On this day in history….19th January 1917

On this day in history : 19th January 1917 – An explosion in a munitions factory in Silvertown, West Ham, London kills 73 people and injures 400 more…. It also destroys the nearby fire station and a gasometer….

Memorial to the Silvertown Explosion in its new location in the middle of the Royal Wharf development. 2016. Author: Neddyseagoon via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0

The factory, belonging to Brunner-Mond had been built in 1893 to produce soda crystals and caustic soda…. By 1912 the production of caustic soda had ceased and so the factory was not running to full capacity….

At the time there were strict controls in place in the City of London as to where dangerous explosives and substances could be processed and manufactured…. However, Silvertown, although heavily populated fell outside of this main central area – and being over half way through the war Britain was running low on ammunition…. With this in mind the War Office decided to take over the vacant part of the factory – even though it was opposed by Brunner-Mond….

The factory in Silvertown was used to purify TNT – an extremely dangerous process…. The manufacture of TNT is a risky enough procedure in itself – but to purify it carries even more risk…. It was, perhaps, an accident waiting to happen….

And happen it did…. A fire broke out in the factory – and although every effort was being made by fireman from the nearby fire station – at 6.52pm 50 tonnes of TNT (much of which was being stored in railway trucks, awaiting transportation) ignited…. The factory was destroyed instantly….as were many of the surrounding buildings; some 900 were immediately destroyed or had to be demolished – and a further 70,000 were damaged…. Many of the buildings were nearby warehouses – but also included were people’s homes and the Silvertown fire station…. A gas holder containing 200,000 cubic metres of gas was damaged – causing a massive fireball to erupt…. The gasometer was later repaired….and remained in situ until 1986….

The Millennium Mills in the aftermath of the Silvertown Explosion Author: Avery, John, 1917-01-25 Fair Use

The death toll, in one of the worst disasters in Britain during World War 1, could have been much higher…. 69 people died instantly (including the firemen attending the original fire) and 4 more died of their injuries later….over a further 400 people were injured…. However, because of the time of day, being almost 7pm on a Friday evening, the warehouses and factory were mainly empty…. Had it of been during the working day many, many more people would have lost their lives….

Image credit: Gordon Joly via Flickr

The blast could be heard 100 miles away, as far as Sandringham, Norfolk – and fires could be seen from Guildford and Maidstone…. An investigation could find no single cause but did conclude that the TNT had not been stored safely enough…. Although most of London could not have failed to notice the explosion happening – it took the Press three days to report it….

On this day in history….16th January 1749

On this day in history : 16th January 1749 – Riots break out at the Haymarket Theatre, London – after crowds flock to the theatre for a sell-out performance by a conjurer….who fails to materialise….


An advertisement had appeared in London newspapers during the first week of January…. It read….

At the New Theatre in the Haymarket, on Monday next, the 16th instant, is to be seen a Person who performs the several most surprising things following –viz.., 1st. He takes a common walking cane from any of the spectators, and thereupon plays the music of every instrument now in use, and likewise sings to surprising perfection. 2dly. He presents you with a common Wine Bottle, which any of the spectators may first examine; this Bottle is placed on a Table in the middle of the Stage, and he (without any equivocation) goes into it, in the sight of all the spectators, and sings in it; during his stay in the bottle, any Person may handle it, and see plainly that it does not exceed a common Tavern Bottle. Those on the Stage, or in the Boxes, may come in masked habits (if agreeable to them); and the performer, if desired, will inform them who they are. Stage, 7s.6d. Boxes, 5s. Pit, 3s. Gallery, 2s. Tickets to be had at the Theatre. To begin a half hour after 6 o’clock. The performance continues about two hours and a half.

Note,– If any Gentlemen or Ladies (after the above Performance), either single or in company, in or out of mask, is desirous of seeing a representation of any deceased Person, such as Husband or Wife, Sister or Brother, or any intimate Friend of either sex, upon making a gratuity to the Performer, shall be gratified by seeing and conversing with them for some minutes, as if alive; likewise, if desired, he will tell you your most secret thoughts in your Past life, and give you a full view of persons who have injured you, whether dead or alive. For those Gentlemen and Ladies who are desirous of seeing this last part, there is a private room provided.

