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The Silvertown Explosion

Brunner, Mond & Co's factory in Silvertown in the East End of London originally produced soda crystals and caustic soda but production of caustic soda ceased in 1912, which left part of the factory idle. A year into the Great War, the Army was facing a crippling shell shortage so the War Office decided to use the surplus manufacturing capacity of the factory to produce Trinitrotoluene (TNT).

The factory was in a highly populated area, but this was obviously not the prime concern for the military authorities. Silvertown was beyond the part of London governed by the then planning regulations. As a result, many factories were established there to process dangerous and unpleasant products such as caustic soda, sulphuric acid, manure, creosote and petroleum. Between the docks, railway lines and industrial premises, workers lived in rows of small densely packed terrace houses.

Despite opposition from the company itself, production of TNT began in September 1915. The method used was invented by the Brunner, Mond & Co. chief scientist who believed the process to be manifestly very dangerous.

During the day on Friday 19th January 1917, a fire broke out in the factory. At 6.52 pm over 50 tonnes of TNT exploded.

The factory was destroyed instantly, as were many nearby buildings, including the Silvertown Fire Station. Debris was strewn for miles around, with red-hot chunks of rubble causing fires. A gasometer over a mile away was destroyed creating a fireball from over 7 million cubic feet of gas.

Seventy-three people were killed and over 400 injured. Up to 70,000 properties were damaged with 900 nearby ones destroyed or unsalvageably damaged. The comparatively low death toll for such a large blast was due to the time of day. The factories were largely empty of workers, but it was too early for the upper floors of houses (which sustained the worst of the flying debris damage) to be heavily populated.

The explosion also blew the glass out of windows in the Savoy Hotel, over six miles away, and almost overturned a taxi in Pall Mall, London. The fires could be seen in Maidstone and Guildford, and the blast was heard up to 100 miles away, including Sandringham in Norfolk and along the Sussex coast.

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