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This article first appeared in London Historians Members’ Newsletter from June 2017. 
by Rob Smith. 

explosion at silverown police news April 1880

Police News Illustrated 24th April 1880

January this year marked the hundredth anniversary of the explosion at the Brunner Mond factory in Silvertown, one of London’s most devastating disasters. The explosion at the plant, where TNT was being made for the British war effort, killed 73 people and injured more than 500, flattening nearby homes and factories. The explosion led to a rethink about locating dangerous manufacturing plants close to residential areas; a memorial to the explosion has recently been relocated in a new housing development on the site. The disaster has become an important part of East London history. However, the 1917 Silvertown Explosion reprised another event from 1880 at a factory just next door. Unfortunately, industrial accidents in this part of London were depressingly common.

The 1880 explosion took place at a creosote plant owned by Burt, Boulton and Haywood. The company had been set up by two railway engineers H P Burt and S B Boulton with the idea of producing a chemical preservative that could make railway sleepers last longer. Coal Tar creosote had been patented in 1838 by London-based inventor John Bethell. Burt and Boulton set up their works in what was at that time known as Lands End – the strip of industries set up between the Thames and the Plaistow Marshes. This was a desolate location at the time, served by a railway built by George Parker Bidder to connect Kent with the City of London via a passenger ferry at Woolwich – a railway known as “Bidder’s Folly” so unlikely did it seem to succeed. Bidder had the last laugh though, when investors were looking to build the vast Royal Victoria Dock, they had to take him on as a partner as his railway owned the land in the area. When the dock opened in 1855 Burt and Boulton’s factory was in a prime location – able to bring in timber by ship and with the raw materials for making creosote being brought by rail as the by products of London’s many gas works. Soon the plant was busy creosoting tens of thousands of railway sleepers for India’s growing railway network. This unglamorous factory played a small but vital part in making rule of the British Empire possible.

The area now known as Silvertown grew up as housing for workers at Samuel Silver’s rubber and gutta percha works, where the coating which made Transatlantic telegraph cables possible was made. By 1880 the area was home to a sizeable population with a school and a rather fetching church built by S S Teulon. Dangerous industries were no longer on an isolated part of the Thames but in the midst of workers housing

Monday 12th April 1880 had started as an ordinary day at Burt, Boulton and Hayward, with the workforce of three or four hundred boys producing barrels of creosote, as well as by-products like insecticides and sulphuric acid, which went on to become fertilizer. The factory, at a location called Prince Regent’s Wharf, was constructed around a yard which at its centre had a group of four stills containing 2500 gallons of tar each. Two workers oversaw the stills which were heated to separate naptha and creosote from the coal tar. At around 2pm a worker in the yard saw a blue flame erupt from a manhole at the top of the still. A man attempted to pour sand on the flame and shortly afterwards another worker called Benjamin Price attempted to use a portable fire appliance on the blaze. Before Price could do anything, a huge explosion ripped through the still, and the lid went flying into the air, despite weighing several tons. Witnesses say the men on the lid of the still were blown high in the air, and that the still lid rose up like a hot air balloon. Workers in the yard ran in panic as they were showered by burning tar, falling bricks and twisted metal. Two men panicked and ran to hide in a building filled with sulphuric acid fumes, dying instantly. Another still had cracked in the blast and there were fears that it would explode too, while a 50-tonne water tank was knocked over causing more destruction. Barrels of creosote caught fire, setting fire to adjacent buildings. The blast had also damaged ships in the neighbouring Royal Victoria Dock. Terrified horses bolted through the streets of Silvertown

Twenty-five fire engines raced to the scene. It was to their credit that the blaze was brought under control in three hours but not without further problems. A horse pulling the Leyton fire engine panicked and crashed into a lamppost – injuring the crew and killing the horse. The next day the grim task of identifying the dead began. The explosion had been so huge it was uncertain of the death toll. Body parts were put on display at the nearby Graving Dock Tavern while family members filed past in the hope of identifying some of them. One man was identified by his wife recognising his whiskers. In all, eleven men were found to have died in the blast. The sad funeral took place on the Sunday, the victims’ families all agreed that the funerals should be held together and a grim but stately procession of 250 people from the local community followed the eleven hearses that had been paid for by the factory owner.

