ROYAL WHARF

royalwharf1The development of luxury apartments and riverside facilities at Royal Wharf (just along from Barrier Point on the Silvertown Way) is underway. See http://www.royalwharf.com

The developers Oxley and Ballmore plan a prestigious and expensive development of flats and townhouses.

However, there’s a hidden history to this part of the Royal Docks that perhaps deserves to be better chronicled. It’s not such a glossy story. It was here that on 19 January 1917, at 6.52pm, 50 tons of TNT exploded, flattening a whole neighbourhood, killing 73 people and wounding a further 400 – the biggest explosion London has ever seen. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silvertown_explosion)

But this blast wasn’t caused by enemy action. It was one of Silvertown’s own factories that exploded, decimating much of the surrounding area.

Might this terrible industrial accident have been averted? Brunner Mond, a chemical works established at Crescent Wharf in West Silvertown in 1893 produced caustic soda but had been turned over to war work and was producing TNT. Historic documents reveal that the British government understood that locating a TNT factory in the middle of housing was ‘very dangerous’, but needs were such that the Ministry felt it ‘worth the risk’.

royalwharf2When the factory exploded lights all over London flickered and the blast was heard as far away as Cambridge and Guildford. Millions of windows were shattered across the river at Charlton and Woolwich. Up to 70,000 properties were damaged. 69 people died immediately and four more in hospital. A dozen people closest to the blast were never found. 400 more were injured in the blast.

royalwharf3

The aftermath at Minoco Wharf

royalwharf4

Millennium Mills following the explosion

In the aftermath, London’s emergency services set up first-aid stations on the streets of Silvertown to treat minor injuries. Catherine Bramwell-Booth sent The Salvation Army rescue team into the area, and the YMCA provided food and hot drinks. But the blast left thousands of local people homeless in temporary accommodation in schools and churches.

The Silvertown Explosion memorial stands under the Docklands Light Railway on North Woolwich Road.royalwharf5

The tragedy produced some local heroes, including Police Constable Edward George Brown Greenoff who was posthumously awarded the King’s Police Medal for his heroic rescues, and is commemorated with a plaque on the Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice in Postman’s Park, in central London.

royalwharf6

The official Government Report into the explosion was produced in 1917 but not disclosed to the public until the 1950s. It could not determine one single cause of the explosion, but invalidated theories such as German sabotage. What it did conclude was that the factory’s site was inappropriate for the manufacture of TNT. Management and safety practices at the plant were also criticised. It said that TNT had been stored in unsafe containers, close to the plant and there were risky production process. So, it seems, the great Silvertown explosion that was so costly in lost lives and local devastation really had been an ‘accident waiting to happen’. What is questionable is whether anyone had the right to see this as ‘a risk worth taking’.

The Museum of London have produced a short film about the Silvertown explosion – available on Youtube here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=he48rCCeYbw

Or read a full account for yourself from Graham Hill, and Howard Bloch, (2003) The Silvertown Explosion: London 1917. Stroud: Tempus Publishing.