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Frederick Innes OBE (1864-1921): Silvertown Explosion 1917

Silvertown Explosion illustration
Contemporary newspaper illustration of the Silvertown explosion
Close to the Ivy Road pathway in Ladywell cemetery enveloped in its chitinous grassy embrace lies the Innes family grave of Frederick Innes, who died aged 57 years on the 14th December 1921.  Grandfather to FOBLC stalwart Ron Innes,  Frederick was intimately connected to the biggest explosion ever to hit the metropolis which destroyed a large part of Silvertown in East London on the 19th January 1917. The centenary of this tragic even is being commemorated.

Frederick Innes was later awarded the OBE for his  brave and public spirited actions on the day.  He worked as Chief Valvesman at the East Greenwich Gasworks which was damaged by the blast and worked heroically to save the gas supply to South London.  The Greenwich Peninsula History 2013 has the following account:

At 7 p.m. on l9th January l9l7 the Brunner Mond works at Silvertown went up – to the credit of Chief Valvesman Innes and his second Percy in charge of No.2 they managed to switch the supply over to No l. and the gas supply of South London was maintained. The holder’s builders had designed it to withstand hurricanes but the pressure of the munitions explosion ruptured it and 8 million cubic feet of gas extant in Greenwich – Charlie Wellard (whose biography is in Woodlands Local History Library} asked his mother if it was the end of the world. An old lady down the road from me says she saw a red hot girder blown across the river and pierce the gas holder. 

The devastation from the explosion is evident from this photograph  

On 19 January 1917, in the darkest days of the Great War, a massive explosion rocked London’s East End. Shockwaves could be felt in Essex, while the blast itself was heard as far away as Southampton and Norwich. But the firestorm wasn’t caused by the sinister German Zeppelins that were making increasingly frequent appearances on London’s skyline. In fact, the roots of capital’s biggest ever explosion were much closer to home: a TNT factory in Silvertown.

From the outset, the management of the former Brunner, Mond and Co. chemical works had expressed their concern about government plans to turn their plant over from the production of caustic soda to TNT for munitions. TNT is a highly unstable substance and the factory was in a crowded urban area. The Metropolitan Building Act of 1844 made it illegal to carry out ‘harmful trades’ inside the boundaries of London. But Silvertown was just outside this boundary, and its plentiful supply of labour and easy access to ports made it too good a location to overlook. In September 1915, the management caved to government pressure and the plant was soon making nine tons of TNT a day.

Sadly, the management’s concerns were founded. The explosion that ripped through the factory on that fateful Friday evening instantly destroyed part of the factory and several nearby streets. It showered molten metal across several miles, starting wild fires that could be seen as far away as Kent and Surrey.

The whole heavens were lit in awful splendour. A fiery glow seemed 
to have come over the dark and miserable January evening.
The Stratford Express

More than 900 homes near the plant were destroyed or badly damaged in the disaster, leaving thousands of people homeless. Between 60,000 and 70,000 buildings were damaged to some extent, including a gasometer over the river in Greenwich which blew up, spewing 200,000 cubic metres of gas into the air in a massive fireball. Factories, docks and warehouses were also decimated. The eventual repair bill was around £250,000 – a staggering amount of money at the time.

Even more serious was the human cost. Seventy three people died that day. More than 400 were injured, 94 of them seriously. One man lost his wife and four children, aged between 10 and 13. The dead also included many firemen from the local station, along with dock and factory workers and children, asleep in their beds. But the death toll could have been much worse: by a stroke of luck, the explosion happened at just before 7pm, after most people had left the factory for the day and before they had gone to bed (most of the damage to homes was to the upper floors).
Notice from the Mayor of Newham offering emergency assistance to those affected by the Silvertown Explosion 

The precise cause of the explosion has never been found and rumours abounded of sabotage by a German spy or that the factory had been hit by a German bombing raid. The most likely explanation is much more mundane – that fire broke out in a melt-pot room and quickly spread to railway wagons where 50 tons of TNT was waiting to be moved. The inquiry found that the site was totally unsuitable and that Brunner Mond had failed to look after the welfare of its staff. The government chose not to publish the findings until the 1950s.