SS Richard Montgomery Matter
(Silvertown explosion 1917)
As you leave the West End of London, travelling eastwards, past St. Paul's, the city, and the Tower, you come at length to Dockland, where the muddy waters of the Thames are churned continually by boats of every size and nationality, and where tall masts break the skyline, towering high above the roof-tops. The West End of this greatest city in the world has changed in recent years; even the city itself has altered so much that men returning from abroad are amazed; but Dockland is still as it always was.
Fences that once were of wood are now of iron, concrete by-pass roads have stolen traffic from the smaller streets and alleys, but that is all the difference. Dockland's houses - hundreds of thousands of them - sprawl aimlessly across the hundreds of flat acres. Two storeys high, of uniform yellow-brown bricks and blackened tiles, they stretch in seemingly unending rows, between waterfront, railway lines and factories. As they are now, so were they twenty years ago.
Twenty years ago, therefore, the time at which the events of this story occurred, life at Silvertown was much the same as it is to-day - except for the fact that the world was at war, and the stamp of officialdom was on everything. This was particularly noticeable at Silvertown and the rest of Dockland, because, being virtually the gateway to the city and England beyond, more stringent watch was kept on all activities there than anywhere else. Dockland is also factory-land, and was then, as now, the storehouse for supplies of every conceivable type. One factory in particular was quietly, but none the less constantly, under extra supervision, and that was the Brunner Mond Chemical Works.
Few people knew, however, or would have bothered much if they had known, the varied activities which went on behind those brick walls. Like so many other buildings, it was just a factory, and like so many other factories it was making something or other for the Government. It spelt employment, even as the plywood factory on its one side, and the oil stores on the other side. It meant no more to the passersby than the flour mills and silos opposite. Only the workers themselves knew the full nature of the materials they were handling, but after many long months of the same work they were too accustomed to it to find it an interesting topic of conversation. Perhaps if they had been munition workers in the extreme sense of the word, handling shells, bullets and bombs, they might have thought more of it; but T.N.T. and nitro-glycerine, as such, is quite innocuous to look at. Besides, on that same patch of ground, between the North Woolwich Road and the river, under the same office management, and only a few paces distant, was another building where other workers from the same families were handling common or garden soda.
Nevertheless, apart from the watchmen, special police were on duty more often than not, in that tall brick building at Crescent Wharf; and although the workers came and went freely and easily through the gates in the dock fence, any stranger seeking to do the same would have met with a very firm if polite refusal. Had he managed to pass through the gates and to peer, no matter how innocently, into the railway trucks on the siding, he would probably have spent the next week endeavouring to satisfy the suspicions of three or four Government departments; for in those trucks, nearly always loaded and awaiting their engine, might have been found sufficient high explosive to destroy half London. The armies at the front were continually calling for their deadly supplies. Factory after factory was converted to supply those needs, and Brunner Mond's Chemical Works was one of those factories.
Such is habit, however, that the operatives, women for the most part, thought little of the hazardous nature of their work. By night and day, according to the shifts they were working, they flocked through the gates at the end of their toil, dispersing gradually as they vanished down the narrow roads opposite, to eat, sleep, and laugh beneath the maze of roofs which cover Silvertown. One had to sleep, even though the maroon might sound at any moment, uttering its harsh warning of danger from above. Silvertown, like the rest of London, was used to air raids.
The day shifts had left the factories on Friday, January 19, 1917. The clocks in the neighbourhood pointed to various times between 6.30 and 6.45 p.m., and groups of workers from the many different buildings stood about in the darkened roads, chatting idly of the war, the children, and other topics of the day. But it was a cold, dull night, and they did not linger as long as usual. Other workers, hurrying past them to their night work, reminded them of the cheerlessness of the evening, and of the comforts at home. At the chemical works very few of the staff remained, with the exception of the watchman, the chemists in the laboratory and the chief chemist, Dr. Angel, who was busy in his office.