An inquiry into the accident began shortly afterwards. It was found that the “worm” part of the still that allowed pressure to be released had become blocked. This was quite common in the factory the inquiry was told, but this time the worker in charge had not noticed. A verdict of Accidental death was given in the inquiry, which was over in a day. This infuriated some people, including the press. It was like having a kettle being boiled with the spout blocked and the lid bolted down, claimed the London Evening Standard – any schoolboy could see that this was dangerous. A simple safety valve could have prevented the accident. Why had there not been stricter regulations on the plant, under the 1875 Explosives Act? The factory owners said that it did not apply as tar was not explosive. Eventually the factory was rebuilt and creosote produced there until the 1960’s. There is no memorial to the explosion, but the site is now occupied by the rather lovely Thames Barrier Park.

IMG_1184

Thames Barrier Park – on the site of the 1880 explosion at Burt, Boulton and Hayward.

This was far from the end of the industrial accidents in Silvertown. In 1886, fire broke out at a guano storage works; in 1887, a huge fire starts in an oil storage facility; in 1897, a worker at the Silver factory was killed in an explosion; and in 1899 the Keiller jam factory was destroyed in a gas explosion. The Brunner Mond explosion needs to be seen in that context: the largest incident but not an unusual one.

London’s industry during the Victorian period made a huge impact on the world, something it rarely gets credit for. However, with every great innovation there are dangers and learning to minimise the risks in industrial production was an important breakthrough in itself. We often talk of “health and safety gone mad” but the Silvertown Explosion is an example of what life was like for workers without the protection of health and safety rules.


Rob Smith
Rob Smith is a guide with Footprints of London. You can find out more about his industrial-related walks at their website.

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I live a matter of a few hundred yards from the major trunk road in question, so when I spotted this in a shop in Kew last week, I had to have it.

dsc07287c

It’s a print commemorating the opening of the Great West Road in 1925 by George V and Queen Mary (who’d be a monarch, eh?). Made of tissue and folded like a paper napkin, it would have been dished out to the local crowds, or perhaps sold for a penny or two. It’s in really good condition, a remarkable survival.

The text badly spills over into the border decoration. This tells us, I think, that the souvenir printers made large stocks of coloured templates and then customised them for different occasions by overprinting text etc in black.

“The new Great West Road which has just been completed at a cost of £1,000,000 , will be opened by the King, accompanied by the Queen to-day. 

This new arterial road, which is eight miles in length, has for the greater part a width of 120ft. It extends from the Chiswick High-road near Kew Bridge, by-passes Brentford and enables traffic to avoid the congestion bottle-neck in the town.

The road continues through Isleworth and meets the main road again at the Bath Road, just beyond the Hounslow Barracks Station, then crosses the main road and passing through Hatton Village, joins the main Staines Road at Bedfont.” 

The building of the Great West Road was essential. Historically, the route to Bath and the west ran through Brentford. There was bad enough congestion during the days of horse-drawn vehicles, but once cars, buses, lorries and especially trams hit the streets, the narrow high street became all but impassable.

It didn’t take long for large businesses to realise the potential that the new thoroughfare offered. Beautiful industrial art deco buildings sprang up, giving us Brentford’s “Golden Mile”.

LH Member James Marshall wrote a book about this back in 1995. It’s out-of-print now, so available copies are very pricy. They are easily borrowed from local libraries however.

