The explosion of 19th January 1917 was by no means the worst to occur in Britain’s TNT factories during the war, but it made a huge impact on its surrounding areas in East London. 73 people died after several hundred tons of TNT were accidentally ignited. This is a remarkably low fatality for an explosion of this size, in part because it happened at 7pm, after most workers had left for home. However, the impact of the explosion on the surrounding areas was hugely destructive. There were several streets of workers’ houses nearby, around 70,000 of which were damaged. The location of the factory, surrounded by docks and not easily accessible, also meant that it was difficult for emergency services to get to the incident quickly.
The extent of the damage was predicted by one of the chief chemists, who in 1917 warned against the factory’s hasty conversion from a chemical works into a TNT plant. The close proximity of the factory to the docks also meant that several container silos were badly damaged and a gas container on the Greenwich Peninsula had also exploded.
Efforts to rebuild the houses and the community around Silvertown were led by local councils and charities. The damages cost around £250,000, a huge sum of money at the time. Work to repair houses had been largely completed by August that year, but the factory itself was never rebuilt. The area is now marked with a memorial, which was moved from its original location under the Docklands Light Railway nearby, to the site of the incident.
The Millenium Mills, a now derelict spot popular with urban explorers, was one of the buildings destroyed with the blast from the explosion.The linked audio is an oral history clip of Florence Thompson discussing hearing the explosion as she worked nearby.