Suddenly a small explosion was heard, apparently in the top storey of the chemical works. It was not a big bang, and not many people heard it. Amongst those who did, however, was the watchman, and he ran to the top of the building to see what had happened. It is believed that he then conveyed the terrible news to Dr. Angel. It is certain that in a few seconds Dr. Angel telephoned for the fire brigade. It might have been the fusing of an electric wire that caused that first explosion, or it might have been the chemical deterioration of the material itself. No one knew, and there was certainly not time to think of such trivialities. Dotted about in the different rooms, in various stages of chemical make-up, were more batches of the explosive material, and fire was spreading fast.
The local fire station happened to be in the same road as the chemical works, and almost before Dr. Angel had replaced the receiver the engine was being got out, and some of the men were running on their way. Those who were in the building needed no second warning of their peril. They dropped whatever they were doing and ran for their lives. Dr. Angel, however, with the watchman and several others who felt it their duty to remain, rushed for the emergency coils of hose, connecting them to the hydrants. Even as they were doing this, while the fire spread around and above them with increasing rapidity, the firemen had arrived outside and were also running out hose-lines to the water mains in the street.
Explosion followed explosion as they struggled with their task - minor explosions, more in the nature of flare-ups, as batch after batch of unrefined explosive mixture met the heat of the flames; and with each explosion the position became more perilous. Within three minutes of the first alarm the flames had spread to the roof. Two minutes later they were licking the walls of the ground floor and basement. The glare was already lighting up the road, along which some fifty odd people were racing to safety. Leaving his desperate work for a brief instant, Dr. Angel ran to the doorway to see the last of the workers clear of the building. One of his assistant chemists implored him to leave.
"No," replied Dr. Angel. "The firemen are here, and I must go back to help them fight the flames." He remained for an instant, a solitary figure outlined in the terrible red glow, watching while the firemen reached for the water cocks, and then he turned and ran back towards the storerooms, where, as he knew full well, only a terrific and desperate fight could save what was inside. He knew also, as did the firemen who had answered the call so promptly, what to expect if the flames won that last battle. Stored away in the lower rooms were vast quantities of high explosive; and with every second that passed, increasing the temperature, that explosive came nearer and nearer to detonation point. But all efforts were futile. The building was doomed. Only seven and a half minutes after the first alarm the end came. Before the firemen were able to turn on the water, before the last of the workers had run helter-skelter down the road, before even Dr. Angel and his brave assistants had a chance to do a thing, it happened. At 6.51 the chemical works was streaked with red and orange flames. At 6.52 there were no chemical works. With a blinding, crashing roar, and a blaze of vivid, searing fire the entire building vanished.
Five or six miles distant, in the West End of London, the last of the office workers were leaving for their homes when their attention was suddenly drawn to a dull red glow in the eastern sky. "Fire," said a few, and after a moment or two resumed their journeys. But those who watched, a trifle more curious, suddenly saw the glare grow brighter. From dull red it changed to scarlet; and from scarlet it became salmon coloured. Those who had gone on halted again to stare in amazement. It must indeed be a tremendous fire to spread so rapidly. Where could it be? And then, even as they watched, the glow became a yellow glare. Buildings became detached from the darkness and stood out against the skyline. A gasp went up from a thousand lips. But the alarmed watchers had seen only the preliminary. In another second the whole of their London became as bright as day, as the sky was lit with a mighty incandescence. For a few brief and terrifying instants it was as though the sun had appeared from nowhere; and then, just as suddenly, it was dark again. Impossible, of course... but the people waited in silence. What they were waiting for, none could have answered; but something had to happen. The air was as full of tension as the sky had been full of light. Something had to follow such tension. It came, not as the noise of an explosion, but as a dreadful thud which struck terror into the hearts of all who heard it. From the windows high above glass tinkled and crashed to the pavements and roads.