 

 

 

 

 

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A guest post by LH Member David Whittaker

Iron Men How one London Factory Powered The Industrial Revolution And Shaped The Modern World, by David Waller.

ironmenWhen considering the Industrial Revolution some of us, although well aware of earlier developments in that we all know about Coalbrookdale but may not know about the rest of the pre-Victorian era. Many tend to think that the most important phase of the Industrial Revolution took place in the Victorian era and associate it with “Railway mania”. They may also assume that most of this activity took place near the coal fields in northern towns. But what came before this? It was a world almost contemporaneous with well-known changing social commentaries of Jane Austin. So, it’s easy to forget that the beginnings of mass production started in the late Georgian era. Furthermore, ask most people, even those who have an interest in Britain’s industrial history, to name a famous engineering innovator. Only a few would name Maudslay. So, who were Henry Maudslay and his men? As Waller says “Amid the truly voluminous literature on the Industrial Revolution with much on the social impact of mechanisation, but surprisingly little about the machines themselves and the men who built them.”  In “Iron Men” Waller endeavours to fill this gap. Much of this activity, perhaps surprisingly, took place in London.

The book starts with an account of an early example of the mass production maritime pulley block-making mill at The Royal Dockyards Portsmouth. In 1800 The Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars required more than a hundred thousand blocks per year. This drove the move to machine manufacture. These block mills were the result on the labour and vision of three men, General Sir Samuel Bentham (Jeremy’s younger brother), Marc Isambard Brunel and thirdly, the young Henry Maudslay. Maudslay moved on to London to work for Bramah’s locks in Denmark Street, then to set up his own machine shop at 64 Wells Street London, developing new and more accurate “boring machines” all the time. These were not only capable of manufacturing rapidly and consistently to fine limits but were also a thing of aesthetic beauty in their own right. In 1810 Maudslay made the move to Lambeth to build his “Most Complete Factory” The greater space allowed far larger projects to be undertaken. Here were manufactured a wide range of mechanical machines and parts including “Time Balls” as synchronising indicators for ships. The one on Greenwich Observatory is one of these.

Through the following thematic chapters, the author moves on to those associated with Maudslay. Here he covers him working with the Brunels and the Thames Tunnel, noting that Brunel’s tunnelling shield was constructed at the Lambeth factory. Then, on to Manchester and Richard Roberts, via Babbage, the great polymath, designer of cowcatchers and his attempts to build his “Difference Engine”. On to railway locomotive design improvements to Nasmyth’s steam hammer and further transportation developments. Then the standardised Whitworth screws nut and bolts. Ending with locks, labour disputes and fire arms. A fast-paced romp, each fact-filled chapter sprinkled with engineering nuggets. Interestingly, these men were mostly of humble practical backgrounds, often educated via apprenticeship and the rise of the technical schools. They had “bashed metal” and possessed an ability to visualise the various interactions of complex mechanical devices.

Waller also interestingly, in several places, likens this period to the computer technological developments of Silicon Valley.

After all this you are probably wondering what happened to Maudslay’s wonderful factory? Founded in 1810, before the battle of Waterloo the site is now that of Lambeth South tube station. Waller writes  “There is nothing left to remind us of Maudslay’s presence, expect a memorial tablet erected  high on the wall inside the ticket office of the tube station, which you would hardly notice if you did not come looking for it:

“On this site between 1810 and 1900 stood the works of Maudslay, Sons & Field famous for marine and general engineering and as the training place of many engineers of renown”.

“This ought to be hallowed ground for all engineers and aficionados of the Industrial Revolution, as it was for knowledgeable contemporaries.” I agree…

In conclusion, this book is very much for the general reader as well as the industrial history enthusiast. It should fill in many gaps in knowledge how everything is put together

Also it should please those like me who delight in all the “connections”. That web of people, places, things and timelines that somehow fall together to make it happen.

Lastly, one minor gripe which seemed rather ironic considering the subject matter of quality and standardisation. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the book’s contents and it has certainly inspired me to investigate the life and technical innovations of Maudslay and his associates, it was slightly spoilt by the rather small type size and inconsistent quality of the print where it appears that the ink has not fully adhereed properly to the page.


Iron Men: How one London Factory Powered The Industrial Revolution And Shaped The Modern World, 244pp, by David Waller is published by Anthem Press in hardback and Kindle. ISBN 978-1-78308-544-6

 

 

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As we celebrate the anniversary this day of the opening of Selfridges in 1909 and mourn the end of ITV’s Mr Selfridge, we remember the genius of retail who began it all. A guest post by David Long. 

