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The Silvertown Explosion


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As you leave the West End of London, travelling eastwards, past St. Paul's, the city, and the Tower, you come at length to Dockland, where the muddy waters of the Thames are churned continually by boats of every size and nationality, and where tall masts break the skyline, towering high above the roof-tops. The West End of this greatest city in the world has changed in recent years; even the city itself has altered so much that men returning from abroad are amazed; but Dockland is still as it always was.

Fences that once were of wood are now of iron, concrete by-pass roads have stolen traffic from the smaller streets and alleys, but that is all the difference. Dockland's houses - hundreds of thousands of them - sprawl aimlessly across the hundreds of flat acres. Two storeys high, of uniform yellow-brown bricks and blackened tiles, they stretch in seemingly unending rows, between waterfront, railway lines and factories. As they are now, so were they twenty years ago.

Twenty years ago, therefore, the time at which the events of this story occurred, life at Silvertown was much the same as it is to-day - except for the fact that the world was at war, and the stamp of officialdom was on everything. This was particularly noticeable at Silvertown and the rest of Dockland, because, being virtually the gateway to the city and England beyond, more stringent watch was kept on all activities there than anywhere else. Dockland is also factory-land, and was then, as now, the storehouse for supplies of every conceivable type. One factory in particular was quietly, but none the less constantly, under extra supervision, and that was the Brunner Mond Chemical Works.

Few people knew, however, or would have bothered much if they had known, the varied activities which went on behind those brick walls. Like so many other buildings, it was just a factory, and like so many other factories it was making something or other for the Government. It spelt employment, even as the plywood factory on its one side, and the oil stores on the other side. It meant no more to the passersby than the flour mills and silos opposite. Only the workers themselves knew the full nature of the materials they were handling, but after many long months of the same work they were too accustomed to it to find it an interesting topic of conversation. Perhaps if they had been munition workers in the extreme sense of the word, handling shells, bullets and bombs, they might have thought more of it; but T.N.T. and nitro-glycerine, as such, is quite innocuous to look at. Besides, on that same patch of ground, between the North Woolwich Road and the river, under the same office management, and only a few paces distant, was another building where other workers from the same families were handling common or garden soda.

Nevertheless, apart from the watchmen, special police were on duty more often than not, in that tall brick building at Crescent Wharf; and although the workers came and went freely and easily through the gates in the dock fence, any stranger seeking to do the same would have met with a very firm if polite refusal. Had he managed to pass through the gates and to peer, no matter how innocently, into the railway trucks on the siding, he would probably have spent the next week endeavouring to satisfy the suspicions of three or four Government departments; for in those trucks, nearly always loaded and awaiting their engine, might have been found sufficient high explosive to destroy half London. The armies at the front were continually calling for their deadly supplies. Factory after factory was converted to supply those needs, and Brunner Mond's Chemical Works was one of those factories.

Such is habit, however, that the operatives, women for the most part, thought little of the hazardous nature of their work. By night and day, according to the shifts they were working, they flocked through the gates at the end of their toil, dispersing gradually as they vanished down the narrow roads opposite, to eat, sleep, and laugh beneath the maze of roofs which cover Silvertown. One had to sleep, even though the maroon might sound at any moment, uttering its harsh warning of danger from above. Silvertown, like the rest of London, was used to air raids.

The day shifts had left the factories on Friday, January 19, 1917. The clocks in the neighbourhood pointed to various times between 6.30 and 6.45 p.m., and groups of workers from the many different buildings stood about in the darkened roads, chatting idly of the war, the children, and other topics of the day. But it was a cold, dull night, and they did not linger as long as usual. Other workers, hurrying past them to their night work, reminded them of the cheerlessness of the evening, and of the comforts at home. At the chemical works very few of the staff remained, with the exception of the watchman, the chemists in the laboratory and the chief chemist, Dr. Angel, who was busy in his office.

