One hundred years ago today, at 6.52pm, the Brunner Mond munitions factory in the Silvertown district of east London blew up. It was an explosion heard as far afield as Cambridge, Salisbury and Southampton and killed at least 73 people.
My great-grandparents had a ships’ laundry in Silvertown at the time, serving the Royal Docks. The blast blew in the windows and doors, my great-grandmother off her feet and my four-month old grandmother out of her cot and across the room.

I tell the story of the Silvertown Explosion and my mother’s family in detail in Constance Street. It’s not a particularly well-known disaster as wartime reporting restrictions kept the lid on details. It also didn’t reflect particularly well on the government, having placed a munitions factory requiring trainloads of volatile TNT trundling in and out day and night at the heart of a dirt-poor urban community packed with people.
Even the casualty list is a little arbitrary with the figure of 73 deaths compiled by the newspapers rather than official sources. Indeed, my great-grandmother, having opened what was left of the laundry as a field hospital for walking wounded, ended up unofficially adopting two little girls who were never claimed having lost their parents in the blast, parents I’ve been unable to locate in the list of casualties.
73 deaths always seemed a low figure when you see the scale of the devastation; the real figure is almost certainly much higher. But these were poor people, many of them transient, making their way to wherever the work happened to be. There was always work in Silvertown. Hard, dirty, low paid work, but work nonetheless: a glance at the 1911 census for Constance Street shows it must have resounded with a range of accents from all over Britain and even the rest of Europe, living many to a room. How many of their contemporaries were never missed, never reported missing, no trace of them left behind?

Despite this, and perhaps united by the trauma of the explosion, post-blast Silvertown became a strong and close-knit community of selfless people. My great-aunts and grandmother used to talk about Silvertown as if it was a paradise rather than a tough, grimy slum hemmed in by docks and the river, with streets of mud and the air choked with dubious fumes from the factories and chemical works.
Twenty-three years after the explosion they were forced out by the Luftwaffe on the first night of the Blitz in September 1940, never to return after a day and night when much of Silvertown was bombed to smithereens. Yet when I’d hear their stories, see their eyes shining at the memories, more than forty years after they’d lost everything they had, it could have been yesterday. So strong are the family ties to Silvertown it somehow feels like home to me, even though my mother, born three months before the Blitz scattered the family to the fringes of London, was the last of the Silvertown Greenwoods.

There’s nobody alive to remember the Silvertown Explosion now. The site of the blast was never built on; even the creeping gentrification that has finally come to a place that, between docks and river has always been a little island largely bypassed, has so far left the blast site a car park. They have, however, moved the memorial as it was in the way.
You can read more about Constance Street and Silvertown here. Meanwhile this beautiful song, by the peerless Bruise, gives a hint of how modern Silvertown is still something special.