Top Gear, 1958

The death of AA Gill last December robbed the world of one of its great chroniclers – and also one of its great double-acts. As readers, we were allowed to share in the fun that was to be had on Gill’s (ir)regular outings with Jeremy Clarkson through their resulting field reports – and one can only imagine how sorely he is missed by his chum.

Such writings are there to be treasured and will, as with so much of both men’s work, long outlast the pair of them. As evidence there follows a gem of a piece that was written by Ian Fleming for The Spectator that has an extremely familiar feel to it for Gill-and-Clarkson devotees.

Before we travel back in time and allow Fleming to let rip, a word of warning: the mindset of the 1950s cannot be applied to today’s world… so the easily offended and the righteously indignant should probably look away right now. Tales of these two sons of the empire in their Caribbean bolt hole do not make comfortable reading for anyone who subscribes to The Guardian or works for the BBC.

Gill was credited, usually by his detractors, with having founded the ‘me’ school of journalism. This overlooks the entire canon of Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill for one thing, but even they were blushing wallflowers in comparison with Fleming. With all of that in mind, therefore, welcome to what most likely have been the look and feel of Top Gear 1958, featuring the late Ian Fleming and Noel Coward:

‘Dig that T-bird!’ I had cut it a bit fine round Queen Victoria’s skirts and my wing mirror had almost dashed the Leica from the GI’s hand. If the tourists don’t snap the Queen, at about 10 a.m. on most mornings they can at least get a picture of me and my Ford Thunderbird with Buckingham Palace in the background.

I suspect that all motorists are vain about their cars. I certainly am, and have been ever since the khaki Standard with the enamelled Union Jack on its nose which founded my écurie in the ‘Twenties. Today the chorus of `Smashing!’ ‘Cor !’ and ‘Rraauu !’ which greets my passage is the perfume of Araby.

One man who is even more childishly vain than myself is Noel Coward. Last year, in Jamaica, he took delivery of a sky-blue Chevrolet Belair Convertible which he immediately drove round to show off to me. We went for a long ride to épater la bourgeoisie. Our passage along the coast road was as triumphal as, a year before, Princess Margaret’s had been. As we swept through a tiny village, a Negro lounger, galvanised by the glorious vision, threw his hands up to heaven and cried, `Cheesus-Kerist!’

‘How did he know?’ said Coward.

Our pride was to have a fall. We stopped for petrol.

‘Fill her up,’ said Coward.

There was a prolonged pause, followed by some quiet tinkering and jabbering from behind the car. 

‘What’s going on, Coley?’

`They can’t find the hole,’ said Leslie Cole from the rear seat.

Coley got out. There was more and louder argumentation. A crowd gathered. I got out and, while Coward stared loftily, patiently at the sky, went over the car front and back with a toothcomb. There was no hole. I told Coward so.

`Don’t be silly, dear boy. The Americans are very clever at making motor-cars. They wouldn’t forget a thing like that. In fact, they probably started with the hole and then built the car round it.’

`Come and look for yourself.’

`I wouldn’t think of demeaning myself before the natives.’

‘Well, have you got an instruction book?’

‘How should I know? Don’t ask silly questions.’ 

The crowd gazed earnestly at us, trying to fathom whether we were ignorant or playing some white man’s game. I found the trick catch of the glove compartment and took out the instruction book. The secret was on the last page. You had to unscrew the stop-light. The filler cap was behind it.

`Anyone could have told you that,’ commented Coward airily.

I looked at him coldly. ‘It’s interesting,’ I said. `When you sweat with embarrassment the sweat runs down your face and drops off your first chin on to your second.’

‘Don’t be childish.’

I am not only vain about my Thunderbird, but proud of it. It is by far the best car I have ever possessed, although, on looking back through my motley stud book, I admit that there is no string of Bentleys and Jaguars and Aston Martins with which to compare it.

After the khaki Standard, I went to a khaki Morris Oxford which was demolished between Munich and Kufstein. I had passed a notice saying ‘Achtung Rollbahn!’ and was keeping my eyes peeled for a steamroller when, just before I crossed a small bridge over a stream, I heard a yell in my ear and had time to see a terrified peasant leap off a gravity-propelled trolley laden with cement blocks when it hit broadside and hurled the car, with me in it, upside down into the stream.

