19th January 1917.
Writer Arnold Bennett (who had a Savoy eponymous dish named after him), reported back to ‘Country Life’ when he was only five miles from WWI German trenches: ‘The whole of the earth seemed to be cultivated and to be yielding bounteously’. Thus did the unburnt nitrates of the explosives stimulate plant growth.
However there was nothing bounteous about Today in 1917 when an explosion of TNT at the Venesta munitions works in London’s Silvertown killed sixty-nine in the factory and adjoining streets, with almost 1,000 more injured.(1)
The Times reported the explosion, heard as far as Cambridge and Salisbury as having ‘killed infants in their beds and cut down men and women and lads and girls as they sat and talked in the room below’.
With the growth of factories producing explosives accidents were inevitable, with catastrophic consequences as in 1903 when sixteen were killed in an explosion at the Woolwich Arsenal and with the coming of war these were to increase.
In 1914 Faversham, Kent factories with a long history of gunpowder manufacture were requisitioned by the Admiralty.
However on Sunday 2nd April 1916 an explosion occurred at the gunpowder mine at Uplees after 200 tons of TNT ignited killing 105 people.
Luckily owing to its remoteness in the marshes most nearby areas escaped damage in an explosion which was heard in Norwich and Great Yarmouth.
The blast was the biggest, on land, in the UK explosives industry, but owing to censorship at the time the incident wasn’t reported until the 29th of the month when the East Coast Gazette at Sittingbourne, commented on a parliamentary statement on the matter as ‘mystifying’.
All was overshadowed on the 30th December in 1915 when a massive explosion of gunpowder on board the Cruiser HMS Natal, off Invergordon, killed 428 sailors.
As soap manufacturing used glycerine Watson’s Barnbow Soap Works was converted to munitions but in 1916 an explosion killed thirty-five, mainly women and girls, with censorship denying any publicity.
The irony was that Joseph Watson was to receive a telegram from Lloyd-George congratulating him on the 100% increase in the production of Amatol a mixture of TNT and Ammonium Nitrate.
In 1918 the explosives factory at Chilwell near Nottingham blew up killing 134.
One of the largest munition factories was the 12 mile long factory adjacent to the Solway Firth near Gretna Green, built to counter the 1915 shell crisis.
It started production on April 1916, employed 11,000 women and 5,000 men engaged in mixing Guncotton and other ingredients to make RDB ’Devils Porridge’ explosives which turned faces orange.(2)
With the great demand for Nitrates for explosives, Billingham was developed in 1917 for making the key ingredient Ammonia, later to become a major centre for chemicals in the north-east.
In the beginning was Black Powder or Gunpowder succeeded by the stronger Nitroglycerine. The British in 1888 were to develop Lyddite made at Lydd in Kent from molten and cast Picric Acid (Trinitrophenol) and used in the Boer War and WWI. (3)
The problem with Lyddite is its highly explosive and unstable when dry so TNT is the preferred explosive today.
The report into the Silvertown explosion for which Brunner Mond and Co were seriously criticized, remained a secret until 1950. Better late than never!
(1) TNT or Trinitrotoluene.
(2) Nitrocellulose is a highly flammable compound formed by nitrating cellulose through exposure to Nitric Acid. It is used as a propellant or low order explosive (Guncotton).
(3) Picrate is the highly explosive salt of Picric Acid (trinitrophenol).