To mark the centenary of the biggest explosion in the history of London, West Ham MP Lyn Brown, who grew up in Silvertown, and Joan Plant, who still lives in the house she was born in North Woolwich, recall the impact the Silvertown Explosion had on the community and their family lives.
“My nan Catherine Oates, who was known as Katie, lost her left arm in the explosion,” said Lyn Brown. “She was hurt as she was walking down the street when the blast occurred. Her brother was killed in the disaster.
“And a young Esther Wilson – an amazing woman who was the local Brownie leader from Silvertown, lost her sight. She was a teenager at the time. Her sight was damaged and eventually she went blind.
“She went away to learn braille and was still able to run the Brownie group in St Barnabas Church in Silvertown and later St John’s Church in North Wooolwich. She was my Brownie leader and taught generations of local children the correct values in life. She was an amazing woman.”
Esther’s plight was also remembered by Joan Plant, aged 90.
“I understand that Esther was blinded when she was being carried along the street by her mother – she was a babe in arms and they were blown up in the air by the force of the blast. She lost her sight a year or two after, but went on to lead a remarkable life,
Joan, was often told about the explosion by her mother Florrie, who was born Florrie Larkins. Her father Fred Plant, was away in India on National Service at the time of the fatal explosion.
At the time, her mother was working ‘over the river’ at Woolwich Arsenal as a lathe operator as part of the First World War effort.
“They often worked late into the night preparing vital items, like shells for the troops”, said Joan. The complex had two huge solid iron gates.
“Mum told us how these were blown shut by the force of the blast. It was incredible. But as they came home that night the women weren’t allowed to go into that part of Silvertown. Having come through the Woolwich tunnel they were told by police to go straight home and stay indoors.
“There was nothing official about what had happened. Everyone was frightened that the explosion may have been down to the Germans and they were fearful of what might be about to follow in the hours, days and nights ahead.”
It was only as the days passed that the full scale of the disaster became apparent.
Joan revealed that her church, St. Johns in Albert Road, Silvertown, houses a memorial wooden plaque for those who died in the disaster. On a visit to the church, we found it is in remarkable condition, having been made 99 years ago, detailing how St Barnabas Church in Silvertown, was destroyed, but giving thanks to God for saving the lives of all the children who were in the hall when the building collapsed.
Joan said: “Mum would tell us about people who were walking along the road getting blown off their feet and killed or being badly hurt. Because of the German sounding name of the factory, all kinds of rumours began to circulate about who or what was responsible. Anyone with a German sounding name was seen as suspect. Even the chemist Dr Angel was seen as a possible suspect for a time.
“Mum said it was so lucky that the blast had not happened during the day time when the other factories and the school would have been occupied, “ added Joan.
St Barnabas Church and hall were among hundreds of buildings destroyed.
“The community never found out what really happened. When the war ended certain stories trickled out but it took 50 years for the truth to be revealed. There were restrictions on what the press could say, just like there was in the Second World War. Mum said the fear that something like it could happen again never really left them.”
Joan saw many changes in the community growing up but it has always been the view of locals that the explosion was “ an accident waiting to happen.”
“Having something like that in our community was ridiculous. And let’s be honest, the lessons were never really learned. Look at what we had on our doorsteps 23 years later in The Blitz. So many factories with inflammable materials were still located in the area.
“And 16 out of those 17 factories running parallel with the Albert Road were bombed. As Silvertown, North Woolwich and Canning Town and Custom House took more bombing than anywhere else in London.”
Text: Colin Grainger