On Friday 19 January 1917, a small community in the East End was ripped apart by an enormous explosion – the biggest London had seen before or has since.
But this blast wasn’t caused by enemy action. The horrible irony was that it was Silvertown’s own munitions factory that went up. Working flat out to meet a chronic shortage of shells for the war effort, the Brunner Mond works exploded, killing 73 people and laying waste a huge expanse of Silvertown.
Yet curiously for a disaster that destroyed whole streets and left hundreds injured, the incident quickly disappeared from the papers, from public knowledge and even from the folklore of the East End.
The blast started fires for miles around by large, red hot lumps of flying metal blown from the factory building, badly damaging flour mills in Victoria Dock; St. Barnabas Church and many other buildings. In all, it was estimated 60 to 70 thousand properties received damage costing £2,500,000, a huge amount of money at that time. Seventy three people lost their lives (sixty nine immediately) and over four hundred were injured - this is a small number considering the size of the blast, due mainly to the time of day it took place and the fact it was the end of the 'working week' - the majority of workers had left the factories and for many locals it was time to be at home with their evening meals. Also, at the outbreak of the fire people had been warned to clear the area. Some people, living close by the factory and knowing what it produced, and, on realising that there was a fire, grabbed their children and fled as fast as they could.
Although there was a strong response from local communities, the geographical isolation of the area hindered rescue work. In Silvertown 73 people died and 300 were injured. 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, an enormous sum at that time.
The day after the explosion, the local authorities set up the Explosion Emergency Committee to oversee rescue and rebuilding work. By mid-February 1917, more than 1,700 men were employed in repairing houses. By August most of the work was complete. The government eventually paid about three million pounds in compensation to the people affected by the disaster.