Zeppelins? What on this earth was it? Was it the end of London - the end of all things? And even as the thud welled up and sank back into the silence of the hushed night, the ground rocked and trembled. A wind - more: a long, ghostly sigh - wafted through the streets, and it was all over. Still staring eastwards, the people saw the unmistakable glow of fire spreading once more. But there was no more sound. The worst had happened. Only the aftermath remained.
Not only London was shocked by this catastrophe. As far as thirty miles away people saw the great flame. Rushing along freakish paths of its own choosing, the mighty explosion wave tore on across the country, rattling doors and windows, waking up birds and beasts alike as it passed. At Grantham, 107 miles distant, pheasants screamed raucously in the branches of trees; cocks crowed as at daybreak. At King's Lynn, in Norfolk, 87 miles from Silvertown as the crow flies, windows were broken.
It is utterly impossible to portray anything approaching a true picture of those few ghastly seconds at Silvertown, at the spot where the mighty forces tore loose. Few explosions, carefully planned and controlled by engineers, can have had one-tenth such force behind them. Here, in one building, were literally tons of the deadliest explosives known. In one split second all that unmeasured power was blasted loose. Hurtling outwards in all directions, it tore down everything in its path. Striking downwards, it shattered and scattered the very foundations of the building. Deeper than the foundations, it tore at the iron-hard soil, digging its vicious way a full twenty feet and more into the ground, flinging broadcast everything it encountered - from the minutest particles of dust to lumps of metal many tons in weight. The factory, a large building of several storeys and heavy machinery, was blasted out of existence in an instant. The houses surrounding it went down like a pack of cards - not one, but scores of them. One instant they were rows of comfortable homes, housing laughing, living people - men, women and sleeping children. Another instant, and everything within an area of 300 by 400 yards was reduced to mounds of shapeless rubble, silent only because those who survived, buried, were too numbed with the shock to cry in their agony. Outside this area were more houses, upper storeys swept clean away. As though directed by some evil hand, the forces of the terrible explosion spread through the district, striking here, missing there, shattering somewhere else. Dead lay in the roadways, injured crawled along the pavements.
Minutes passed before the inhabitants of the surrounding districts realised what had happened. Those whose main windows faced the scene of the disaster saw the glare and the flash round the edges of drawn blinds. Others saw nothing, had no warning. The ground trembled beneath them, walls rocked and cracked, china and pictures fell from shelves and nails. Windows blew inwards with the blast which followed, and people were hurled across rooms and passages. Rushing out into the open night, they were horrified to see the sky filled with fire and black with debris. Then, like some gargantuan hail-storm, this debris began to fall, tearing away roofs, striking down the terrified folk as they stood, killing, maiming, blinding.
"I was sitting in my little box when the explosion happened," said the watchman of one of the neighbouring factories, who escaped by sheer miraculous luck. "I saw a blinding light, and a moment later about half a ton of iron crashed down from above, within a yard of me. Then the entire sky seemed full of falling wood and iron in masses. Something hit me." He continued: "Presently I came to - it can only have been a few minutes - and I found myself under a sort of shelter of wooden planks. I crawled out, unhurt except for a scratch on my forehead."
But this piece of iron was as nothing compared with some of the immense bits of machinery tossed like feathers by freaks of explosive strength. A boiler from the bowels of the factory was hurled into a field a quarter of a mile away. It weighed between three and four tons! Another piece of metal, mangled machinery weighing more than half a ton, was sent crashing through a shop front two hundred yards away, killing the proprietor, who was working inside.... Yet another boiler was lifted by the blast, over several rows of what had been houses, and dashed almost undamaged into the bedroom of a house. It was as though it had been left there during building operations. Barring the hole through which it tore its way, the house was untouched.