Suddenly a small explosion was heard, apparently in the top storey of the chemical works. It was not a big bang, and not many people heard it. Amongst those who did, however, was the watchman, and he ran to the top of the building to see what had happened. It is believed that he then conveyed the terrible news to Dr. Angel. It is certain that in a few seconds Dr. Angel telephoned for the fire brigade. It might have been the fusing of an electric wire that caused that first explosion, or it might have been the chemical deterioration of the material itself. No one knew, and there was certainly not time to think of such trivialities. Dotted about in the different rooms, in various stages of chemical make-up, were more batches of the explosive material, and fire was spreading fast.

The local fire station happened to be in the same road as the chemical works, and almost before Dr. Angel had replaced the receiver the engine was being got out, and some of the men were running on their way. Those who were in the building needed no second warning of their peril. They dropped whatever they were doing and ran for their lives. Dr. Angel, however, with the watchman and several others who felt it their duty to remain, rushed for the emergency coils of hose, connecting them to the hydrants. Even as they were doing this, while the fire spread around and above them with increasing rapidity, the firemen had arrived outside and were also running out hose-lines to the water mains in the street.

Explosion followed explosion as they struggled with their task - minor explosions, more in the nature of flare-ups, as batch after batch of unrefined explosive mixture met the heat of the flames; and with each explosion the position became more perilous. Within three minutes of the first alarm the flames had spread to the roof. Two minutes later they were licking the walls of the ground floor and basement. The glare was already lighting up the road, along which some fifty odd people were racing to safety. Leaving his desperate work for a brief instant, Dr. Angel ran to the doorway to see the last of the workers clear of the building. One of his assistant chemists implored him to leave.

"No," replied Dr. Angel. "The firemen are here, and I must go back to help them fight the flames." He remained for an instant, a solitary figure outlined in the terrible red glow, watching while the firemen reached for the water cocks, and then he turned and ran back towards the storerooms, where, as he knew full well, only a terrific and desperate fight could save what was inside. He knew also, as did the firemen who had answered the call so promptly, what to expect if the flames won that last battle. Stored away in the lower rooms were vast quantities of high explosive; and with every second that passed, increasing the temperature, that explosive came nearer and nearer to detonation point. But all efforts were futile. The building was doomed. Only seven and a half minutes after the first alarm the end came. Before the firemen were able to turn on the water, before the last of the workers had run helter-skelter down the road, before even Dr. Angel and his brave assistants had a chance to do a thing, it happened. At 6.51 the chemical works was streaked with red and orange flames. At 6.52 there were no chemical works. With a blinding, crashing roar, and a blaze of vivid, searing fire the entire building vanished.

Five or six miles distant, in the West End of London, the last of the office workers were leaving for their homes when their attention was suddenly drawn to a dull red glow in the eastern sky. "Fire," said a few, and after a moment or two resumed their journeys. But those who watched, a trifle more curious, suddenly saw the glare grow brighter. From dull red it changed to scarlet; and from scarlet it became salmon coloured. Those who had gone on halted again to stare in amazement. It must indeed be a tremendous fire to spread so rapidly. Where could it be? And then, even as they watched, the glow became a yellow glare. Buildings became detached from the darkness and stood out against the skyline. A gasp went up from a thousand lips. But the alarmed watchers had seen only the preliminary. In another second the whole of their London became as bright as day, as the sky was lit with a mighty incandescence. For a few brief and terrifying instants it was as though the sun had appeared from nowhere; and then, just as suddenly, it was dark again. Impossible, of course... but the people waited in silence. What they were waiting for, none could have answered; but something had to happen. The air was as full of tension as the sky had been full of light. Something had to follow such tension. It came, not as the noise of an explosion, but as a dreadful thud which struck terror into the hearts of all who heard it. From the windows high above glass tinkled and crashed to the pavements and roads.

Zeppelins? What on this earth was it? Was it the end of London - the end of all things? And even as the thud welled up and sank back into the silence of the hushed night, the ground rocked and trembled. A wind - more: a long, ghostly sigh - wafted through the streets, and it was all over. Still staring eastwards, the people saw the unmistakable glow of fire spreading once more. But there was no more sound. The worst had happened. Only the aftermath remained.