DSC01750_250‘Only xx shopping days before Christmas’ is a phrase to cheer the heart or chill the bones, depending who hears it. Either way it was coined by the American-born retail magnate Harry Gordon Selfridge, one of many snappy and effective marketing slogans he came up with – ‘the customer is never wrong’ is thought to be another – most of which were quickly adopted by his rivals.

A partner in the US giant Marshall Field (still with us, as part of the Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s empire) Selfridge and his wife arrived in Mayfair in the early 1900s. Unimpressed by the quality of London department stores, he decided to establish his own, ploughing an estimated £400,000 (equivalent to more than £120 million today) into a large plot at what was then the decidedly unfashionable end of Oxford Street. The result was the building familiar to visitors today, its giant Ionic columns the work of English architects R.F.Atkinson and Sir John Burnett with a clock as its centrepiece, nearly three and a half metres in diameter and called The Queen of Time.

The Queen of Time

The Queen of Time

Selfridge’s timing was fortunate, and he was a canny and highly perceptive operator. An early advocate of paid advertising, one who recognised that a generation of newly emancipated women looked upon shopping as a recreation not a chore, he worked tirelessly to promote Selfridges as a destination rather than a mere shop. He even lobbied to get the nearest underground station renamed Selfridges, and when his friend Lord Ashfield, Managing Director of the Underground Electric Railway Company, decided to stick with the name Bond Street serious consideration was given to running a private tunnel from the top of the escalators right into the store.

From the start Selfridge was also a great innovator. In 1910 his emporium became the first in the world to have a ground floor beauty department, and today – when almost every rival has followed suit – its beauty hall is still the world’s largest (It sells more than 7,700 lipsticks, 2,800 mascaras and 1,000 nail polishes every week.) For years the store ran its own private Information Bureau, equipped with more books than the average local library and a trained staff dedicated to finding answers to literally any question a customer might put to them. Movie directors were also invited to film scenes in the store, providing yet more valuable publicity for the company. (They still are: in Love Actually Rowan Atkinson is maddeningly meticulous service when he enquires of Alan Rickman’s agitated customer ‘Would you like it gift wrapped?’)

While he turned down the chance to sell the revolting sounding ‘Sitwell Egg’ (a porable confection of rice, artificial lime and pressed meat devised by the eccentric serial inventor Sir George Sitwell) Selfridge frequently called on new technologies to boost his business.

In 1909 Louis Bleriot’s aeroplane went on display here shortly after the Frenchman had become the first to fly across the Channel – more than 150,000 Londoners queued to see it. In 1925 the Scottish inventor John Logie Baird was paid £25 a week to demonstrate his new machine to customers, Selfridge identifying at once that what its creator called the ‘Televisor’ was not a toy but ‘a link between all peoples of the world’. Four years later, to celebrate the store’s 20th anniversary, the exterior was lit up by an unprecedented display of more than 30,000 electric lightbulbs.

Already rich when he arrived in London the popularity and runaway success of the new venture made Selfridge richer still, and following the death of his wife in the post-war flu pandemic he settled down to enjoy it in fine Mayfair style. For a while he flirted with the idea of building a huge square tower on top of the store, one which would have dominated the whole of the West End had not his architect warned that it was so massive that the entire edifice might collapse under its own weight.

Instead, in the absence of such an obvious monument, a Blue Plaque at 9 Fitzmaurice Place is now all there is to give one an indication of the scale on which he chose to spend his fortune. Now home to the Lansdowne Club, this was once a truly magnificent Adam mansion, with wings either side of the main Palladian block and private gardens so extensive that even into the 20th century it could still be described as ‘secluded’.

The house had originally been built for the fabulously rich Marquess of Bute (1713-92), Britain’s first Scottish Prime Minister. It was later sold to William, Earl of Shelburne who renamed it after himself when he was created Marquess of Lansdowne.

