Friday, 1 November 2019

Silvertown Explosion - Brunner Mond

Brunner Mond 1895

Silvertown Explosion - Brunner Mond

At the outbreak of the Great War the desire of the British Government to assist the French led to the decision that as much of our production of lyddite as could be spared should be sent to France and that for our own service requirements we should develop and extend the use of amatol. This latter explosive is a mixture of ammonium nitrate and TNT. For most purposes it was standardised as an 80:20 mixture so that the bulk ingredient of the high explosives used by our Army was ammonium nitrate

Crude TNT was being imported from America and was also being made at several works in England and Scotland. Later a large factory was erected in Scotland for greatly increasing the output. The crude TNT from different sources differed in crystalline structures in melting point and impurities. The necessity for bringing it all up to a standard specification was most pressing. And it happened to be the first task that Lord Moulton asked me to undertake. Investigation showed that the pre-war purification plant having the greatest output and yielding the most pure material was using benzoic in the process and the extreme care needed to operate such a process without accidents rendered it useless as a war time proposition when only rough unskilled labour was available, moreover the time for purification was pressing. I applied to Messrs Brunner Mond & Co. for help, and they kindly lent me the services of Captain (later Major) F A Freeth and Mr. L A Munro to work out a better process adaptable to war needs. In this they quickly achieved success. and I was instructed to extend a factory at Rainham to operate the process. I designed the plant placed the contracts, and erected the works. It was a success from the start and it is indicative of the state of affairs at that time that when the purified TNT was passed to the Service for use I received a peremptory message to attend before an elderly general at Whitehall who roundly upbraided me for having built a factory without first obtaining financial sanction and incidentally for having installed too many WCs for the number of men employed.

Having proved the value of the new process, we were confronted with the problem of extending it on a large scale. The officials of Messrs Brunner Mond & Co. were called to a conference on June 5, 1915, and they agreed to convert their soda crystal plant at Silvertown into a crude TNT purification plant, in spite of the loss of trade such a step involved. The necessary alterations to the plant were completed, and the plant was put into operation in September of that year. After preliminary difficulties had been overcome the plant was successful. and the period for purification was reduced to four hours. The continued researches of BM & Co brought about a still better process, and after Lord Moulton had carefully investigated it we came to the conclusion that it was again essential to seek the co-operation of B. M & Co, and ask them to provide designs and staff for erecting and operating a central purification plant to which the crude TNT from all producing works could be sent for purification. I was instructed to see the BM & Co officials and if possible to arrange for this scheme to be carried out. In spite of their directors and staff being already overworked, for reasons, which will appear later, B M & Co did agree. A central works was designed and the work commenced at Gadbrook early in November 1915. 1t was deemed essential that this plant should be as free from combustible material as possible and it was therefore, constructed in steel and concrete and for safety it was spread out along a frontage of a quarter of a mile. The first unit started output in February 1918.

It was most unfortunate that a fire which started in the roof of one of the sheds at Silvertown caused an explosion which completely destroyed the works caused loss of life, and wrecked much surrounding property. It was subsequently proved that the fire was due to the formation of a little known self-igniting chemical formed as dust under the roof

Extract from Supply of explosives during the war and the Early history of Billingham by H.A. Humphrey – Gas Journal Vol. 227. 1939 p452.  Reproduced thanks to Brian Sturt. This first appeared in the GIHS Newsletter May 1999

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