I changed to the worst car I have ever had, a 16/80 open Lagonda. I fell in love with the whine of its gears and its outside brake. But it would barely do seventy, which made me ashamed of its sporty appearance.

I transferred to a supercharged Graham Paige Convertible Coupé, an excellent car which I stupidly gave to the ambulance service when war broke out.

Half-way through the war I had, for a time, a battered but handy little Opel. One night at the height of the blitz I was dining with Sefton Delmer in his top-floor flat in Lincoln’s Inn. A direct hit blew out the lower three floors and left us swilling champagne and waiting for the top floor to fall into the chasm. The fireman who finally hauled us out and down his ladder was so indignant at our tipsy insouciance that I made him a present of the crumpled remains of the Opel.

After the war I had an umpteenth-hand beetle-shaped Renault and a pre-war Hillman Minx before buying my first expensive car—a 2 1/2-litre Riley, which ran well for a year before developing really expensive troubles for which I only obtained some compensation through a personal appeal to Lord Nuffield.

I transferred to one of the first of the Sapphires, a fast, comfortable car, but one which made me feel too elderly when it was going slowly and too nervous when it was going fast. I decided to revert to an open car and, on the advice of a friend, bought a Daimler Convertible. Very soon I couldn’t stand the ugliness of its rump and, when the winter came and I found the engine ran so coolly that the heater wouldn’t heat, I got fed up with post-war English cars.

It was then that a fairly handsome ship came home and I decided to buy myself a luxurious present. I first toyed with the idea of a Lancia Gran Turismo, a really beautiful piece of machinery, but it was small and rather too busy—like driving an angry washing machine—and it cost over £3,000, which seemed ridiculous. I happened to see a Thunderbird in the street and fell head over heels in love. I rang up Lincoln’s. Apparently there was no difficulty in buying any make of American car out of the small import quota which we accept in part exchange for our big motor-car exports to the States. The salesman brought along a fire-engine-red model with white upholstery which I drove nervously round Battersea Park.

I dickered and wavered. Why not a Mercedes? But they are still more expensive and selfish and the highly desirable SL has only room beside the driver for a diminutive blonde with a sponge bag. Moreover, when you open those bat-like doors in the rain, the rain pours straight into the car.

I paid £3,000 for a Thunderbird. Black, with conventional gear change plus overdrive, and as few power assists as possible. In due course it appeared. My wife was indignant. The car was hideous. There was no room for taking people to the station (a point I found greatly in its favour) and, anyway, why hadn’t I bought her a mink coat? To this day she hasn’t relented. She has invented a new disease called ‘Thunderbird neck’ which she complains she gets in the passenger seat. The truth is that she has a prejudice against all American artefacts and, indeed, against artefacts of any kind. 

She herself drives like Evelyn Waugh’s Lady Metroland, using the pavement as if it were part of the road. Like many women, she prides herself on her ‘quick reactions’ and is constantly twitting me with my sluggish consideration for others in traffic. She is unmoved when I remind her that in her previous car, a grey and heavily scarred Sunbeam Talbot whose interior always looked as if it had just been used as dustcart for the circus at Olympia, she had been guilty of misdemeanours which would have landed any man in gaol. She once hit an old man in a motorised bathchair so hard in the rear that he was propelled right across Oxford Street against the traffic lights. Turning into Dover Street, she had cut a milk cart so fine that she had left her onside door-handle embedded in the rump of the horse. Unfortunately, she is unmoved by these memories, having that most valuable of all feminine attributes—the ability to see her vices as virtues.

I have now had my Thunderbird for over two years. It has done 27,000 miles without a single mechanical failure, without developing a squeak or a rattle. Its paintwork is immaculate and there is not a spot of discoloration anywhere on its rather over-lavish chrome, despite the fact that it is never garaged at night and gets a wash only twice a week. I have it serviced every quarter, but this is only a matter of the usual oil-changing, etc. The only time it ever stopped in traffic was carefully planned to give me a short, sharp reminder that, like other fine pieces of machinery, it has a temperament.

