Forgotten Stories – the 1917 Silvertown Explosion (part two)

Forgotten Stories – the 1917 Silvertown Explosion (part two)

In the second part of this special this special edition of Forgotten Stories we remember The Silvertown Explosion through the eyes and ears of relatives and friends of those who were about on the fateful day, and those who remember the stories of the horrors that were passed on to them.

Stan Dyson was brought up and lived in West Silvertown for many years. Stan, who now lives in Essex, continues to have a great affection for the area and those who lived there years ago. He recalls his Nan, Alice Guinee, telling him about the explosion.

Said Stan: “Having heard the huge bang and feeling the house shake, she opened the front door to a huge plume of fire and falling debris. But because we were in the middle of a war, the reason behind it was kept secret for many, many years. It was referred to over the years, but like most of what happened in our community back then, people just seemed to move on and get on with it.”

During our research for this anniversary piece, we discovered that a Newham theatre group staged a play about the explosion, 43 years ago. It was the idea of Gerard ‘Ged’ Melia, the borough’s Inspector for Drama.

Terry Wilson, who was the head teacher of Regent Primary School in Custom House when the idea was first suggested in 1972, played a major role in staging it. He had also been deputy head at Storey Street Primary in North Woolwich.

It took a year of research, delving into the basement of council buildings in East Ham and Stratford for records of the disaster and local people who are now sadly passed away. The Newham Teachers Theatre workshop spent many months researching for the production, The Silvertown Disaster

“The stories resonated with us. The production focussed on why so many shells were needed and had sections based over in France and took in the views of the generals and what munitions were needed to win the war.

“But in the research it was obvious how locals viewed how dangerous this was to have this factory in their community. We were even able to portray how a police officer came out to address and locals in the aftermath of the explosion to reveal what had happened and how he announced in the manner that you often hear: ‘I approached the scene and found….

“When we did that, an old lady in her 70s in the audience stood up and said: ’That’s exactly how it was! I remember him.’”

Terry’s research about his own school shows that it was shut for three weeks after the explosion because of the damage even though it was in Custom House and the explosion was in Silvertown.

“There were stories about the blast being heard as far away as King’s Lynn and a tale also emerged about an organist who was playing a big organ at the Finsbury Park Empire and the force of the blast blew him from one side of his seat to the other,” he said.

“We also discovered stories about the aftermath where soldiers were sent in to help casualties at Silvertown. They woke up to see soldiers wearing turbans, tending to them. It was a sight they had never seen before, as soldiers from other countries were called in to help.”

He said: “We found the mourning cards from 1917 and these were used in the play which involved around 30 teachers and deputy and head teachers. It was an improvised production – a docu-drama with music -which we performed around 20 times at local venues like schools, church halls and libraries and also at a librarians’ conference at Loughborough University.”

But the play had the most impact locally. The actors even used a small extract from the play Oh What A Lovely War, including a song from the First World War trenches with some colourful language.

“The head of Star Lane school, Miss Bull, was a little shocked to say the least,” said Terry.

The extent of the news blackout because of the event occurring in war time, and similar to the one concerning the bombing of Hallsville School in the Second World War, also became revealed in their research.

“The Times only reported that the explosion had happened at a factory in London”.

Indeed, many of the facts were not revealed until 50 years after it happened, and the loss of life is still viewed by many today as being an underestimate.

In our quest to find others with stories, we received some comments from those with relatives living locally at the time.

Jan Ransen told us: “An ex’s father was born prematurely because of the explosion. His mother was standing on a chair cleaning something and the noise made her jump and fall. The baby was born into a bucket and originally pronounced dead. But he cried and revived. He lived until he was 81!”

Brenda Lacey said: “My mother’s father, my granddad, helped after the explosion and was awarded a medal for his services, a sovereign.”

John Ford said: “It just so happens that my late father was at Silvertown. He was less than one year old at the time and lived I believe, at number 1 Albert Street opposite the factory. The street no longer exists but even though the top floor was blown away, all my relatives living in that building survived the explosion. I was not aware of the explosion until I started researching my family history a few years ago.”

