Posts Tagged ‘Silvertown’

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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over the border neil fraserThe border referred to is the Lea River. West of it: Middlesex; East of it: Essex. This major tributary joins the Thames with an elaborate final meander on the East shoulder of the Isle of Dogs. It has been termed The Border for centuries by locals, commentators and writers alike, not least of them Dickens. The border areas include Plaistow, East Ham, West Ham, Canning Town, Silvertown. And Stratford, home of London2012, and the raison d’etre of this book.

The author lived in the general area for much of the 1990s and 2000s. The first sentence of the book is: “This is not a history book, though there is a lot of history in it.” A perfect summary. There is a lot of history but the author, one feels, is covering his back a little because much of it is a very personal memoir, but no need, for  it is most definitely none the worse for that.  Some of the history involves incidents and people which are almost common knowledge to the London historian (Dr Dodd; the 1917 Silvertown disaster). But most I would say is not. The main story of the area, and that which takes up most of the narrative, is about industrialisation and consequent urbanisation. Factories, industries, workers, slum housing. We learn about 19C industrialists such as the men who created Silvertown, the home of Tate & Lyle and dozens of noisesome and distinctly less benevolent businesses; businesses which provided domestic goods for every home in Britain and the colonies along with industrial essentials for the wider world (notably electric cable: I had never heard of gutta percha before – massive). Grim, unsanitary, dangerous living and working conditions along with high unemployment characterise this area from the coming of the docks and railways right through to the post-WWII era – living memory. All of this is well researched and described with plenty of contemporary newspaper, survey, report and history writings cited and frequently quoted, often at length. (I like how Over The Border has its footnotes on the actual page rather than at the back.)

The more modern parts of our story are told with a weary and regretful cynicism, albeit with humour. I very much enjoyed learning about the post-war rejuvenation of the now legendary Theatre Royal Stratford, led by Joan Littlewood and a company of optimistic, leftist actor-producers who always had to be one step ahead of creditors and inspectors. The making in 1969 of the critically-acclaimed independent movie Bronco Bullfrog, about the tribulations of a local teenage couple. The scenery of much of the location work, the author notes, has mostly disappeared or been transformed as to be unrecognisable, a mere 40 years on.

The replacement in the post-war decades of whole streets of terraced housing and small shops by modern concrete shopping centres, blocks of flats, new trunk roads, etc; dead pubs; how the 60s ignored – and were ignored by – the local citizenry; and now the wholesale transformation of Stratford by the Olympic Park and Westfield, both of which the author looks over with a distinctly jaundiced eye. At the beginning and end of the book and occasionally elsewhere, Fraser is accompanied in the pub or on his explorations by his drinking buddy and literal fellow-traveller “Angry Bob”, in a Cassandra role. Angry Bob also provides – on behalf of the author – comic relief and swearing. Both men are more mellow and philosophical by the end of the story, largely because they had both escaped the region some years previously.

Over the Border is an excellent introduction to the to the  history of the “other East End”, and most enjoyable to read: informative, opinionated and pacy. Neil Fraser has succeeded in taking much very grim subject matter and making it palatable, without trivialising any aspect of it. There is an excellent section of historical and contemporary pictures the latter of which are mostly by the author himself. He may make the “not a history book” claim, but my only criticism is that the volume would definitely benefit from a nice index.

Over the Border: The Other East End, 394pp, by Neil Fraser is published in paperback by Function Books with a cover price of £9.99, although available for less.

Neil Fraser will be talking at London Historians event History in the Pub on Tuesday 17 July, along with the authors of The Sugar Girls. More information here.

I’d also like to mention that London Borough of Newham has a fine collection of historical images on its website, here.

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the sugar girlsI noted last weekend that The Sugar Girls had deservedly made the Sunday Times top 10 for non-fiction. This gave me the poke I needed to knuckle down and read it. So this weekend gone I did just that: it is a very easy read, for reasons I hope I can make clear.

“Sugar Girls” is what eastenders and the girls themselves called the female factory workers at Tate & Lyle’s massive sugar refinery and syrup factory plants in Silvertown. The young ladies themselves were fiercely proud to be known as such. This book follows the stories of four of them – steadfast Ethel, gadabout Gladys, determined Lilian and tragic Joan (names you barely hear nowadays), their families, colleagues and bosses over an approximate 10 year period starting at the back end of World War II.

Historians of the period tend to focus on austerity, rationing, the foundation of the NHS, nationalisation, and so on. In The Sugar Girls, these things are barely mentioned, if at all. Why? Because the book is a collective memoir of four women whose day-to-day priorities were getting to and from work, keeping their family together and securing and keeping a boyfriend or husband at a time when most men were returning from war or going on National Service. That is how these now elderly ladies remember the period. (Lovers of historical trivia will enjoy, as I did, the origin of Tate and Lyle’s sugarcube man).

It would be so easy for the authors to have fallen into the trap of presenting the East End stereotype, but they succeed brilliantly in avoiding this. While our heroines do love a sing-song and a knees-up, these and similar phrases are never employed; nor can I recall a single example of Cockney rhyming slang. Nonetheless, there is no shortage of unsavoury and unpleasant characters in our story, and certainly the locals are hard nuts, evidenced by several rather brutal sugar girl fights and occasional bouts of domestic violence.

Most people in this industrial part of town were dirt poor. But the massive Tate & Lyle had a reputation of paying well, and looking out for its workers’ welfare. Although unionised, there didn’t seem to be much friction between staff and management during the period. But terms of service and certain working conditions from our perspective today seem positively archaic. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that you could drink alcohol at the recreation club during lunch, but I was genuinely surprised that in certain departments, women workers were obliged to leave the company on getting married – pregnancy didn’t even enter into it (inevitably, though, pregnancy looms large in our story).

Although the authors – or perhaps their subjects –  have suppressed some of the more jagged edges of post-War, industrial East London, there is plenty of hardship and heartbreak in this story, believe me. But overall, they have emphasised the positive, the funny and the uplifting. Do have the tissues close at hand when you get to the final chapter for the wrap-up of this remarkable, warm-hearted story of our mothers’ and grandmothers’ generation.

My only criticism of this book has nothing to to do with beautifully-told story, but is rather about production: Sugar Girls lacks photographs, even though there are plenty available if you go to the Sugar Girls website. I do hope some of these may be included in subsequent editions, but if you haven’t read it yet, I do recommend you check out the pictures before or during your reading of this wonderful book.

The Sugar Girls (340 pp) by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi is published in paperback by HarperCollins, 2012, and with a cover price of £6.99 although available for less.

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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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