The occasion was, for the car’s purposes, well chosen—exactly half-way under the Thames in the Blackwall Tunnel, with lorries howling by nose to tail a few inches away in the ill-lit gloom, and with a giant petrol tanker snoring impatiently down my neck. The din was so terrific that I hadn’t even noticed that the engine had stopped when the traffic in front moved on after a halt. It was only then that I noticed the rev. counter at zero. I ground feverishly at the starter without result. The perspiration poured down my face at the thought of the ghastly walk I would have to take through the tunnel to get the breakdown van and pay the £5 fine. Then, having reminded me never again to take its services for granted, the engine stuttered and fired and we got going.

The reason why I particularly like the Thunderbird, apart from the beauty of its line and the drama of its snarling mouth and the giant, flaring nostril of its air-intake, is that everything works. Absolutely nothing goes wrong. True, it isn’t a precision instrument like English sports cars, but that I count a virtue. The mechanical margin of error in its construction is wider. Everything has a solid feel. The engine—a huge adapted low-revving Mercury V-8 of 5-litre capacity—never gives the impression of stress or strain.

When, on occasion, you can do a hundred without danger of going over the edge of this small island, you have not only the knowledge that you have an extra twenty. m.p.h. in reserve, but the feel of it. As for acceleration, when the two extra barrels of the four-barrel carburetter come in, at around 3,000 revs., it is a real thump in the back. The brakes are good enough for fast driving, but would have to be better if you wanted to drive dangerously. The same applies to the suspension, where rigidity has been sacrificed slightly to give a comfortable ride. Petrol consumption, using overdrive for long runs, averages 17 m.p.g. Water and oil, practically nil.

There is a hard top for the winter which you take off and store during the summer when the soft top is resurrected from its completely disappeared position behind the seat. The soft top can be put up or down without effort and both tops have remained absolutely weatherproof, which, after two years, is miraculous.

One outstanding virtue is that all accessories seem to be infallible, though the speedometer, as with most American cars, is a maddening 10 per cent. optimistic. The heater really heats; the wipers, though unfortunately suction-operated, really wipe; and not a fuse has blown nor a lamp bulb died. The engine never overheats and has never failed to start immediately from cold, even after all night outside in a frost. The solidity of the manufacture is, of course, the result of designing cars for a seller’s market and for a country with great extremes of heat and cold.

Cyril Connolly once said to me that, if men were honest, they would admit that their motor-cars came next after their women and children in their list of loves. I won’t go all the way with him on that, but I do enjoy well-designed and attractively wrapped bits of machinery that really work—and that’s what the Thunderbird is, a first-class express carriage.

A belated welcome to 2017

Friends, Romans, fellow imbibers of the heritage of our times – welcome back. Firstly an enormous vote of thanks to every visitor in 2016 – 31,003 of you. It’s not J.K. Rowling territory but it was an honour and a pleasure to share with each one of you what we hope was an enjoyable respite from the daily grind.

What’s coming up this year? Well, quite a bit. The late start aside, there should be much to entertain you over the next 49 weeks or so. Perhaps even a new serialised piece of entertainment that’s unique and bespoke to the S&G. We shall see about that.

There is another book due for release in March: the Haynes Manual for the Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5.

It is a rather prosaic title for the thing that the S&G is proudest of beyond our offspring. It looks like a car manual but reads a bit like a thriller (or a series of thrilling short stories, anyway). That’s the plan. It is down to others to see if the plan worked!

Since all of that was finished last year, it has been time to try and shore up the rest of life. 2016 was rather a trial for many people on a personal level and the S&G was not untouched by this wave of misfortune that we seemed subject to. Hopefully all of that is behind us now, to be left for 80-odd years until some other blogger pores over it. Poor devils!

Meanwhile, let us stick to what we know best here: back in the 1890s-1960s.

