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London's biggest explosion

Development of Silvertown
The explosion
The rescue effort
The human cost
The cause
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The explosion

Blast and destruction

Minoco Wharf after the Silvertown explosion.
View full size imageMinoco Wharf after the Silvertown explosion. © NMM
During the evening of 19 January 1917 a fire broke out in the TNT plant. Just before 7 p.m. a huge explosion ripped through the Brunner-Mond works and the Silvertown area.

A large part of the factory was instantly destroyed together with several nearby streets. The explosion was so great that red-hot lumps of metal rained down on the surrounding area and started fires for miles around. The glare from these fires could be seen as far away as Maidstone in Kent and Guildford in Surrey.

Eyewitness report

A local reporter, writing in the Stratford Express, wrote:

Quotation marks left
The whole heavens were lit in awful splendour. A fiery glow seemed to have come over the dark and miserable January evening, and objects which a few minutes before had been blotted out in the intense darkness were silhouetted
Quotation marks right
against the sky.

Back view of firemen's dwellings on Fort Street after the Silvertown explosion.
View full size imageFort Street after the explosion. © NMM

More than 900 homes in the surrounding area were destroyed or badly damaged. Between 60,000 and 70,000 properties were damaged to some degree. The cost of the damage was estimated at a quarter of a million pounds, a huge sum of money at that time.


Damage to factories and businesses

Buildings in the Royal Victoria Docks damaged by the Silvertown Explosion.
View full size imageDamaged buildings at the Royal Victoria Dock. © NMM

A gas-holder on the Greenwich Peninsula was destroyed in the explosion, shooting more than 200,000 cubic metres (8 million cubic feet) of gas into the sky in a huge fireball. The blast also badly damaged the Venestas plant - a large plywood factory next to Brunner-Mond - and a flour mill and other buildings at the Royal Victoria Dock in Canning Town.

North Woolwich Road after the blast.
View full size imageNorth Woolwich Road after the Silvertown explosion. © NMM
As the inferno in the docks and warehouses raged, fire-boats on the Thames fought to control the flames. The Port of London Authority (PLA) estimated that nearly 7 hectares (17 acres) of warehouses were destroyed or damaged. The customs barrier was breached and goods worth thousands of pounds were left exposed and at risk.

Damage to homes and community

Fire station on North Woolwich Road after the Silvertown Explosion.
View full size imageThe damaged fire station on North Woolwich Road. © NMM

The Silvertown Fire Station, built three years previously, was across the road from the works and was almost destroyed, as were the firemen's own homes. Among the victims in these houses were Mary Ann Betts, aged 58, and her granddaughter, Ethel Betts, aged only four months.

St. Barnabas Church after the Silvertown Explosion.
View full size imageSt Barnabas Church after the Silvertown explosion. © NMM
The nearby Girls' and Infants' School was wrecked in the blast, as was St Barnabas Church on Eastwood Road. The Reverend Farley immediately turned the damaged parsonage into a soup kitchen and first aid post. The Reverend's church was later rebuilt as a hall. It became the nave of a new church in 1926.

Repair and recovery

It was obvious that the repair and rebuilding work would take months. Rather than give the money to unscrupulous private landlords, the government took on the job of rebuilding ruined homes itself.

By mid-February 1917, more than 1700 men were employed in repairing houses. By August most of the work was complete.




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