One woman, Sheila, revealed that her great aunt Elizabeth Preston, was killed in the explosion, along with her two small children George and Dorothy, and her mother-in-law. Her story is recorded on a website.

But she said: “They had just moved into a house close to the factory a week or so before, because her husband had a new job as a miller at a nearby flour mill and was required to live close by as presumably he worked shifts. She had not wanted to move there. They did not know what was being produced at the factory, so when the fire started they went out to watch, while most of the other inhabitants, knowing what was going to happen, were running away.

“It was dreadful for my grandmother, who was very close to her sister, who was four years older than her. They had been orphaned when my grandmother was four years old, and sent to the workhouse.

“Elizabeth had determinedly kept in touch with my grandmother even when they were separated – my grandmother being fostered out to Westmoreland and Elizabeth sent into service. Elizabeth’s husband was at work when the explosion occurred and was unhurt. He must have been heartbroken to lose his entire family like that. All the compensation they received was £10 to cover the cost of the burials.

“He subsequently asked my grandmother to marry him, but she turned him down. I have tried to locate the burials, which my mother insisted were in the City of London cemetery, but have not been able to find them.”

Keith Lloyd lived in West Silvertown for 24 years. Keith has written two short stories about the explosion in which he recalls asking his mother, Ivy Orley what she remembered about it.

In the first story, Weapons of Mass Destruction he said: “Ivy, then four, was at home on Cranbrook Road with her mother (Agnes Orley) when they heard the first explosion). They ran to hide under the stairs. Ivy recalled the ‘walls coming down like jelly’ as the explosion hit their house as she watched through the gap in the doorway.

“The house was destroyed to rubble and they could not get out. They were found by the eldest son Bob, who had been sent out to get some bread… He ran home to find the house in rubble and his mum and sister shouting for help.

Astonishingly, as soon as she saw her son, Agnes asked, “where’s the bread?”

As a consequence of the damage to the house, the family had to find somewhere to live and had no alternative but to split up. Keith’s mum went with her mum to live with an auntie and the other children went to another distant family member.

Keith’s father and grandfather also had memories about the explosion.

In Keith’s second short story, The First Tea Party, his said that his grandfather Ernest Lloyd senior, 35 at the time, was ‘blown down the street’ by the explosion.

“His son, my father, referred to at the time as Young Ernie, was six when he was injured by the blast. He was waiting to go inside for his first tea party given by the scouts in the Methodist Church Hall in North Woolwich Road.”

He had seen “posher kids” going into the party and thought he would feel out of place and was in two minds waiting to go in, when a voice said that Sister Vera was calling him.

Then he said… “Suddenly it happened. A huge pink semi-circle cloud appeared in the sky, bigger then any of the surrounding buildings and as I watched the top of the semi-circle opened up to send red, yellow and black smoke belching upwards.

“I remember thinking ‘the sun must have fallen out of the sky.’ I turned to run but there was an enormous explosion and I felt myself being lifted as if by a giant hand and propelled forward (I thought) at terrific speed. My ears were full of rushing wind.

“Then, as suddenly as it started, it stopped and I felt my body drop and hit the roadway very hard. I lay still for a while. Then, lifting my head a little, I could see people being blown about like blackened cardboard.

Three women who had been walking towards where I was lying were suddenly mown down. One leaned against the shutters of the butcher’s shop holding her left elbow in her right hand and looking down at where her hand should have been. The second was sitting on the foot path and the third was lying in the gutter. I saw a man lifted off his feet by the blast and thrown, with a tremendous force into a doorway.

“I remained still for some time but then I heard something. I turned over and saw a headless woman. Then I thought ‘that may be my Mum’ and this was the moment I became panic-stricken. I got up and ran about madly. It seemed I had been running about for hours, when I heard someone calling urgently, “Jessie, Jessie, here he is”. Jessie (my Mum) was being called by my aunt Gladys, who just could not hide the elation in her voice.

