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 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.
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.