Posts Tagged ‘Brunner Mond’

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.


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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silvertown explosion

Not enemy action, rather home-grown explosion. Picture: Borough of Newham.

Today marks the anniversary of a TNT explosion which claimed 73 lives and injured a further 400.

At  6:52 pm on 19 January 1917 in a Silvertown factory, 50 tons of TNT ignited in a massive blast which completely destroyed the premises, caused widespread damage to the surrounding area, and could be heard throughout most of London. It wasn’t the biggest or the worst industrial explosion in Britain during World War I, but it became the most notorious.

From early in the conflict, Britain found herself critically short of munitions. So the War Office decided to expand the capacity of the Brunner Mond (later known as ICI) factory in West Ham, against the advice of Brunner Mond themselves, on safety grounds. On the fateful evening a fire broke out in the melt-pot room, precipitating the fatal blast. An estimated 70,000 properties were damaged, including a gasometer which released an enormous fireball into the sky.

While no actual cause of the accident was identified, enemy involvement was ruled out. To this day, the site of the Silvertown factory remains derelict.

Sources: This incident is well-documented on the web. Here is a partial list of links.
Port Cities
Newham Archive 

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