Death at Silvertown

On 19th January 1917, a huge explosion rocked the East End of London. It was so large that shock waves could be felt in Essex and the blast was apparently heard as far away as Norwich and Southampton.

The Brunner, Mond Factory in 1895.

The Brunner, Mond Factory in 1895.

The explosion occurred at the Brunner, Mond & Co factory at Crescent Wharf, Silvertown, where, prior to the Great War, it had been involved in the production of caustic soda. On government orders, however, it was decided that, as the army was suffering from a shell shortage, the plant was to be used to purify TNT, a process more dangerous than the actual manufacture of the product. The management of the former plant expressed their concerns due to the location of the factory – in a busy, urban area – but they were soon making nine tons of TNT a day.

Working nearby on that fateful day was Henry George Lidbury, my 3x great uncle. Henry was born on 6th December 1856 in Stratford, Essex and grew up on Stratford High Street. He became a mariner and married Harriet Maxwell Irwin, the daughter of Archibald Irwin and Margaret Doyle on 28th October 1878 at St. Mary’s Church, Walton, Liverpool.

Henry and Harriet had two children, Edmund John and Harriet Irwin, before tragedy struck and his wife died at the age of 27 in 1882. With a young son to care for (Harriet Irwin Lidbury had died before reaching the age of one), Henry relocated back to Essex where he married his second wife, Catherine Sarah John, in 1883.

By 1891, Henry had also changed his profession and now had the role of Pay Master. In 1901 he was working as a cashier for the Elevated Tram Company and by 1911 he was a pay clerk for the Port London Authority. On 19th January 1917, Henry went to work at the P.L.A. as normal, for what would be the last time.

North Greenwich Road after the Silvertown Explosion.

North Greenwich Road after the Silvertown Explosion.

At 6.40pm, a fire broke out in the melt-pot room at Brunner, Mond & Co. Henry Lidbury soon became aware of what was happening and feared that there would be an explosion. Telling a co-worker, John Peel, that he had a sum of money in his office, he turned towards the door but did not make it as a huge explosion suddenly ripped through the factory. Approximately 50 long tons of TNT had ignited, completely decimating the plant and destroying other buildings in the area including the Silvertown Fire Station. A nearby gasometer gasholder was also damaged, creating a fireball from 200,000 cubic metres of gas.

The fire service soon began the task of attempting to put out the flames but not before 73 people died and more than 400 people were injured. Arthur Sway, a labourer, was blown 18 feet by the explosion but, luckily received no injuries. He, afterwards, searched the debris and found the body of Henry George Lidbury near the office of the P.L.A.

The factory grounds are still empty having never being built on after the explosion. A memorial to those who lost their lives can be seen on the site.

The Silvertown Memorial

The Silvertown Memorial

The Oscar Wilde Connection

James Osmond Nelson, the son of James Henry and Elizabeth Nelson, was born in London in November 1859 and was baptised four years later at St. Marylebone’s Church in Westminster.

Deciding against following in his father’s footsteps by undertaking a career in law, he joined the army, serving in the 3rd Volunteer Batallion Lancashire Fusiliers and the 1st Batallion 20th Regiment of Foot. He had a successful career in the army, becoming a Second Lieutenant in 1880 and later becoming a Major. In March 1880, whilst a Second Lieutenant, he attended the Queen’s Levee at Buckingham Palace.

In 1892, Nelson retired from the army and undertook a new profession intheprison service. He would later become governor at HM Prison, Knutsford but it is his time as governor at Reading Gaol that is the most interesting due to the infamy of one of its inmates – Oscar Wilde.

Reading Gaol

Reading Gaol

In May 1895, Oscar Wilde, the playwright was sent to Reading Gaol after being found guilty of ‘gross indecency.’ He found prison life tough as the governor would remove his books as a punishment.

This regime would end, though, in July 1896, when James Osmond Nelson became governor of Reading Gaol as, under his tenure, the number of punishments carried out dropped drastically. It was decided that Wilde should have access to paper, pen and ink and also any books he chose to read. If the books were not available in the prison library, they were to be obtained.

Nelson went to see Wilde, saying, “The Home Secretary says you are to have books. Here is one you may like; I have just been reading it myself.” At this, Oscar Wilde burst into tears, saying that they were the first kind words spoken to him since arriving in gaol.

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde

On the evening before he was due to be released, on 18th May 1897, Wilde was taken to the main entrance where Nelson was waiting. Wilde wanted to thank him for his kindness and also wanted to discuss injustices in prison but time was limited. Nelson handed Wilde a large envelope containing a manuscript of De Profundis, something that the writer had been working on since January of that year.

After his release, in a letter written by Wilde to W R Paton, he stated, “Though he (Nelson) cannot alter the rules of the prison system, he has altered the spirit in which they used to be carried out under his predecessor… Indeed he has quite altered the whole tone of prison life.” In another letter, he also described Nelson as, “… a man of gentle and humane character greatly respected by all the prisoners.”

James Osmond Nelson, a man who had played an important role in the life of one of the world’s most celebrated playwrights, died on 9th October 1914.



Neil McKenna, The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde, Two Letters, May 28 1897

Oscar Wilde, Complete Letters


Suicide in a Fit of Despondency

William McLean Irwin, the second son of Archibald Irwin and Margaret Doyle was born on 9th January 1839 in Kensington, West Derby (Now part of Liverpool). Spending the early part of his life in Everton, he enlisted in the 4th Kings Own Royal Lancashire Regiment whilst still a teenager.

The King's Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster) cap badge.

The King’s Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster) cap badge.

Whilst serving with the army, he was stationed for a time at Prince Edward Island, Canada and it is, presumably, here where he met his wife, Patience Smith, a woman six years his junior. William continued to serve with the army and, by the time of the 1871 Census (where he was recorded in Farnborough, Hampshire), he had risen to the rank of Colour Sergeant.

William and Patience had nine children, the final three being born in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, where the family had decided to settle after William retired from the army in 1879. He had several changes of occupation whilst in Canada, becoming a farmer, dry goods clerk and, finally, a book keeper.

The building that was formerly the Apothecaries Hall in Charlottetown.

The building that was formerly the Apothecaries Hall in Charlottetown.

On April 30th, 1903, at 5.45 pm, after a period of illness, William entered the Apothecaries Hall in Charlottetown where he purchased an ounce bottle of carbolic acid. On reaching the street, outside W. A. Hutcherson’s store, he took the cork from the bottle and drank the contents. After discarding the empty bottle, he walked a few steps, caught himself on a post outside the aforementioned store and promptly fell.

A crowd quickly gathered to see what had happened. It soon became apparent what had caused the fall and an antidote was quickly administered before the partially conscious man was taken to his home in King Street. Unfortunately, only a few minutes after reaching his home, despite a doctor being summoned, William passed away.

After hearing the facts, Coroner Dr. R. McNeill decided that an inquest would be unnecessary and determined that William had committed suicide in a fit of despondency after suffering from illness.

William McLean Irwin’s funeral took place a few days later at St. Peter’s Cemetery, Charlottetown.