For those who might be interested in the stats that are put out by WordPress at New Year time, the most popular stories of the past 12 months were, once again, The Racing Driver’s Bride, What Hope for Faith? and The Mystery of Seaman’s Grave. After that all the stories on the Mike Hawthorn road trip came next. The top three has been the same every year since starting this blog, which says everything and nothing, I suppose! The most popular of the new stories were James Dean in 11th and the Malta Spitfire in 13th.

Note to self: more nazis and film stars if you want to get circulation up. Then again, that’s what most other history sites are doing.

New stories will be arriving erelong, they will be as big a surprise here as they are there and thank you for your patience. Enjoy the rest of the year and come back soon.

Ferrari 312T now available in French

Some mornings offer a surprise or two, so you can imagine that the rafters were rattling at the S&G when the Ferrari 312T manual appeared on Amazon in French.

‘Nothing to worry about’, sayeth Steve, the wise man of Haynes. Apparently it’s a badge of honour for Michel to wish to translate someone’s work… so we’ll take it as such!

If anyone is interested in expanding their French vocabulary into the realms of ground-effect versus horsepower or low opinions of McLaren, as expressed by former Ferrari men, then you are in luck. Equally, anyone with a French friend who has a particular yen for Mauro Forghieri’s masterpiece can now read about it from the man himself in their mother tongue… so please visit Éditions du Palmier or pick one up on Amazon.

The English language version is also still available. Here’s what’s been said about it:

‘Riveting stuff.’
– Octane

Book of the Month: ‘…this is an excellent guide to one of the most charismatic series of Grand Prix cars.’
– Classic & Sports Car

‘For those who consider the ’70s as the golden era of Formula 1, this is the book for you.’
– Historic Racing Technology

A new perspective on the past

Marina Amaral is an extremely talented lady.  Based in her native Brazil, she has mastered the art of retouching black and white photographs in order to bring them to vivid life for the modern era. Her work varies from profound subjects to the most mundane and she is accepting commissions to breathe a little colour back into whatever subjects her clientele might wish to revive.

It is incredibly hard to convey the relevance of even our recent past to the generations coming through.  To a vast majority of people raised in the digital age, everything is disposable and nothing is sacred. If something cannot be related to and offer tangible pleasures then all too often it is discarded. Marina’s work makes the other-worldliness of old photographs fresh and challenges the eye.

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Marina Amaral reveals the man behind the moustache: Neville Chamberlain arrives home from Munich

In the 1980s, space was filled in the early evening schedules of BBC2 with silent ‘shorts’ by Harold Lloyd, ‘Buster’ Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Children would watch them after Grange Hill and Crackerjack had finished in preference to the early evening news – the S&G among them – and wonder what it must have been like when humans could only see the world in black and white.

Today such films are never put in front of a youngster unless by accident.  As a result, the unbridled joy of watching grown-ups wallop each other and fall over, let alone learning about the broad palate of emotions that they are sensing in the world through the elegant mime of truly great actors, is denied to them.

Having spent far too many hours in museums this year, often with tides of teenagers ebbing and flowing around the corridors, it was clear that the relationship between past and present is becoming fractured. School history lessons are a drudge of irrelevance to most kids. In school, the subject appears to have been boiled down to putting on fancy dress and then writing about how they believe people felt.

Skills like Marina’s offer a unique opportunity for families, schools and publishers to redress the balance somewhat. That is a truly valuable resource to have.

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The Red Baron emerges in another of Marina Amaral’s pieces

 

A word about history…

It’s all getting rather fast and furious in the run-up to the referendum on whether Britain should remain in the European Union. Furious being the operative word for both sides in the debate. Fast being the operative word for how each side is playing with history.

Fast and loose.

It is not the place of the S&G to report or comment upon current political issues. It is, however, a place where history is cherished in the hope that it might continue to sparkle and inspire.

Not, it must be admitted, big History with a capital ‘haitch’ that discusses kings and queens, Spinning Jennies or the Cold War. The S&G commemorates sport, transport and adventure in the first half of the Twentieth Century (and only as much of that as time permits). But it is history nonetheless.

And right now history, great and small, is being trampled into the mud.

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History is taking a beating from both sides in Britain’s debate on Europe

As an example of where all this is taking us, one imagines that Boris Johnson rather startled himself with the vehement response to his suggestion that the modern European superstate envisaged by the grey men of Brussels was essentially what Hitler had in mind. But that was an idiotic thing to have said.

