This month is the centenary of the Silvertown explosion which provides a dramatic opening to my latest Kirsty Campbell mystery, Devil’s Porridge. In this book, I have mixed fact and fiction to fashion a story guaranteed to keep readers turning the pages.
On Friday 19th January 1917, at 6.52 pm, a massive explosion destroyed the Brunner-Mond munitions factory and destroyed most of Silvertown. This explosion has been described as the biggest explosion ever to have taken place in London.
Silvertown, in the east end of London, was an industrial area on the north bank of the River Thames, opposite the Greenwich Peninsula, and south of the Victoria Docks.
The Brunner-Mond factory at Silvertown was an old established chemical works which had been adapted, at the start of the First World War, to manufacture TNT (trinitrotoluene) a highly explosive substance.
The explosion occurred after a fire broke out in the melt room shortly after the workers had finished work for the weekend. It destroyed the factory and obliterated a large part of Silvertown. It is recorded that the sound of the blast could be heard as far away as Sussex, and red-hot lumps of metal rained down on other areas, starting fires wherever they landed. A gas holder, across the river on the Greenwich Peninsula, was hit and shot 8 million cubic feet of gas into the sky in a massive fireball. This gas holder was in the area now occupied by the Millennium Dome.
A local reporter, writing in the Stratford Express, wrote: “The whole heavens were lit in awful splendour. A fiery glow seemed to have come over the dark and miserable January evening, and objects which a few minutes before had been blotted out in the intense darkness were silhouetted against the sky.”
It is estimated that between 60,000 to 70,000 properties were damaged, 73 people were killed, and over 400 were injured. The toll would have been even greater had the explosion occurred during working hours.
Rumours were rife about the cause of the explosion. Some thought it was a Zeppelin attack, some said it was sabotage, but these were ruled out and the cause was confirmed as an accident.
But, of course, an accident doesn’t make for gripping fiction, and Devil’s Porridge is not a history book, it’s a murder mystery story. One of the knacks of writing historical fiction is the ability to blend facts into the fiction, perhaps twisting them a little, without distorting the historical reality. So, in Devil’s Porridge, the explosion is the result of sabotage with a murder thrown in for good measure.
Similarly, I touch on other historical facts for the back story, like the invasion of Belgium by the Germans in 1914, the German spy network operating from Rotterdam, MI5, King George and Queen Mary’s visit to Gretna in 1917, the Easter Rising in Ireland, and the imprisonment and ultimate release of the Irish revolutionaries from Frongoch. And, of course, Kirsty Campbell is one of the pioneering policewomen of the time.
I enjoyed the historical research for this book and although fictional elements have been woven into the facts, for example, there was no assassination attempt on the King, at least as far as the history books tell us, I trust this will not spoil the story for the historians amongst my readers.
My website: https://www.chrislongmuir.co.uk/