These performances have been seen by most of the Crowned Heads of Asia, Africa and Europe, and never appeared public anywhere but once; but will wait on any at their Houses, and perform as above for five Pounds each time. A proper guard is appointed to prevent disorder.

Yes, it all sounds ridiculously far-fetched….surely nobody would fall for it? But for days Londoners could talk of little else – and they rushed to buy tickets….

English wine bottle 17th/18th Century – The Higgins Museum & Gallery, Bedford

On the evening of the performance the theatre was packed to the rafters; every box, every seat in the gallery and in the pits taken…. Standing room was at a premium….and the anticipation was at fever pitch….

The audience waited….and waited….and waited….but nothing happened – no performer showed – and not even a fiddle to keep the crowd amused…. People began to get restless; it started with sighs and groans – escalating to catcalls….and then came the stamping of feet and banging of canes….

Eventually, somebody from the theatre timidly ventured on to the stage….bowing and apologising profusely…. He said that if the conjurer didn’t make an appearance in 15 minutes everyone would be refunded their money at the door on the way out….

But the crowd were not to be placated…. Someone shouted from the pits that everybody would willingly pay double if he (the theatre employee) climbed into the bottle…. It was just after then that somebody from one of the boxes threw a lit candle on to the stage….and all hell and mayhem broke out….

Seats were ripped apart, benches smashed….the crowd demolished everything they could lay their hands on…. The theatre was gutted….and the riotous mob spilled out on to the street, carrying with them many of the interior fittings….with which they made a huge bonfire…. Even the stage curtain was ripped from its hangings and hoisted on to a pole – to be waved around like a giant flag…. As to the audience getting its money back – well, no chance of that – as in the pandemonium somebody stole the box-office takings….

The whole farcical event became the target of just about every newspaper and publication….satire went crazy…. It became known as ‘The Great Bottle Hoax”….

Image of William Phillips as Harlequin in a representation of the Bottle Conjurer – English broadside dated 1748/9 B.Dickson – Public domain

So, who was behind the hoax? Initially the blame was laid on the theatre manager, Samuel Foote, a notorious prankster of the time – but he vehemently denied any involvement…. The finger was then pointed at the owner of the theatre, John Potter – but it was highly unlikely to be his doing….

It is now widely believed – (although never proven)that the Duke of Portland and the Earl of Chesterfield may have been behind it…. The pair had been amongst a group of English noblemen, discussing human gullibility – when the Duke announced (most likely after consuming one too many alcoholic beverages)…. “I will wager, that let a man advertise the most impossible thing in the world, he will find fools enough in London to fill a play house and pay handsomely for the privilege of being there”…. To which the Earl replied…. “Surely, if a man should say that he would jump into a quart bottle, nobody would believe that”….

Not surprisingly, the Duke and Earl lay low after the events of the 16th of January 1749….their secret didn’t come out until many years later….


On this day in history….10th January 1863

On this day in history : 10th January 1863 – The World’s first underground railway line – ‘The Metropolitan Railway’ – opens in London….

The line opened between Paddington (then called Bishop’s Road) and Farringdon Street and served 6 intermediate stations…. Nowadays there are 270 stations on 11 lines….employing over 27,000 people….

London Underground Map (1908) Image credit : Roger W via Flickr

Metropolitan was a private company who financed the venture themselves….the Underground was completely funded by private companies until the 1930s….

Five more underground lines were authorised by Parliament between 1891 and 1893 – but Waterloo & City was the only other line to be built before 1900…. It took 21 years (1863 – 1884) to finally complete the inner circle of lines in central London – and by 1884 over 800 trains were travelling around it every day….

Baker Street & Waterloo Railway in its first week of opening – The Graphic 1906

Much of the network was completed in the first 50 years…. The total length of the network is 400.7km….the longest tunnel, between East Finchley and Morden is 27.7km…. The longest distance between stops is 6.3km – between Chesham and Chalfont & Latimer on the Metropolitan line…. The shortest distance is 260m – between Leicester Square and Covent Garden – the journey takes just 20 seconds…. Only 45% of the Underground network is actually in tunnels….

