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The Silvertown Explosion page 3

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Within about a week of the disaster, the soldiers had finished their gruesome and difficult task of digging and clearing away the debris, and plans were draftee! out for immediate rebuilding. The explosion occurred on January 19, 1917, and on January 23, a report was presented to the Prime Minister by the first Commissioners of Works. The very next day Mr. Lloyd George ordered the immediate procedure of renovations, and the replacement of lost and destroyed property. On the 25th January a staff was sent to Silvertown to prepare a schedule of dilapidations. Photographs were taken, and authority was received for expenditure. By February 1, all dangerous building were either shored up or felled. By February 5, 8,000 men were at work. The debris was cleared away from about 600 homes, and in spite of very unfavourable weather conditions, about four thousand pounds worth of work was completed.

Thus, rapidly and precisely the ravages of the disaster were made good. By February 7, all roofs had been temporarily covered where occupants were still able to carry on in their damaged homes. By February 26, thirty-eight days after the accident, the amount spent on work exceeded 31,000, and 792 houses had been re-roofed and slated. About 120 workers went on strike at this stage, demanding War Bonus terms, but they were paid off, and new hands engaged. Nearly two months after the calamity thousands of workmen were still at the task of making good the havoc. Although some 800 houses had been re-roofed, glazed, and made weatherproof, practically every home still had to be re-plastered. The cost of the work had mounted up to 55,000, but so great was the damage that little more than a hundred houses were turned over to their occupants as complete by that time.

Such figures tell, more plainly than any description of the explosion itself, how ghastly was the damage. And to-day, twenty years after that terrible night in Silvertown, one may still see blatant reminders of the mighty blast. The remains of that huge crater still gape in the soil. Large cracks are in many walls, and the local inhabitants need walk only a few yards to point out a dozen or more of the houses which were built as rapidly in the ensuing weeks. But, far worse than cracked walls, there are many alive in Silvertown to-day who still suffer from the terrible shock of the calamity. Lucky as they know themselves to be, their nerves were shattered that day, and for as long as they live they can never forget what they went through.

Speak to any score of residents in that district, above the age of thirty, and you will be sure to meet at least half a dozen to whom the tragedy is still as vivid as the night it occurred. Although official figures gave official lists of those killed, it can never be said for certain that those figures are complete. There are tales in the world of insurance of life policies that were never claimed. Some policies took months to settle. Documents were lost. Families were wiped out. In many cases relatives might have claimed insurance money, but were unable to do so because they never knew for certain whether policies existed. In many more cases the big companies went to extreme trouble to seek out relatives - who were more than surprised to learn that they were beneficiaries.

There were few false claims, however, and extreme honesty was the keynote of those terrible weeks. People who were asked to estimate their losses, for the purpose of claiming relief, were often hard put to it to know what to do. One old woman, widowed by the explosion, was heard to remark:

"But how can I tell what I have lost? Most of my furniture and belongings was of no real value. Although I was quite happy with it, it was very old. They say they want to replace it, but then I shall be getting more than I should, shan't I?"

And that was the general spirit which existed, once the people had recovered from the catastrophe. During the days of anxiety and nervous tension following the night of the disaster, those people behaved with bravery and generosity; their one thought was to help their neighbours whose misfortunes were greater than their own. After the strain was over they thought only of returning to a normal life - or a life as normal as the ever-threatening war clouds allowed. But though Dockland is still the same to-day as it has been for years, there is still that memory of a great calamity which shook it to its very foundations. And in years to come, long after the last sufferer has passed on, men and women, who were children at the time of the tragedy, and too young to understand their loss, will pause when they pass along the North Woolwich Road. Between them and the water stands a stone monument, carved with a long list of names. For the visitor that memorial will always be a point of interest, telling as it does of one of the greatest explosions of all time. To those who come to it from Dockland, however, it represents the graveyard of their kin.

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