January 19 1917 - The Silvertown Explosion

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On Friday, January 19th 1917 in Silvertown in West Ham Essex, a blast went off in the evening from a munitions factory that was manufacturing explosives for Britain's military effort.

50 long tons of TNT exploded, killing 73, injuring 400 and caused extensive, wide spread damage to the surrounding area.


On the evening of January 19th, after many had gone home from the factory for the weekend, a fire broke out in the melt-pot room. Efforts were immediately made to put it out. However, while attempting to put it out, 50 tons of TNT ignited causing a massive blast from the building.

The TNT plant was destroyed instantly, as were many nearby buildings, including the local fire station. Debris was strewn for miles with the rubble causing new fires wherever it landed.

Several thousand pounds worth of goods were completely destroyed in nearby warehouses. Up to 70,000 properties were damaged: 900 were destroyed or were unsalvageable. The local church was destroyed and was not replaced until years later.

After the blast, 69 people died immediately, and 4 died later from their injuries. 400 people were injured. Though losing 73 people instantly seems like a lot, the death toll was relatively low, likely because of the time of day. The blast damaged the upper floors of surrounding homes. Because it was after work time but before bed time, most people were not near the factory, but also weren't upstairs in their homes yet. Being Friday, less people were out in general. Had it occurred at another time, the lives lost could have been much higher.


Emergency services came immediately and began putting out fires and triaging to treat the wounded. First aid was administered in the street, and the Salvation Army and YMCA rendered aid through food and hot drinks for the injured.

Firemen and volunteers were killed or seriously injured as they attempted to keep the fires at a bay.

Because of the extensive property damage, thousands were left homeless, needing to live in schools or churches that were offered up. 1,700 men were tasked with reconstruction of the homes and buildings, but in the mean time, conditions for those waiting for a new home were a public health hazard and not fit for civilized humans. These conditions were debated in parliament, with some arguing that the residents should relocate to a new city rather than spending millions to rebuild the destroyed area.

An investigation was opened into what may have caused the explosion, but a single cause was never determined. Many theorized that it was German sabotage or an air-raid, but more realistically, it was likely just poor factory conditions. The investigation revealed that the factory's site wasn't appropriate for manufacturing TNT, things were being stored unsafely and the management and safety of the plant in general were criticized.

The grounds where the explosion tok place was never built over top of. A memorial was commissioned in the 1920s inside the entrance to the factory, that also serves as a memorial for the first and second world war. It was moved to a new location in 2016.

With Chernobyl in the news again due to the hit HBO mini-series, it is interesting to learn about other explosions that took and changed many lives.


1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silvertown_explosion

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