When Selfridge took over the lease in 1921, Adam’s masterpiece was still very much one of the great West End houses although sadly its façade and wings were soon afterwards demolished so that a road could be cut through from Berkeley Square to Curzon Street and Piccadilly. Two important rooms were saved: a Drawing Room now installed in the Museum of Arts in Philadelphia; and the Dining Room which found its way to the Metropolitan Museum in New York

Ahead of this act of architectural vandalism Selfridge’s period as custodian of such a landmark house scandalised London society even more than his decision in 1922 to allow waitresses in the store’s restaurant to wear trousers. (This was to allow them to move more quickly from table to table.)

The cause of the scandal this time was his love life, which included affairs with a divorcée (Syrie Barnardo Wellcome, who later married Somerset Maugham) and the Dolly Sisters, a fashionable pair of cabaret artistes of middle-European origins. The idea of cabaret girls was in itself enough to make dowagers feel faint; what made Selfridge’s behaviour even more outré was that discreet enquiries into which sister he was with – Jenny or Rosie? – seemed to point to his carrying on with both of them simultaneously.
While the girls gambled recklessly, Selfridge spent in much the same manner on a wild parties, fleets of Rolls-Royces to ferry friends to race meetings, and for a while a truly mad plan to build himself a castle in Hampshire surrounded by more than four miles of high stone walls.

The whole thing was deliciously decadent, typically 1920s and oh-so-Mayfair, but unfortunately taking his eye of the ball in this way meant that control of Oxford Street’s mightiest retail phenomenon soon slipped from its founder’s grasp. Before long he was manoeuvred out by his fellow directors and with his fortune much diminished by the Depression of the 1930s Harry Gordon Selfridge, incredibly, fell into debt. In 1947 he died, a poor man, living in a tiny flat with his daughter, at 81 Putney Hill, SW15.


David Long‘s latest book on the capital is a companion to the West End called ‘Paved with Gold’ (Fort Publishing).‎ It includes a detailed examination of its history, art, architecture and inhabitants.

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old pennyNew pee. Such an ugly phrase, introduced this day in 1971 with the decimalisation of the currency. It was, I suppose, to differentiate it from the outgoing old pennies – or pence: huge copper items which carried every monarch’s head from Queen Victoria onwards. On the reverse was the image of Britannia and the year. In written form, the old penny was “D/d” as in the Roman denarius. Most of them were tarnished dark brown or black. The old Victorian, Edwardian or George V ones were heavily worn.

Cui bono? Well, I suppose it was easier to teach and to learn.

But what did we lose? We lost the thrupenny bit and the Tanner (6d). We lost the bob (12d), the sov (sovereign, old pound: archaic), the crown (5s = 60d) and the half-crown (2/6 = 30d). We lost the ten bob note – that’s 50p to younger readers. Thankfully the word “quid” has survived. But let’s face it, it was an altogether more colourful currency than that which we have today.

Why did we have to learn the twelve times table? That’s the reason. You had to be pretty good at basic mental arithmetic to know you had the right change when you bought your newspaper. I contend that our complex currency made us a more numerate people before 1971.

Somehow the guinea survived, a wonderful anachronism. It remains the currency unit of choice at livestock sales and the Turf. It is worth, bizarrely, £1.05, or 21 shillings old money. The guinea was introduced during the reign of Charles II. Struck from pure west African gold (hence Guinea), it had an initial value of 20 shillings. But as the value of gold increased over time, its value went up to as much as 27 shillings. Eventually in the early 19C it was pegged at 21s. Strictly the currency of the wealthy (few ordinary people had more than a quid to spend back then), the guinea was used in horse and livestock sales, gambling, the art market and so on.

I realise that all this makes me sound a grumpy old reactionary: I don’t care.

Long live the mighty guinea!

More on the guinea.

 

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lucozade

Millions of commuters to and from London on the Chiswick flyover from Heathrow and all points west will be familiar with the animated neon advertisment for Lucozade.

Not any more.