If Boris had a clue about these things, he would in fact have suggested that in fact the way that the EU is heading mirrors the German justification for World War 1. It may deliver fewer headlines than a spectral swastika but infinitely greater resonance.

In 1913, Germany was the powerhouse of the European economy. She generated double the electricity of any other European nation; she produced two thirds of all European steel and was the centre of excellence as far as scientific advances went – from pharmaceutical and chemical research to automotive and aeronautical design.

All these wonders of the modern age were well and good but they needed to drive income and fuel the economy. Thus it was that, when Germany launched all-out war between the nation states of Europe in the summer of 1914, she very quickly followed up with the September Programme.

This was a draft treaty prepared by the German chancellor, Theobald von Bethman Hollweg, in anticipation of a swift military victory to the west.

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Architect of ‘Mitteleuropa’: Chancellor Bethman Hollweg

Hollweg’s vision was of ‘Mitteleuropa’ – a free trade zone stretching between the Russian border and the English Channel and from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean. This ‘superstate’ would allow German products and technologies to be sold across national borders with no tariffs. Sounds familiar?

In effect, the September Programme stands as the only justification offered by Germany to explain the First World War: free trade for her products across Europe.

By taking control of Poland and Holland, Scandinavia would be brought into line by the sound of sabres rattling across the Baltic. Taking Belgium, Luxembourg and the disputed territories to the west would force the French government to acquiesce. It was brutal but elegant and would have avoided all the red tape for which Brussels is so renowned.

In this way, Hollweg believed that Mitteleuropa would be delivered and Germany would command all of Europe through her economic power backed up by her military achievements. Not only that but the dominions of the other European nations across Africa and the Far East would fall under German influence and thus bring her a wealth of resources like oil from the Dutch East Indies.

Having thus added an empire of her own to the free trade wonderland of Mitteleuropa, there could be little doubt that ultimately Germany would have had to go toe-to-toe with her island cousin, Great Britain. That is why she was building ships and u-boats as fast and as well as she could: to challenge the mighty Royal Navy of which Kaiser Wilhelm was so enamoured.

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The battlecruisers let fly at Jutland

As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Jutland, there is a very clear measure of how advanced German industry was by contrast with that of Britain.

The three prime British ships lost in the engagement – Indefatigable, Queen Mary and Black Prince – were struck once, at the most twice, before blowing up. By contrast the Germans lost only one great ship – the Lǜtzow – which survived 24 direct hits before she was scuttled by her own crew, lest she be captured.

Wise cracks about German engineering are well-founded.

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The triumphs of German engineering are legion

If Boris Johnson had invoked Hollweg instead of Hitler it would have won him fewer headlines but done him more credit – although it is not only the ‘Leavers’ who are using bad history to discuss the EU.

For one thing, David Cameron did what he presumably thought was a good impression of Aragorn at the battle of Pelennor Fields by suggesting that those lost in the wars of the last century would choose to be bound within Europe. He summoned up the dead of D-Day and the Somme – a fairly unforgivable presumption.

In 2010 the S&G was in Malta and staying in a hotel full of veterans of the great siege of 1940-42. The general election was coming up and politics dominated the conversation at breakfast time – a subject upon which most of the veterans felt completely alienated from all except the British National Party.

Then we are repeatedly told by the ‘Remainers’ that the single greatest Toby Jug on the mantelpiece of the British psyche, none other than Sir Winston Churchill, was one of the architects of the modern European Union.

Churchill, they cry, would therefore be campaigning to remain within the legal and political union.

Poppycock.

It is true that Churchill campaigned for a ‘United States of Europe’ in the years after World War 2 – but not for one second did he include the ‘Island race’ within such parameters.

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“What I meant was…”

Speaking in Switzerland on 19 September 1946, Churchill sought to use the devastation wrought over the previous six years to galvanise the continent to action. His greatest desire was for the European nations to act swiftly to ensure that Germany was never allowed to repeat the aggression of 1914 or 1939 – by disassembling Bismark’s handiwork if needs be.

