Forgotten Stories – heroes of the 1917 Silvertown Explosion

Forgotten Stories – heroes of the 1917 Silvertown Explosion

Former North Woolwich PC Alan Godfrey worked as the local Home Beat officer for over 30 years until he retired in 1993. Now 78, Mr Godfrey talks with great pride about the heroism of former officers who died in the line of duty.

“Two officers stationed at North Woolwich during the time of the explosion gave their lives. One, Sidney Newbury PC 975K was killed in action at sea 16th September 1918. He was a Royal Marine, who served in the First World War. The other died in the Silvertown Explosion.

“The self sacrifice of PC 389K George Greenoff (pictured) was incredible. He was on duty outside the factory when the fire broke out. He remained at his post to warn others of the dangers, as the explosion was imminent,” said Alan.

The Police Review of February 1917 added to the story of his heroics.

It revealed: “PC Greenoff got many people out of the burning building and prevented a stampede. Regardless of his own personal danger he devoted himself to duty. In this he was heroically occupied when the terrible explosion occurred.”

Mr Godfrey said: “He was struck on the head by a large missile and died in hospital a few days later. The message from the King sent to his family and colleagues at the time was said to have given those that were left in service the inspiration to carry on and that he did not die in vain. The 30-year-old Pc was posthumously awarded the King’ s Police Medal.”

The Watts Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice in Postman’s Park, Central London, also commemorates, PC Greenoff, who helped to evacuate the factory. When that explosion did happened, the head injuries he suffered proved fatal. He died nine days later.

At the time of his death, PC Greenoff, who lived in Rhea Street, North Woolwich, had an eight-year-old son, Edward, who would later become a police officer himself.

And one day wile serving at North Woolwich nick, Alan got the surprise of his life – and learned so much more about one of the heroes of the Silvertown Explosion. Edward walked into the station as part of a trip see the area again for himself and talked Alan through his father’s life.

“He told me how his father had been in the Navy before the war and at this time, the famous explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott was planning a reconnoitre mission to the South Atlantic to prepare for the mission to the South Pole in 1910-12.

“It was to suss out exactly what they needed and George Greenoff became part of it.

“He received the Bronze Polar Medal for his service, and his son came to tell us about it. He was living in a cold place on the Isle of Sheppey and my wife and I went to visit him. He was looking to sell the medal to raise money to help him survive. I did not have the authority to buy it on behalf of the police, but told him I would get back to him.”

Later Alan found that his son had sold the medal to a museum in New Zealand, where it went on display.

“When Edward Greenoff returned from the South Pole to England and the Navy he was asked, according to his son, what career he was now interested in, and as a result, he was taken on as to serve in the police. The rest, as they say, is history and he became a true local hero.”

This week, we tracked down the original memorial laid to mark the deaths of those who lost their lives. We found it in the middle of the new Royal Wharf development in West Silvertown. It is still in remarkably good condition, with multi-million pounds homes being built around it.

The inquest into his death in the Explosion, revealed that Mr Greenoff had crawled some distance after regaining consciousness. PC Cyril Roberts, who took his friend’s advice and went away to warn others, told the hearing that his heroism and devotion to duty saved his life.

I also tracked down another memorial featuring PC Greenoff, and PC Newbury, which is now at Romford Road, Forest Gate, at Forest Gate Police Station. A new stone was erected to mark the sacrifice of all K division officers killed during the First World War. PC Greenoff, though not killed in War Service, was considered as much a hero for his devotion to duty as those who were drafted and killed in action.

Text: Colin Grainger

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusmail