Sounds Of The Silvertown Explosion – Luke Hardy


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Figure 1 – The Silvertown factory after the explosion.

On the 19th January 1917, the population of Silvertown suffered devastation akin to the front lines in Europe. During the First World War, the Ministry of Munitions needed a suitable location to store and purify TNT for the war effort; Silvertown was in the perfect spot. Nothing would have prepared the families in the slums that quiet late evening, when a fire broke out and fifty tons of TNT exploded in an instant.[1] Nearing the centenary, this article shall shed light on the sounds of the Silvertown Explosion.

Silvertown was outside the restrictions of the Metropolitan Building Act of 1844, which prohibited dangerous trades within London. In turn, Silvertown developed an industrial workforce, and had a population of 300,000 in 1900.[2] When the TNT factory exploded, residents described a ‘terrible bang’; this bang caused the deaths of seventy-three people and injured over four-hundred more.[3]

The noise of the explosion must have been thunderous. The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette reported on the scale of destruction, and ran the headline ‘SILVERTOWN HAVOC. A Million Compensation’.[4] Contemporary newspapers reported on the magnitude of the explosion, which highlighted damage inflicted on the highly populated slums of Silvertown. The Times described devastation to the St. Barnabas church and hall, alongside the socioeconomic impact on the area.[5] Evidently, the sheer cost of repair work indicated that the explosion was loud and utterly frightening for the residents of Silvertown.

Moments after the explosion inhabitants all around London reacted andmany thought that the city was under siege by German zeppelins.[6] Malcolm Oakley specified that residents could hear the blast from locations such as Norfolk and all the way to the Sussex Coast. [7] Sounds of the initial explosion resonated miles around, and resulted in large fires that spread across the entirety of Silvertown. Georgina Lee described the noise in her diary while at home in central London:

“I am still shaking from the shock of a terrible concussion and distant roar…”.[8]

Many people heard the distant roar, together with shouts from neighbours and family members, running outside their homes in shock and curiosity. Not only did many residents hear the distant roar of the explosion, Stuart Hallifax states residents heard their homes shake on their foundations and soot fall from the chimney.[9]

These sounds were minimal when compared to those that lived directly adjacent to the factory. As the blast from the explosion ripped through houses, shops, empty-streets, and across the Thames, many people feared for their lives. All the surrounding building windows smashed due to the shock wave from the explosion, all while certain homes simply fell apart. Screams were heard as victims emerged from collapsed houses, and neighbours calling for rescue. Sounds of flames erupted, as fires began to burn across Silvertown. The destruction caused by the TNT factory was immense, as this photo taken the morning after demonstrates:

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Figure 2 – Damage to houses on fort street.

An astonishing amount of damage occurred. Approximately nine-hundred houses were completely destroyed, and over seventy-thousand homes were damaged.[10] Oakley suggests that Silvertown suffered relatively low fatalities when compared to the sheer destruction from the detonation. This was due to the blast taking place in the late evening, when the factory had largely emptied.[11] The explosion resulted in thousands of families becoming homeless, however, although the government successfully rebuilt many of the lost homes months later.[12]

Minutes after the explosion emergency services and local authorities responded to the scenes in Silvertown. Observers commented on the sounds of fire-vehicle bells, fire-boat signals, firemen shouting orders to douse the flames and the rescue effort to combat the worst affected areas.[13] It was days after the incident when stories of the heroism of the emergency services began to be reported. The Times documented servicemen such as Edward George Brown Greenoff, who stayed at his post directly next to the factory barking warnings to concerned residents to stay away; Greenoff was injured from the fires and the press reported that he saved many lives.[14]

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Figure 3 – Other homes were completely destroyed.

Unfortunately the emergency services could not save everyone. Some of the homes were closely located to the factory and were annihilated seconds after the explosion. A few of the victims were Mary Ann Betts and her granddaughter Ethel Betts, in addition to Andreas Angel and countless firemen that died as they attempted to prevent the flames spreading. [15] Accounts from fire service personnel provide an evocative insight into the sounds the rescue teams faced. For instance, fireman James J. Betts found himself right in the middle of the flattened factory, and was blown two-hundred feet into the air due to secondary explosions.[16] Betts remembered:

“Around me was a vast plain of rubble. The factory had gone. There was fearful sounds in the air, the screams of injured women and children, the groans of those imprisoned under the debris”.[17]

London awoke the next morning to see the smoke plume that resonated from Silvertown, even though it took the press three days to report on the explosion.[18] As stated previously in the article, the St. Barnabas church suffered extensive damage. The reverend responsible for the church, Rev. Farley, transformed the building into a medical outpost and area to hand out kitchen soup.[19] Inevitably, the demolished church became a suitable area for the stricken families that experienced the blast. Families prayed and deliberated about the explosion, while they consolidated the newly established Explosion Emergency Committee began the painstaking work to rebuild Silvertown.[20]

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Figure 4 – St. Barnabas Church.

Silvertown suffered one of the worst munitions disasters in Britain during the First World War. Residents faced first-hand the sounds of desperation and devastation normally affiliated to soldiers fighting in mainland Europe. The limited regulation on munitions in Silvertown and the closely built slums was a deadly combination. This deadly combination resulted in seventy three deaths and approximately four hundred casualties, in addition to long lasting financial instability for the families affected. Hopefully this article has provided some sense of the variety of sounds,experienced as a result of the Silvertown Explosion that occurred one hundred years ago.