“He’s all right Jess not hurt”. Then I saw my Mum coming towards me carrying my younger brother John aged two.

“She said, “I’ve been to the Chapel and they told me you had not been there. I told your father you must be still in your bedroom changing your boots”. When my Dad went back to the house he found the bedroom had been devastated.They were taken to a church to be treated for their injuries.

They were taken to a church to be treated for their injuries.

After watching the funeral processions for the firemen, policemen, soldiers and civilians killed in the explosion, we were told that the children were to be prepared to move on Tuesday to a big house in Swanley, Kent. This was to be our home for the next eight months, said Keith.

“After being away for eight months we all enjoyed the journey back to Silvertown sitting up front on the brake eating the apples and we had been given. When we pulled into Westwood Road we were all singing our heads off. There was a crowd of people waiting for us outside St. Barnabas Church. But when I got there, I was disappointed- all the guns were gone as was (part of) the flour mills owned by Joseph Rank. They had all been blown to pieces.

In September we were told that a number of children were being sent to the countryside to get some fresh air. I didn’t want to go. I wanted to stay at home. But I had no choice and Wally and I, together with Archie and Wally Cole, were soon on our way to Wokingham to be billeted with Mr and Mrs Challis.

“We were away for almost a year. It must have been August 1918 when we returned home because I recall having been back at school for just two weeks when I was sent into the big boys section and then marched into the playground to listen to all the factory sirens and ships hooters blasting away, signalling the end of The First World War.”

Throughout the 19th century Silvertown was a hub for industry. Historian Graham Hill, who co-wrote with Howard Bloch The Silvertown Explosion: London 1917, said: “It was said that by the turn of the century every household in the country owned or had at least one product that had come from Silvertown.”

Said Graham: “The Minister of Munitions, David Lloyd George, said two years before the explosion: ‘Even after utilising every workshop and factory capable of turning out munitions, we found that output would be inadequate unless we supplemented our resources by setting up emergency buildings.’”

Despite warnings from Brunner Mond’s chief chemist at the time, Dr Francis Arthur Freeth, that there would be a catastrophe sooner or later, the Ministry of Munitions believed it was worth taking the risk and the factory began TNT production in September 1915. Another chemist, Dr Andrea Angel, was drafted in to help oversee the production and guide the workers who were inexperienced in chemistry.

Graham Hill said: “People all over London heard the explosion and felt the blast, which damaged between 60,000 and 70,000 properties, and saw a red glow in the sky that was visible for miles around.”

The surrounding areas were practically obliterated by the blast, with fires breaking out in nearby building and residential streets demolished by the impact, with reports stating that the blast was heard as far away as Norwich. At the time, firefighter James J Betts and his colleagues went to the factory to put out the initial blaze but were sent 200ft through the air when the TNT exploded.

“Around me was a vast plain of rubble. The factory had gone. There was fearful sounds in the air, the screams of injured women and children, the groans of those imprisoned under the debris,” James recalled.

The government paid out £3m in compensation, around £40m in today’s money, and had to provide temporary shelters for hundreds left homeless.

The tragedy featured in an episode of the ITV programme Upstairs Downstairs (the Downton Abbey of the early seventies). Ruby, a former servant had gone to work at the munitions factory and having survived the explosion returned to her former employer at Eaton Place. She was made up with a canary yellow complexion that was said to be the result of working with TNT and Nitric Acid.

A memorial to the victims was originally erected in North Woolwich Road. But as we revealed earlier, it is now in the middle of The Wharf development.

Eastside Community Heritage are planning an exhibition of photographs and memories on January 19, with a talk by Graham Hill and will include a moment’s silence in honour of those who lost their lives at the time of the explosion.

This will be at St Luke’s Church in Canning Town. More on their website.

A commemorative event is also being planned at the Royal Wharf Development.

Pictures: Newham Heritage Archives and Local Studies Library and Colin Grainger

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