Silvertown Explosion

I have been doing some research on the stretch of the Thames near my studio - from the North Greenwich Peninsula to where the Woolwich Ferry crosses the river.  What I particularly like that it that it still feels like it is a working river, there is the large Tate and Lyle sugar factory opposite and I pass the still active sand dredging plant at Angerstein Wharf on my way in. The area really tells the story of the cycle of industrialisation and post-industrialisation and the sense of inevitable change associated with that. It was largely undeveloped until the the 19th century when it started to become a home for what was then cutting edge technology, early transatlantic communication cables were developed here and the East Greenwich gas works was the largest in Europe.  But technologies move on, city gas was replaced with North Sea Gas and containerisation means that the docks have moved down river, and the area is now waiting for the next commercial cycle of property development to change it once again.

One of the things I didn't know about was the Silvertown Explosion of 1917.  This was an explosion on the north of the river in a factory purifying TNT during WW1.  This was known to be a dangerous process but faced with an Army shell shortage the War Office decided to go ahead despite resistance from the company as the factory was in a heavily populated area  .  In the early evening of 19th January a fire broke out and 50 tons of TNT ignited. 73 people were killed and 400 injured and the damage was widespread.

Among the eye witness accounts is one from J.J.Betts, one of the fireman who attended the scene. It tells of the effect of the explosion on Millenium Mills a nearby flour mill (which in another demonstration of how the area embodies the often troubled/troubling relationship between the industrial and post-industrial is now a derelict space iconic among urban explorers and film directors).  Mr Betts isn't the only witness to talk of the 'terrible beauty' of the explosion and subsequent fire but the imagery he uses of the storm of sleet becoming incandescent is so beautiful and so at odds with the events that it stays with me.

..from the flour mills, where several hundred girls had been at work, came flying showers of millions of tiny particles of light as though a sweeping storm of sleet had become incandescent. No doubt these tiny specks were the glowing ashes of a myriad grains of wheat carried up into the sky by waves of flame. It was like a golden rainstorm.”