All telephonic communication in surrounding districts was cut off by the shock of the explosion, and consequently it was some considerable time before the exact scene of the tragedy could be fixed from outside the stricken area. Those in the immediate vicinity who were uninjured, and sufficiently recovered from the shock, hastened to the spot to lend the assistance which they knew must be urgently needed. If they had been frightened themselves, however, they saw real panic on their way. Crazed with fear, many people did not stop to reason what had happened. They were incapable of coherent thought. They did not even know what manner of disaster had fallen upon them. They came in their hundreds, running, stumbling, along the dimly lighted roads. Grabbing up whatever had been nearest to them - food, money, clothing - they had rushed out into the night. Their one idea was to get away from Silvertown, away from London, away from danger. They could not have helped had they stayed. They were too shaken. And so the others passed them as they ran, some stopping to ask, without result, exactly what had happened, others not needing to ask, because they knew only too well.
At first many had thought it was a Zeppelin raid, but one look at the strangely crowded sky had told them the truth. "Good God! There goes Brunner Mond's!" was the muttered sentence which fell from a hundred dazed lips; for many knew what that factory contained, and many had actually discussed what would happen if by a stroke of ill-luck a bomb should hit it. The watchman, who perished, had voiced his opinions on that score a bare few days beforehand. The policeman on duty by the gates, Police Constable Greenoff realised the terrible danger when first he saw the fire. He might easily have run to safety. Instead, he ran towards the factory to shout his warning to all inside it. The full blast of the terrible wave caught him as he ran.
He was found amongst the other injured and dead almost as soon as they arrived at the spot where the factory had stood. He was crawling along the ground, hurt and completely dazed with what he had been through. Friends took him to one of the comparatively undamaged houses, and after a while he was able to sit up in a chair. The doctor who was called to him attended to others in the room who were, apparently, more grievously injured; but even as he spoke to his friends, complaining of a strange nausea, they saw with horror that the side of his head was dreadfully wounded. Though the doctor ordered him to hospital at once, there was no hope for him. There never had been. He died two days later; but King George V. conferred the King's Police Medal upon him for his bravery.
Such a scene of chaos and wreckage as has never been in this country, before or since, met the gaze of those who arrived to help. Where the factory itself had stood, there was nothing but a yawning crater, fully a hundred yards across and from twenty to thirty feet deep. Roads, houses, and in fact every foot of space within six acres, was one tangled mass of debris - wood, iron, bricks and mortar. The explosion had hurled vast masses of burning material in all directions, starting new fire wherever it landed. The flour mills and other factories were ignited, and by the time the first rescuers arrived the dancing flames from these buildings were illuminating the whole of the devastated area. From a damaged gasometer a pillar of flame played like a fountain, reaching up to the clouds above; and as the greedy tongues of fire gained a hold upon their new fuel, billowing clouds of steam and smoke rolled out and across the stricken district, completing the picture of hell and misery.
It was impossible to tell how many had perished. It was even beyond speculation. It might be a thousand, or it might be a hundred. Hundreds were buried beneath the wreckage of their homes; no one knew how many had been blasted into fragments by the explosion. The fire engine was a twisted and useless thing. The men who had tried so bravely to put out the initial blaze never succeeded in turning on the water. Two of them died where they stood, and none escaped serious injury. Working feverishly, men and women scraped and clawed at the rubble, struggling with beams and broken furniture, to free the trapped and injured. Doors, shutters, beds, barrows, almost everything was used for temporary stretchers. Doctors and nurses began to arrive, running hither and thither through the wreckage, kneeling to attend the injured where they lay. There was no time to attend to the dead: others were dying. Presently the clang of ambulance bells was heard, and in their dozens the more seriously injured were removed from the nightmare surroundings.
For hours into the night the tall buildings of the flour mills spouted flames and sparks; but long after the blaze died down, and long after the first streaks of daylight reached out over the incredible shambles, rescuers were still at work, digging for those whom they hoped were alive.
Saturday dawned, cold and drear, and if the scene had been terrible during the darkness, it assumed a new and more poignant ghastliness in the daylight. It seemed impossible, looking over that dreadful debris, those mounds of rubble which had been houses, that hole which had been a mighty factory, it seemed impossible that any one within a mile of the disaster could have escaped horrible death. But even while the first rescuers still worked, survivors were telling amazing stories of miraculous escapes.
