined to be used in artillery shells, bombs and grenades. This was widely held to be a very poor idea, because the process the surrounding area was densely populated with slum housing and the purification process was considered to be even more hazardous than the either the initial production of Trinitrotoluene or the final stages of munitions manufacture.
Nevertheless, the War Ministry was not to be denied…
The plant opened for business in September 1915 and was soon up to speed, producing at a rate of approximately 9 long tons (10 tonnes) of refined TNT per day. All was well until early in the evening of 19 January 1917, when a small fire broke out in the factory’s melting pot room. Only a skeleton staff was on hand at the time, approximately 40 people, who were led by Andrea Angel, the plant’s chief chemist, to try and contain the blaze. They did not succeed.
At 6:52 p.m. the fire reached the TNT and around 50 tons of explosive detonated as a result. In an instant the factory and all the souls within it were simply erased from the face of the earth. Additional TNT stocks held in railway trucks outside also detonated. Red hot debris was thrown for miles, some hitting a gasometer on the Greenwich Peninsular with sufficient force to breach the container and ignite 200,000 cubic metres of gas.
London itself was in a state of black-out due to marauding Zeppelin raiders, which made the explosion seem all the more profound. One bystander, Michael McDonagh, was waiting for a train on Blackfriars Bridge:
“Then suddenly a golden glow lit up the eastern sky, making everything as clear as day; and looking down the Thames I saw a high column of yellow flames rising, as I thought, from the river. This quickly died down, and the sky immediately became overspread with the loveliest colours – violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange and red – which eddied and swirled from a chaotic mass into a settled and beautiful colour design.”
The king heard the blast – and he was on the Sandringham estate in Norfolk. So too did people in Southampton. As far west as Guildford people marvelled at the burning sky. As far south as Croydon the shockwaves could be felt. The windows of the Savoy Hotel on The Strand were blown in.
In the immediate area of Silvertown, the destruction to property was enormous, with 70,000 properties damaged, of which 900 were completely destroyed or unsalvageably damaged. The cost of this in material terms was set in the region of £2.5 million in 1917 – around £195 million today.
Yet for all this destruction, only 73 lives were lost and 120 serious injuries among the 400 treated. This minor miracle was due to the timing of the explosion, meaning that the factories were largely empty and the upper floors of the houses, which bore the brunt of the blast, were not yet occupied. Although many lives were spared in the blast, the suffering of those living near the site would go on for much longer.
Almost immediately, looters arrived with sacks, carts and vans to claim anything that they could find. It was also bitterly cold, with temperatures falling to below -10 degrees at night, and there was barely a roof or window left for miles to protect the families who huddled in the ruins for fear of losing their worldly possessions to the looters.
In addition to the cold, the damage, the injuries and the looters, the people of Silvertown also had to contend with the toxic residue of the TNT that dusted the area with greenish-yellow ‘fallout’.
The Ministry of Munitions announced the explosion in the following day’s newspapers, and ordered an investigation led by Sir Ernley Blackwell that was published on 24 February 1917 – although it was classified until the 1950s. A definite single cause of the explosion was not determined, but it was found that the factory’s site was inappropriate for the manufacture of TNT and the report was fiercely critical of the management practices at the site as well as the TNT storage arrangements.
What remained of the factory site and the worst-affected areas were cleared almost immediately and then they were abandoned. In the 1920s a limestone memorial was erected by the Brunner-Mond company on what had been the main entrance to the site but then it had lain dormant, overgrown and ghostly until late in 2015 when finally the last little wilderness in London was claimed by property developers.
The Royal Wharf development will be the biggest new Docklands neighbourhood since Canary Wharf was built 20 years ago. A total of 3,385 new homes will be built, promising “old-fashioned design principles with a high street, a school, parks, squares and riverside restaurants.”
Eventually more than 20,000 people will live and work at Royal Wharf. “We want to deliver it quickly, within five years, unlike some other large-scale London projects that drag on interminably,” said Richard Oakes, director of the development company Ballymore that is undertaking the project with Singaporean money. “It’s a chance to buy early into an area with considerable upside,” he added.
It is also an area with unique history to it. A planning application to remove the limestone memorial from its original position on the site entrance has been approved by Newham council, and the commemorative stone will be moved to a new location on the western perimeter of the old Brunner-Mond plot where it is promised that residents and visitors can engage in quiet contemplation. Apartments on the historic site of London’s biggest explosion are priced from £235,000 and townhouses from £695,000.