‘The fires could be seen as far away as Guildford, whilst shock-waves from the explosion were reported in Norfolk and Southampton’
On 19 January 1917, the most enormous explosion in its history rocked London. At 6.52 pm a massive blast ripped through London’s Royal Docks in the East End of London. Fifty tonnes of TNT exploded in what remains London’s largest ever explosion.
Over 900 houses were flattened and left thousands of families homeless—over 60,000 buildings were damaged throughout the city. Burning debris were scattered for miles, causing many fires. The explosion killed 73 people, including many children, and left over 450 injured. But these figures have always been thought to have been an underestimate.
The factory was built in 1893 on the south side of North Woolwich Road by Brunner Mond, a forerunner of ICI. Two years into the first world war, the Army was facing a crippling shell shortage. The War Office used the factory’s surplus capacity to purify TNT, a process more dangerous than manufacturing itself, although the factory was in a highly populated area.
After a fire began in the melt-pot room, it was noticed by two workers who ran from the building shouting ‘fire’, and other workers rapidly followed. A police officer on guard did what he could to evacuate the factory. People in the street watched as events unfolded, not realising the danger they faced.
The local fire-station was located across the street from the factory. The seven officers on duty were alerted to the danger by a young boy. The firefighters hurried over to tackle the fire, but by then the building was burning ferociously. There was then a monumental explosion, destroying the factory. Large pieces of machinery, weighing many tons, soared through the air, crushing nearby factories and workers’ cottages. An enormous mass of iron, weighing 15 tons, which had been the factory’s boiler, landed in the street. Bodies lay on the streets. Children were separated from their parents and mothers were hysterically looking for their children, some of whom were buried in the piles of rubble.
Buildings in the immediate area were demolished, including the fire-station, several streets of small houses, and the local church. A fire-engine was found a quarter of a mile away and damaged beyond recognition. Two nearby oil tanks caught fire, and a gas-holder on the other side of the Thames was destroyed. Flying hot metal set alight two large flour mills. There was extensive damage to the nearby Royal Victoria Dock, and it would take two years for the Port of London Authority to clear debris and re-erect or repair buildings.
Fire-engines from all parts of London converged on Silvertown. Millions of tiny, burning grains of wheat from the flour mills fell from the air. Fires continued for several days, but rescue workers were still finding burning embers weeks later.
The comparatively low death toll for such a large blast was because of the time of day. The factories were mostly empty of workers, but it was too early for the upper floors of houses to be heavily populated. Also, it occurred on a Friday, when fewer people were around the factory. However, several professional firefighters and volunteers fighting the earlier fire were killed or seriously injured in the explosion.
Reportedly, the explosion also blew the glass out of windows in the Savoy Hotel and almost overturned a taxi in Pall Mall, the fires could be seen in Maidstone and Guildford, and the blast was heard up to 100 miles away, including at Sandringham in Norfolk and along the Sussex coast.
Many people escaped with their lives, but little else and with clothes in shreds. In the days that followed, they started a clothing depot at the North Woolwich Council School, which dealt with thousands of people. Charities, local companies, and government departments provided food, blankets, transport and storage.
Considering the scale of the explosion, it is extraordinary that only 73 people were killed and 450 injured. Amongst them were those who lost limbs or were blinded for life. Most of the dead were residents of the nearby houses.
Although it was impossible to disguise the location and scale of the disaster from the East London community, the place was kept from the wider public because of strict censorship during the war. The King, the Queen and Princess Mary went to the scene to express their appreciation of the work that rescue workers had done. They also visited the London Hospital and Poplar Hospital, where they saw some of the injured. The Prime Minister and his wife also visited the injured at Poplar Hospital.
The explosion was rumoured to have been caused by a German spy. The Home Secretary ordered an inquiry, and the committee reported its findings within days. They dismissed the idea of a German spy.
No fundamental reason for the disaster was identified, but the report concluded that the most likely cause was a ‘detonation spark produced by friction or impact’, or ‘spontaneous ignition of the TNT in or about the melt pot.’ They kept the official report secret until the 1950s and thus very few people knew of its findings.
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