Not only London was shocked by this catastrophe. As far as thirty miles away people saw the great flame. Rushing along freakish paths of its own choosing, the mighty explosion wave tore on across the country, rattling doors and windows, waking up birds and beasts alike as it passed. At Grantham, 107 miles distant, pheasants screamed raucously in the branches of trees; cocks crowed as at daybreak. At King's Lynn, in Norfolk, 87 miles from Silvertown as the crow flies, windows were broken.

It is utterly impossible to portray anything approaching a true picture of those few ghastly seconds at Silvertown, at the spot where the mighty forces tore loose. Few explosions, carefully planned and controlled by engineers, can have had one-tenth such force behind them. Here, in one building, were literally tons of the deadliest explosives known. In one split second all that unmeasured power was blasted loose. Hurtling outwards in all directions, it tore down everything in its path. Striking downwards, it shattered and scattered the very foundations of the building. Deeper than the foundations, it tore at the iron-hard soil, digging its vicious way a full twenty feet and more into the ground, flinging broadcast everything it encountered - from the minutest particles of dust to lumps of metal many tons in weight. The factory, a large building of several storeys and heavy machinery, was blasted out of existence in an instant. The houses surrounding it went down like a pack of cards - not one, but scores of them. One instant they were rows of comfortable homes, housing laughing, living people - men, women and sleeping children. Another instant, and everything within an area of 300 by 400 yards was reduced to mounds of shapeless rubble, silent only because those who survived, buried, were too numbed with the shock to cry in their agony. Outside this area were more houses, upper storeys swept clean away. As though directed by some evil hand, the forces of the terrible explosion spread through the district, striking here, missing there, shattering somewhere else. Dead lay in the roadways, injured crawled along the pavements.

Minutes passed before the inhabitants of the surrounding districts realised what had happened. Those whose main windows faced the scene of the disaster saw the glare and the flash round the edges of drawn blinds. Others saw nothing, had no warning. The ground trembled beneath them, walls rocked and cracked, china and pictures fell from shelves and nails. Windows blew inwards with the blast which followed, and people were hurled across rooms and passages. Rushing out into the open night, they were horrified to see the sky filled with fire and black with debris. Then, like some gargantuan hail-storm, this debris began to fall, tearing away roofs, striking down the terrified folk as they stood, killing, maiming, blinding.

"I was sitting in my little box when the explosion happened," said the watchman of one of the neighbouring factories, who escaped by sheer miraculous luck. "I saw a blinding light, and a moment later about half a ton of iron crashed down from above, within a yard of me. Then the entire sky seemed full of falling wood and iron in masses. Something hit me." He continued: "Presently I came to - it can only have been a few minutes - and I found myself under a sort of shelter of wooden planks. I crawled out, unhurt except for a scratch on my forehead."

But this piece of iron was as nothing compared with some of the immense bits of machinery tossed like feathers by freaks of explosive strength. A boiler from the bowels of the factory was hurled into a field a quarter of a mile away. It weighed between three and four tons! Another piece of metal, mangled machinery weighing more than half a ton, was sent crashing through a shop front two hundred yards away, killing the proprietor, who was working inside.... Yet another boiler was lifted by the blast, over several rows of what had been houses, and dashed almost undamaged into the bedroom of a house. It was as though it had been left there during building operations. Barring the hole through which it tore its way, the house was untouched.

All telephonic communication in surrounding districts was cut off by the shock of the explosion, and consequently it was some considerable time before the exact scene of the tragedy could be fixed from outside the stricken area. Those in the immediate vicinity who were uninjured, and sufficiently recovered from the shock, hastened to the spot to lend the assistance which they knew must be urgently needed. If they had been frightened themselves, however, they saw real panic on their way. Crazed with fear, many people did not stop to reason what had happened. They were incapable of coherent thought. They did not even know what manner of disaster had fallen upon them. They came in their hundreds, running, stumbling, along the dimly lighted roads. Grabbing up whatever had been nearest to them - food, money, clothing - they had rushed out into the night. Their one idea was to get away from Silvertown, away from London, away from danger. They could not have helped had they stayed. They were too shaken. And so the others passed them as they ran, some stopping to ask, without result, exactly what had happened, others not needing to ask, because they knew only too well.

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