Construction of Tube at Mile End – Circa 1946 Image credit : The National Archives UK via Flickr

Less than 10% of the stations are located south of the River Thames…. The District line has the most stations, with 60 – whilst Waterloo & City line has the fewest…. In central London the deepest station below street level is ‘Bank’, at 41.4m deep….in outer London it is Hampstead, at 58.5m…. Baker Street has the most platforms – with 10 – (4 of which are overground)….


The original trains to operate were steam – the network did not become fully electrified until 1961.. The first deep-level electric line was installed in 1890…. In 1903 the Central line became the first railway in Britain to be entirely worked by multiple-unit trains ~ meaning trains no longer had to be turned around upon reaching the end of the line…. By 1905 all tube lines were operating them….

On the first ever day of service some 40,000 passengers were carried…. In 1918 there were 70% more passengers than there had been in 1914…. Nowadays it is more like 1,107 million per year using the Underground network….

The ‘Tube’ became the affectionate name for the Underground in the early 1900s – when the Central London Railway (Central line) became nicknamed ‘The Twopenny Tube’ – a phrase coined by the Daily Mail….

Postcard for the Central London Railway – via Wikimedia

In Cockney rhyming slang it is known as ‘the Oxo’ (Oxo cube)…. The ‘Underground’ name first appeared in 1908 – and the Tube’s logo is called the ’roundel’…. In the early days the carriages – which were very claustrophobic – became known as ‘padded cells’….


It was in September 1940 that underground stations were first used as air-raid shelters against the bombing attacks of World War 2…. During the War years a section was closed between Holborn – Aldwych and was used to store treasures from the British Museum…. The Central line was converted into a factory to produce fighter aircraft….and was complete with its own railway system…. This remained an official secret right up until the 1980s…. Over 200,000 children were evacuated from the Capital using the Underground….

The first baby to be born on the Underground was in 1924…. Marie Cordery came into the World on board a train at Elephant & Castle on the Bakerloo line…. Another baby to be born was American talk-show host Jerry Springer – his mother gave birth during a WW2 air-raid at East Finchley Station….

And here are a few more random facts for you :-

The original recording of “Mind the gap” was made in 1968 and features the voice of Peter Lodge – who was a sound recordist…. Many stations still use it today….


Manually operated doors were phased out in 1929 – to be replaced by air operated ones….

Aldgate Station, on the Circle & Metropolitan line, is built on a huge plague pit – containing 1,000 bodies….

The tunnels beneath the City curve because they follow the old Medieval street plan….

Queen Elizabeth II was the first Monarch to travel on the Underground – In May 1939 (when she was 13-years-old) she travelled on the Victoria line from Green Park – along with Princess Margaret and governess Marion Crawford….

The Jubilee line was named to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 – but did not actually open until 1979….

The most commonly used film location on the Underground is Aldwych – which is a disused station….

Busking has been licensed since 2003…. It is rumoured that Sting and Paul McCartney have both busked in disguise….

The fictional ‘Walford East’ of the soap Eastenders is supposed to be on the District Line….

Over 47 million litres of water are pumped from the Underground each day….enough to fill an average sized swimming pool every 15 minutes….

Half a million mice live on the Underground….


On this day in history….7th January 1928

On this day in history : 7th January 1928 – The River Thames bursts its banks and floods much of Central London…. Fourteen people lose their lives and thousands more are made homeless…. The Tower of London, Houses of Parliament and Tate Gallery are all swamped….

During Christmas 1927 heavy snow had fallen in the Cotswolds, where the Thames has its source…. A sudden thaw on New Years Eve, followed by excessive heavy rain meant there was double the usual volume of water coming down river…. This coincided with a high spring tide – but at the same time a storm surge, caused by a cyclone in the North Sea meant water levels were raised in the Thames Estuary….

Floods at Reading in January 1928 – showing the impact of the Thames flooding even further down river…. Image credit : Alan Farrow via Flickr

The situation was made even worse by dredging work that had been carried out in the Capital between 1909 and 1928 to deepen the river channel – to allow easier access for shipping in to the Port of London….

