London History Bulletin – January 19

A munitions factory in Silverton in East London blew up on January 19, 1917. 73 people were killed. 100s were injured. This London History Bulletin tells the woeful tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

January 19th. A flag at half mast London Day. Because of what happened on January 19th, 1917.

Hardly bears thinking about. A massive TNT explosion at a munitions factory in Silverton in East London. It killed fourteen workers and 59 other people. 73 people in total. Hundreds of people were injured.

It was the biggest explosion in London history. 80 miles away – in Southampton on the south coast – people heard the blast. 

The lit fuse was a fire in the munitions factory. In other words, there was a few minutes’ period of grace before the explosion. Many of the workforce escaped during the saving grace of those precious few minutes. If there was another blessing, it was that the blast happened at an hour when few people were at work. But when the fire burned out of control and reached the TNT…well, suffice it to say the thing blew like the biggest bomb in pre-atomic history. Its warhead was all the explosives in what a second previously had been a huge TNT factory. A huge crater and rubble – that was all that was left of the munitions plant. In addition to the ground-zero devastation, a nearby chemical factory, a flour mill and a number of smaller workshops and storehouses were destroyed, either by concussion or by fire. That alone would have been a grave loss. But the most appalling effects of the explosion were felt in half a dozen streets of working-class dwelling houses opposite the factory. Scores of houses were razed. Roofs and walls were blown away, floors collapsed. Homes became instant, hideous piles of shapeless wreckage. The blast killed infants in their beds. It struck men and women and lads and girls as they sat and talked in the rooms below. Even in the open street there was no sure safety. 

A reporter for the Telegraph didn’t pull his punches. He said – clear-eyed, movingly – “the scene of the explosion is typical of the ugliest products of modern industry. It is a district of railway lines, of huge factories and warehouses, of mean little houses and grubby little shops. On Saturday, with the grey winter sky shut close down upon it, the air, heavy with mist, hanging thick over the slimy roads, the remains of dirty snow lurking on the roofs, it was inexpressibly dismal. But this unlovely place, as if it were not deplorable enough in good fortune has been devastated by catastrophe.

I’ll leave you now to make your own peace with what you’ve just heard. Maybe spare a thought – or perhaps send up a prayer – for the 73 dead Londoners and the hundreds of wounded and their neighbours, their wrecked, devastated lives and homes. On this flag at half-mast day in London history.

You’ve been listening to the London History Bulletin for January 19th. 

Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

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