Whoever owns Lucozade nowadays has pulled it down and replaced it with a nonedescript static sign, not just for Lucozade, but also – at time of writing – Mercedes.

lucozadenew

The old sign was at least the second of its type on the site at the crossroads of the Great West Road and Ealing Road. Like Lucozade itself – orginally a Beecham product  – the sign was very much part of the Brentford streetscape. In the age of corporate takeovers, Lucozade found itself in the portfolio of Glaxo Smithkline, who had swallowed up Beecham as part of the Smithkline Beecham merger. It remained, therefore, something of a local product. But not really fitting in with the business of the pharmaceutical super giant, it got sold on about two years ago. From that moment the sign was in danger. Very recently Lucozade got handed on again to another faceless corporate. I honestly don’t know who, and couldn’t care less. But this proved the final blow for the cherished sign.

But back to the old sign. It used to say “Aids Recovery” until the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s when the slogan was changed to “Replaces Lost Energy”. At some stage the original neon sign needed replacing: it was simply worn out. Unlike the current owners of Lucozade, someone recognised the heritage value of the sign and it was carefully stored in the industrial archive of nearby Gunnersbury Park Museum. It’s still there as far as I’m aware.

The advertising site is run by the street advertising behemoth, JC Decaux, who ironically also have a local presence in Brentford. They occupy one of the art deco industrial buildings for which Brentford is rightly proud and famous. What an irony and a pity, then, that neither they nor the current Lucozade owners value local heritage.

Realising there might be trouble in store for the old-style sign, I took this video clip in early 2014. At that time I wrote up the story of the sign in a little more detail, here.

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Pimlico RoadMore Dubai on the Thames luxury flattery. On this occasion it’s the Duke of Westminster via his property company, Grosvenor Estate. Luxury flats. How original. But why not? Everyone else is at it – it’s the most efficient way to turn a buck.

This is not a class warrior thing with me. Rather, I despair at the homogenisation of London by developers, this incessant conversion of historically significant buildings and areas into luxury apartments. There have been a few small, yet pleasing wins. A pub here, another one there. The retention of West Smithfield for the Museum of London. But mostly it’s the chucking up of bland glass and steel, little of it with much architectural merit. Stinking up the place and blighting the skyline.

But back to the story. Grosvenor Estate has given a group of six shopkeepers in Pimlico Road notice to quit their premises by the end of the year. The plan is to bulldoze the lot and replace them with luxury flats and, oh, some larger retail units. The owners of these shops – all successful – are none too pleased, needless to say.

Pimlico Road.

One of the units is a Victorian timber yard which has been in continuous business since 1840. Run today by Travis Perkins, for most of its history it was owned by the family firm WH Newson, who founded the business 175 years ago. Travis Perkins has recently been celebrating this fact with its Pimlico Road employees.

Pimlico Road.

Pimlico Road.

Back in 1840 Pimlico was very much on the up, largely thanks to that titan of suburban development Thomas Cubitt, who had a massive goods yard on the Thames nearby. The area had formerly been virtually uninhabitable owing to its marshy, mosquito-ridden landscape. But Thomas Telford’s new St Katharine’s Dock east of the Tower of London had changed all that when spoil from the development had been used to reclaim land in the Pimlico area, hence rendering it fit for development. One wonders whether Cubitt’s contractors and foremen engaged WH Newson as a supplier? Highly likely.

Pimlico Road is located opposite the dual intersection with Ebury Street and Bourne Street (formerly Westbourne Street). It wasn’t called Pimlico Road in 1840 either: west of Ebury Street it was Grosvenor Road, and to the east, Queen Street. If you look it up on a map, you’ll see it sits right where Chelsea meets Belgravia meets Pimlico, in the middle of an area largely dominated by the Grosvenor and the Cadogan estates, both of which resulted hundreds of years ago from lucky young chaps marrying phenomenally wealthy heiresses.

They have proved over the years largely to be enlighted and responsible landlords, something one hopes this may prevail in this particular case and that Grosvenor may yet change its mind over Pimlico Road as it did once before, in 2001.

More on this story as reported in yesterday’s Evening Standard.

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