100 years ago today, just before seven o'clock in the evening, London's biggest ever explosion occurred.
The location was Silvertown, between the Royal Docks and the Thames, and the cause was munitions work for the Great War. A former caustic soda factory on the waterfront had been taken over for the production of TNT, and on Friday 19th January 1917 it exploded. 73 people were killed and more than 400 injured, which is the kind of mess 50 tons of high explosives can make in a built-up area. So great was the blast from the Silvertown Explosion that 900 adjacent properties were destroyed, the windows at the Savoy Hotel were blown out, and the bang was heard as far away as Norfolk and the Sussex coast.
The explosion was followed by a scene which will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it. It seemed as if some vast volcanic explosion had burst out in the location in question. 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 against the sky. The awful illumination lasted in its eerie glory only a few seconds. Gradually it died away, but down by the river roared a huge column of flame which told thousands that the explosion had been followed by fire and havoc, the like of which has never been known in these parts. (Stratford Express, 27th January 1917)
The explosion had its origin in the melt-pot room, where bags of crude TNT were emptied into a hopper leading to the giant cauldron at the heart of the process. A fire broke out, which workers and firefighters attempted to extinguish, but all too quickly it reached further stores which then ignited. An entire week's supply of TNT went up in flames, much of it sitting in railway wagons close by, because wartime needs had trumped safety concerns. The explosion flung rubble and shrapnel across a considerable area, and the death toll would have been even higher had the day shift not already gone home. The fire continued until the Sunday afternoon, not helped by the local fire station being located immediately opposite the plant and (almost) entirely demolished.
A visit to the scene after the explosion was sufficient to give anybody an idea of the terrific nature of the calamity. It is not too much to to say that the whole aspect of this busy manufacturing centre has been entirely changed. Where the munitions works once stood there remains nothing but a great heap of bricks, rubbish and ironwork, twisted into strange shapes by the fire and explosion. In the main road lay a huge mass of iron, which at one time was a powerful boiler. It is said to have weighed 15 tons, but it was wrenched from its place when the explosion took place and dropped in the roadway. Here it had to remain until Monday morning when a large body of soldiers, by means of a windlass, managed to remove it to the side of the road. (Stratford Express, 27th January 1917)
The government were forced to admit in the morning papers that something disastrous had happened - such a display of pyrotechnics could not be concealed. Volunteers tended to the injured and helped the homeless with their plight, and the Prime Minister duly turned up to tour the aftermath. It wasn't World War One's largest explosion (the Great Explosion at Faversham in 1916 was equivalent to 200 tons of TNT), neither did it bring the largest loss of life (134 died at at the National Shell Filling Factory near Nottingham in 1918), but it remains the largest explosion the capital's ever known. Haven't we been lucky for the last 100 years?
A memorial to the disaster was erected by the company outside the factory gates, and stood until recently under the DLR viaduct on the North Woolwich Road. It doubled up as a war memorial, so only one of the four faces commemorates the explosion, and only employees of the company got a mention, which isn't ideal. It was also carved from limestone, so the lettering hasn't fared too well in London's polluted air and has become increasingly hard to read. Meanwhile the site of the explosion remained barren wasteland until a couple of years ago, deliberately undeveloped, before bowing to inevitable commercial pressure. And that's where the centenary story gets unexpectedly modern.
A huge area of the Silvertown waterfront is being redeveloped into a residential development, namely Royal Wharf. Bankrolled by a Singaporean corporation it's due to bring over 3000 new homes to Newham, sandwiched into the space between Lyle Park and Thames Barrier Park, with much of the land a former Shell oil plant. Royal Wharf's website describes the new neighbourhood as "forging the way for the most exciting new chapter in London's history", which it quite clearly isn't, but this kind of ballyhoo tends to sell units off-plan to east Asian investors. And as part of the plans they've shifted the Silvertown Memorial deep into the heart of a building site. I went looking.
Most of the site's half-kilometre northern frontage is sealed off, unless you're in hi-vis or driving a concrete mixer. But there is an opening opposite Mill Road, by the rebuilt fire station, close to where the memorial used to be. A single lane of tarmac wiggles inside the building site, then continues arrow-straight, hemmed in between tall branded barriers. A pavement has been provided because this is the only way in to Royal Wharf's waterfront marketing suite, hence public access is available from 10am daily. Halfway down this lengthy slog is a muddy gap where tipper trucks nip between the two halves of the construction zone, while swarms of workers troop overhead via a temporary footbridge. I'm glad I didn't wear my best shoes.
After four minutes the access road gently bends to reveal, blimey, a green oasis in the middle of a building site. Plans for the final development show one large garden area opening out onto the Thames, and this has been built first so that the Marketing Suite has an attractive backdrop. A large patch of landscaped grass is criss-crossed by paths that will one day lead somewhere, but for now end at a ring of hoardings, behind which rise numerous blocks of flats at varying stages in their construction. Trees and flowers have been planted, along with a bank of reeds and a rockery, plus a small footbridge across what may eventually be a water feature.
And here's the Silvertown Memorial, scrubbed up and standing proudly in a flower bed. It's certainly a nicer location than before, although that wouldn't be difficult, and I haven't been able to establish whether it's any closer to the centre of the original blast. An information board alongside tells the story, and tells it well, again moved from its former position out on the road. A commemorative event will be taking place here today, attended by the great-grandson of the owner of the munitions factory along with the families of some of the victims. That's a private affair, but you could pay your respects some other time - the marketing people in the triple-decker timber cabin don't seem to mind visitors, indeed perhaps they hope you'll pop in afterwards and take a look round their sample apartment layouts.
While you're here, follow the stepping stones underneath the mock-up balconies to enjoy the view from the waterfront. The Thames is impressively broad here, just upstream from the barrier at Woolwich, and faces a riverbank still occupied by the remnants of London's industrial past. As that history fades away, and a residential wall goes up in place of wharves and workplaces, the new setting of the Silvertown Memorial feels all the more incongruous. A heavy price was paid on this site 100 years ago, and future residents would do well to remember the sacrifice that demolished a community where theirs now rises.