"I was at work in the office when I heard women shrieking," said one. "I came to the door and saw the high explosive building well alight. Somehow, providentially, I was able to get away without a scratch; though others running along the same road were knocked down beside me by the fragments which flew in all directions. The force of the explosion seemed to take a curious zigzag course, and it must have missed me, though I could not have been more than 200 yards away."
"The house fell away from me, leaving me unhurt," said another woman who was standing at her front door when the explosion occurred.
But for the most part, those in or near their houses suffered the most from the effects of the detonation. Rocking for a second on their foundations, they collapsed, burying every one inside them. Many were killed outright, and many more died of their injuries before they could be extricated. Early that Saturday morning troops were drafted into the district to assist in the rescue work, also to be at hand to control the crowds which began to converge upon the scene from all parts of the country. A cordon was placed completely round the area, and at points along every road the ever-growing army of curious people were met by policemen, who turned them back. The roads were crammed, none the less, and for two and a half miles on every side it was with the greatest difficulty that relief workers, doctors and ambulances made their way through. Coster-carts, trams, trains, bicycles, and buses all bore their full loads of would-be sightseers, but only those who had legitimate business in the stricken area were admitted; and, indeed, theirs was not a task to be envied. Many of them were returning to homes which they knew did not exist any more. Beneath the jumbled heaps of brick and mortar were their pitiful treasures, and pieces of furniture, all that they possessed in the world. They were going back to see what they could save.
By the evening of that first day following the explosion there was still no telling how many had lost their lives. Though the soldiers had been digging hard, for hours on end, they were still coming upon victims of the disaster, some unharmed, some dead, some so grievously injured that death was almost certain. Already it was known that some 500 people had been treated in the streets by private practitioners, and at one hospital alone no fewer than 300 received aid. Accurate news was scarce, however, and the censor had the last say before figures were published. On the morning following the explosion only the shortest and vaguest of paragraphs appeared in the Press. Issued by the Press Bureau of Ministry of Munitions at 11.40 p.m. on the fateful evening, the statement was absolutely uninformative; in fact, any one living within fifty miles of London could have told the Ministry of Munitions considerably more:
"The Ministry of Munitions regrets to announce that an explosion occurred this evening at a munitions factory in the neighbourhood of London.
"It is feared that the explosion was attended by a considerable loss of life and damage to property."
A further official report, issued on Saturday, the day after the explosion, stated that between 30 and 40 bodies had been recovered, and that approximately 100 had been seriously injured; but no mere figures could tell the tale of misery and suffering. At least 1,000 people were homeless, and almost every one of them had some relative or friend amongst the killed and injured. In some cases whole families had been split up in the panic which followed, and it was not until some days afterwards that they knew for certain which of them were safe. Mothers searched frantically for their children amongst the debris, and after giving them up for dead, were relieved beyond measure to learn that they were unharmed, or only slightly injured, having spent the night - several nights in some cases - in a kindly stranger's house.
By Monday, although the soldiers continued to dig, the worst was known. Forty-four men, eleven women, and fourteen children had either been killed outright or had died in the various hospitals from their injuries. Amongst the more seriously injured were nineteen men, thirty-four women, and nineteen children. And, in addition, 155 men, 102 women, and 71 children were suffering from lesser injuries. A death roll of 69 persons, with 72 on the danger list; and, in all, a total of four hundred and sixty-nine on the records as having been involved.
But, terrible as this figure may appear, it was nothing short of a miracle that the death roll was not three times that size. A visitor from Norfolk, who had been told that the shock he felt came from the Silvertown explosion, was highly sceptical until he saw the scene of the calamity. Then he just stared in silent amazement. Many soldiers of the rescue party who had "been through the mill" at the front admitted that nothing they had seen out there carne anywhere near to approaching the terrible spectacle of devastation. The Ministry of Munitions also announced on the Monday that they "Hoped that all people in various houses and factories had now been accounted for." That was three full days after the explosion.