“The ancient states and principalities of Germany, freely joined together for mutual convenience in a federal system, might each take their individual place among the United States of Europe,” he said. Imagine that: an EU including Bavaria, Prussia, Swabia and 13 other states as sovereign nations.

‘Divide and conquer’ is another way of putting it. That was Churchill’s reasoning behind the proposal of a United States of Europe. Allowing German brilliance to enrich the continent for the common good, rather than mustering all her strength to bully and intimidate.

“I believe that the larger synthesis will only survive if it is founded upon coherent natural groupings,” he insisted.

“There is already a natural grouping in the Western Hemisphere. We British have our own Commonwealth of Nations. These do not weaken, on the contrary they strengthen, the world organisation. They are in fact its main support.”

And there you have it. Churchill was a supporter of a federal Europe: yes. A friend to a federal Europe: undoubtedly. But handing British sovereignty over to a federal Europe? Not on your nelly. Indeed, the old warhorse concluded:

“Great Britain, the British Commonwealth of Nations, mighty America, and I trust Soviet Russia – for then indeed all would be well – must be the friends and sponsors of the new Europe and must champion its right to live and shine.”

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Eurovision: best left to the politicians

Let the arguments over British membership of the European Union continue but let them do so while being mindful of history. History either is or it is not. Sadly for politicians the world over, what it can never be is convenient.

Goodbye, Big Al

“You must have been there – how far must I walk towards the curvature of the earth until reaching Alain Prost’s team?”

So asked Alan Henry of the S&G in Malaysia on a sweaty afternoon in 2001, when faced with the unappetising proposition of trekking so far down the F1 paddock. Alan seldom needed to venture beyond the elite first few garages of the F1 pit lane, but at least he was guaranteed a warm welcome when he got to the far end of the field. Even four-time world champions knew that their teams and reputations depended upon a good word from ‘Big Al’.

The Formula 1 paddock has many features that travel with it: the ‘Bernie Bus’ and the coterie of self-important nobodies who loiter without; Williams, McLaren, Ferrari and the greying heads of those very few F1 media who are worth reading.

Oh, and not forgetting the blasted fence which keeps the paying proles apart from the paid-for patricians, bedecked with gauze to prevent the great unwashed from catching a glimpse of the world within, manned (and womanned) by Austrian security guards marshalling their bleeping (and ‘bleeping’) gates.

Alan transcended all of that. He wrote about the sport as your mate. He was your passport to the inner sanctum. He had been there, seen it, elected not to wear the T-shirt but instead gave you his thoughts. And they were always valuable.

My own memories of Alan are tinged with sadness for reasons that I shall not bore you with. People find reasons to disagree with one another. Some of those reasons are fact. Others are fiction. But they also find reasons to respect, which are never undermined. When my first daughter was born, I received an email of almost papal importance. “As the willing slave to daughters myself, please accept these sincere congratulations. Alan.”

Every day I reflect on those words – and every day they ring true – fathers get into all sorts of scrapes for a daughter.

Alan prided himself on being a fuddy-duddy. A few years ago David Croft, the Sky Sports commentator, gleefully told the S&G of the time that he had managed to get Alan to visit a McDonald’s. While everyone else cheerfully dug into their Big Mac meals, one member of the party was struggling to fit himself into the plastic seats around the plastic table – all the while wearing an air of complete and utter incomprehension as to how and why this could be classed as a restaurant.

The ‘cartel’ of British journalists who inspired all who followed has lost its biggest personality in more ways than one. Cheers, Big Al. To your daughters, and those many more who miss you, my most heartfelt sympathies.

Silvertown comes back to life

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.

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Silvertown immediately after the blast

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.”

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Poor quality housing crammed into the Silvertown neighbourhood bore the brunt of the explosion

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.

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Photographed in 1939, the empty site of the Brunner-Mond factory is conspicuous

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.

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The empty wasteland was a filming Mecca – here is the first episode of the BBC’s brilliant Ashes to Ashes

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.

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Artist’s impression of the new Royal Wharf development, located on the site of the Silvertown explosion

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.

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The site as it looks today