Luke Hardy

References

[1] Joyce, Niall, ‘Silvertown Explosion brought the realities of WW1 to Newham’ (16 July 2016). Available online: http://www.newhamrecorder.co.uk/news/silvertown_explosion_brought_the_realities_of_ww1_to_newham_1_4619512 Date accessed: 21 Nov 2016.

[2] Portcities London, ‘London’s Biggest Explosion’ (). Available online:    http://www.portcities.org.uk/london/server/show/ConNarrative.60/chapterId/1148/Londons-biggest-explosion.html Date accessed: 21 Nov 2016.

[3]‘World War One At Home’ (6 November 2014). Available online: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02b2nz8 Date accessed: 21 Nov 2016.

[4] ‘SILVERTOWN HAVOC.’, Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 24 May 1919, p. 6.

[5] G. A. Graham, ‘ Dickens in Silvertown’, The Times, 19 Dec 1924, p. 13.

[6] ‘World War One At Home’ (6 November 2014). Available online: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02b2nz8 Date accessed: 21 Nov 2016.

[7] Oakley, Malcome, ‘The Silvertown Explosion of 1917 – WW1 History’ (28 October 2013). Available online: http://www.eastlondonhistory.co.uk/silvertown-explosion-1917/ Date accessed: 11 Nov 2016.

[8] Hallifax, Stuart, ‘The Silvertown Explosion’’ . Available online: https://greatwarlondon.wordpress.com/2012/01/19/the-silvertown-explosion/ Date accessed: 21 Nov 2016.

[9] Hallifax, Stuart, ‘The Silvertown Explosion’’ . Available online: https://greatwarlondon.wordpress.com/2012/01/19/the-silvertown-explosion/ Date accessed: 21 Nov 2016.

[10] Forgotten stories, ‘Silvertown Explosion Centenary’ . Available online: http://www.londonsroyaldocks.com/silvertown-explosion-centenary/ Date accessed: 21 Nov 2016.

[11] Oakley, Malcolm, ‘The Silvertown Explosion of 1917 – WW1 History’ (28 October 2013). Available online: http://www.eastlondonhistory.co.uk/silvertown-explosion-1917/ Date accessed: 21 Nov 2016

[12] Portcities London, ‘London’s Biggest Explosion’ . Available online:    http://www.portcities.org.uk/london/server/show/ConNarrative.60/chapterId/1148/Londons-biggest-explosion.html Date accessed: 21 Nov 2016.

[13] ‘World War One At Home’ (6 November 2014). Available online: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02b2nz8 Date accessed: 21 Nov 2016.

[14] ‘Heroism In Civilian Life’, The Times, 16 Oct 1930, p. 17.

[15] Portcities London, ‘London’s Biggest Explosion’ . Available online:    http://www.portcities.org.uk/london/server/show/ConNarrative.60/chapterId/1148/Londons-biggest-explosion.html Date accessed: 21 Nov 2016.

[16] Joyce, Niall, ‘Silvertown Explosion brought the realities of WW1 to Newham’ (16 July 2016). Available online: http://www.newhamrecorder.co.uk/news/silvertown_explosion_brought_the_realities_of_ww1_to_newham_1_4619512 Date accessed: 21 Nov 2016.

[17] Joyce, Niall, ‘Silvertown Explosion brought the realities of WW1 to Newham’ (16 July 2016). Available online: http://www.newhamrecorder.co.uk/news/silvertown_explosion_brought_the_realities_of_ww1_to_newham_1_4619512 Date accessed: 21 Nov 2016.

[18] Oakley, Malcome, ‘The Silvertown Explosion of 1917 – WW1 History’ (28 October 2013). Available online: http://www.eastlondonhistory.co.uk/silvertown-explosion-1917/ Date accessed: 21 Nov 2016.

[19]  Portcities London, ‘London’s Biggest Explosion’. Available online:    http://www.portcities.org.uk/london/server/show/ConNarrative.60/chapterId/1148/Londons-biggest-explosion.html Date accessed: 21 Nov 2016.

[20]‘Silvertown Explosion 1917’. Available online: http://www.20thcenturylondon.org.uk/silvertown-explosion-1917 Date accessed: 21 Nov 2016.

Images

Figure 1: Photograph of the flattened Silvertown factory, available online: http://the-east-end.co.uk/the-silvertown-explosion/  (Accessed on 22nd November 2016).

Figure 2: Photo of damaged houses caused by  the Silvertown explosion, Available online: https://community.dur.ac.uk/4schools.resources/victoriandurham/homeimages.html (Accessed on 22nd November 2016).

Figure 3: Photograph illustrating a destroyed house from the blast, Available online: https://community.dur.ac.uk/4schools.resources/victoriandurham/homeimages.html (Accessed on 22nd November 2016).

Figure 4: Photo of the St. Barnabas church, Available online: https://community.dur.ac.uk/4schools.resources/victoriandurham/homeimages.html (Accessed on 22nd November 2016).

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