The most pitiful and heartbreaking scenes were witnessed by those who carried on with the grim rescue work, as mothers, wives, and husbands sought vainly for dear ones who were missing. One woman of at least sixty years was found digging about in a heap of bricks, weeping as she worked. A policeman took the spade from her, asking her what she was looking for.
"My son," she replied. "My son. This was my home, and my only son is buried here."
She was led away to a neighbour's house where they promised to look after her; but a short while later they again found her pulling at the rubble with her hands. So certain was she that her boy lay buried beneath the debris that they called over some soldiers and told them to dig - just to satisfy the poor, half-demented woman. And, after a few minutes' work they found him, unconscious and seriously injured.
Another woman, who came running from her home, child in arms, at the alarm of "fire!" met the full blast of the explosion as she left the door. Her child was torn from her grasp and hurled from her, and the house collapsed upon it, burying it deep beneath the wreckage. For some long time the mother lay stunned, and then awoke to find she was alone. Feverishly she began to claw at the debris, mad with anxiety. How long she toiled, neither she nor any one else will ever know, but when they found her, well after midnight, she was lying insensible beside the tangled masonry. She had reached her child, only to find it dead; and four of her fingers were broken from the effort of her terrible task.
Mr. Lloyd George, the Prime Minister, visited the stricken area on the second day, together with his youngest son and daughter, in order to see that everything possible was being done to alleviate the suffering. The Ministry of Munitions notified the local authorities that they would make themselves responsible for any money spent on emergency measures, such as housing those who were rendered homeless, and feeding the hungry who had lost all they possessed. A fund was started for the relief of sufferers, and amongst the first to subscribe to it were, King George V., who gave £250, Queen Mary, who gave £100, and Queen Alexandra, who also gave £100.
An official report of the disaster, received from the Home Secretary on March 27, included the following details:
That, the explosion was preceded by a fire which broke out either in the melt pot, or in a corrugated iron structure at the top of the building immediately above the melt pot.
That, the fire rapidly gained a fierce hold, and as the melt pot contained a large quantity of explosive material in a state of confinement, it is possible that the initial detonation took place there.
That, the evidence available is not sufficient to determine with certainty how the fire was started, but all accidental causes presenting any degree of probability may be eliminated except the two following:
(a) A detonation spark produced by friction or impact.
(b) Spontaneous ignition, due to decomposition of material in or about the melt-pot.
That, the possibility of the disaster having been maliciously caused, cannot be disregarded: but searching investigation by the police and other authorities failed to discover any evidence which would warrant such a conclusion, and no suspicion fell on any employee or other person. (There was much talk at the time of espionage and sabotage, and many of the workers were inclined to blame the disaster upon some unknown enemy in their midst.)
That, the casualties were as follows: - Sixty-nine persons were killed on the spot. Ninety-eight were seriously injured, of whom four have since died in hospital, and 328 were slightly injured. In addition the Committee were informed by the police that 500 or 600 persons who received cuts and bruises were treated in the streets by private practitioners. Of the ten men belonging to the shift at work in the building, nine were killed and one escaped, but of the 10 women at work, only one lost her life.
That, the Committee's attention was called to the gallant conduct of Dr. Angel, the chemist in charge of the works; Mr. George Wenborne, the leading male hand on the shift, and Police Constable Greenoff, who was on duty outside the works. These three men bravely remained at their posts when they could have escaped, and lost their lives in their endeavour to save the lives of others by warning them of the dangers of an explosion.
It was not until six days after the explosion that the dismembered body of Dr. Angel was recovered from the ruins, and only by means of the shirt he was wearing was Mrs. Angel able to identify her husband's remains. For their extreme bravery King George conferred the Edward Medal of the first class upon both Dr. Angel and Mr. Wenborne, and, as has been mentioned, Police Constable Greenoff was honoured with the King's Police Medal.
Within about a week of the disaster, the soldiers had finished their gruesome and difficult task of digging and clearing away the debris, and plans were draftee! out for immediate rebuilding. The explosion occurred on January 19, 1917, and on January 23, a report was presented to the Prime Minister by the first Commissioners of Works. The very next day Mr. Lloyd George ordered the immediate procedure of renovations, and the replacement of lost and destroyed property. On the 25th January a staff was sent to Silvertown to prepare a schedule of dilapidations. Photographs were taken, and authority was received for expenditure. By February 1, all dangerous building were either shored up or felled. By February 5, 8,000 men were at work. The debris was cleared away from about 600 homes, and in spite of very unfavourable weather conditions, about four thousand pounds worth of work was completed.
Thus, rapidly and precisely the ravages of the disaster were made good. By February 7, all roofs had been temporarily covered where occupants were still able to carry on in their damaged homes. By February 26, thirty-eight days after the accident, the amount spent on work exceeded £31,000, and 792 houses had been re-roofed and slated. About 120 workers went on strike at this stage, demanding War Bonus terms, but they were paid off, and new hands engaged. Nearly two months after the calamity thousands of workmen were still at the task of making good the havoc. Although some 800 houses had been re-roofed, glazed, and made weatherproof, practically every home still had to be re-plastered. The cost of the work had mounted up to £55,000, but so great was the damage that little more than a hundred houses were turned over to their occupants as complete by that time.
Such figures tell, more plainly than any description of the explosion itself, how ghastly was the damage. And to-day, twenty years after that terrible night in Silvertown, one may still see blatant reminders of the mighty blast. The remains of that huge crater still gape in the soil. Large cracks are in many walls, and the local inhabitants need walk only a few yards to point out a dozen or more of the houses which were built as rapidly in the ensuing weeks. But, far worse than cracked walls, there are many alive in Silvertown to-day who still suffer from the terrible shock of the calamity. Lucky as they know themselves to be, their nerves were shattered that day, and for as long as they live they can never forget what they went through.
Speak to any score of residents in that district, above the age of thirty, and you will be sure to meet at least half a dozen to whom the tragedy is still as vivid as the night it occurred. Although official figures gave official lists of those killed, it can never be said for certain that those figures are complete. There are tales in the world of insurance of life policies that were never claimed. Some policies took months to settle. Documents were lost. Families were wiped out. In many cases relatives might have claimed insurance money, but were unable to do so because they never knew for certain whether policies existed. In many more cases the big companies went to extreme trouble to seek out relatives - who were more than surprised to learn that they were beneficiaries.
There were few false claims, however, and extreme honesty was the keynote of those terrible weeks. People who were asked to estimate their losses, for the purpose of claiming relief, were often hard put to it to know what to do. One old woman, widowed by the explosion, was heard to remark:
"But how can I tell what I have lost? Most of my furniture and belongings was of no real value. Although I was quite happy with it, it was very old. They say they want to replace it, but then I shall be getting more than I should, shan't I?"
And that was the general spirit which existed, once the people had recovered from the catastrophe. During the days of anxiety and nervous tension following the night of the disaster, those people behaved with bravery and generosity; their one thought was to help their neighbours whose misfortunes were greater than their own. After the strain was over they thought only of returning to a normal life - or a life as normal as the ever-threatening war clouds allowed. But though Dockland is still the same to-day as it has been for years, there is still that memory of a great calamity which shook it to its very foundations. And in years to come, long after the last sufferer has passed on, men and women, who were children at the time of the tragedy, and too young to understand their loss, will pause when they pass along the North Woolwich Road. Between them and the water stands a stone monument, carved with a long list of names. For the visitor that memorial will always be a point of interest, telling as it does of one of the greatest explosions of all time. To those who come to it from Dockland, however, it represents the graveyard of their kin.
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