The river burst its banks just after midnight – when most Londoners were in their beds…. The first section to break was a 75ft stretch at Millbank – opposite the Tate Gallery…. Water poured into the gallery, up to 8ft deep on the ground floor….18 paintings were damaged beyond repair, 226 badly damaged and a further 67 received minor damage…. Many were by renowned artist J.M.W. Turner….

Westminster Hall and the House of Commons were flooded, as were most underground stations close to the river…. The Blackwall Tunnel was submerged, as was the Rotherhithe Tunnel…. The moat surrounding the Tower of London, which had been empty for over 80 years, was filled…. The flooding extended from the City of London and Southwark right to Putney and Hammersmith….

A Southern Railway electric multiple unit tackles floods at Kew Bridge railway station Credit : Andy Dingley (scanner) – Public domain

However, the most devastating part of the disaster has to be the human cost…. As the embankment near to Lambeth Bridge broke floodwaters gushed onto the streets of the run-down working-class area between Southwark and Blackfriars, which backed on to the river…. Water poured into the basements….which were the homes of so many of London’s poorer people….

There was little time to escape; police went from door to door, urging people to leave….many did, wearing just their nightclothes….but for some it was too late….

As the water poured into these basements nine people drowned – and another died from a heart attack brought on by the shock…. Alfred Harding later had to identify the bodies of 4 of his daughters:- Florence Emily, 18 – Lillian Maude, 16 – Rosina, 6 and Doris, who was only 2-years-old….

Two more died in Hammersmith, domestic servants Evelyn Hyde, aged 20 and Annie Masters Moreton, aged 22 – who shared a basement room…. Another two people died in Fulham…. 4,000 were made homeless….

The flood peaked at 1.30am, at a level of over 18ft above the Ordnance Datum line….the highest water level ever recorded in the Thames at London…. The water had subsided by the end of the day – but it took a month to pump all of it away…. The damage took several years to repair….many of the old slum areas had to be demolished, Millbank and the surrounding area had to be virtually rebuilt…. Political rows broke out over who should pay for the clean-up operation – was it the responsibility of local or central government…. Arguments also occurred amongst authorities and politicians over the role the dredging work had played in the disaster….

Thames flood level markers at Trinity Hospital, Greenwich

The embankments had once been marshland but were reclaimed during the Victorian era and had been developed for housing and commercial purposes…. As a result of the 1928 flood the river’s embankments were raised…. Thankfully it was the last major flood to occur in the city – but it came close again in 1953 – when the river almost broke the embankment – and did cause some flooding at Bermondsey and other low-lying areas…. A further flood occurred on the Lower Thames in 1959….

At last the government were prompted to consider flood defence – once again there were disagreements over who should foot the bill…. Plans were made in the mid 1960s for a flood barrier – and in 1974 work finally got underway…. The Thames Barrier officially opened in 1984….


On this day in history….3rd January 1911

On this day in history : 3rd January 1911 – The Siege of Sidney Street takes place….a gun battle is waged on the streets of London as two Latvian anarchists hold out in an East End tenement for several hours – against over 200 armed police and a detachment of soldiers….


The drama had begun to unfold three weeks previously, on the 16th of December 1910. A gang of Latvian revolutionaries had attempted to rob a jeweller’s shop in Houndsditch. The gang, calling itself ‘Leesma’, meaning ‘flame’, consisted of approximately thirteen people, including two women….their purpose was to commit robberies to raise money to help fund fellow activists in Latvia and Russia, who supported Lenin and the Bolshevik Movement….

The gang had rented rooms in a building annexing the back of the jeweller’s shop….the plan was to break through the common wall between the two adjoining properties. They chose to carry out their planned robbery on a Friday night….but being a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood – and Friday being the Jewish Sabbath – it was a particularly quiet time. Alerted by the noise the gang were making whilst attempting the robbery local residents called the police….

Eight unarmed police officers arrived, three sergeants and five Constables….the gang opened fire on them. Three policemen were killed and two were injured – the gang then made their escape…. One Latvian was injured – having been shot accidentally by another member of the gang. He was carried away by his friends but later died from his injuries – and was found dead in his lodgings the following morning….

The police immediately mounted a search and by the end of December had most of the gang in custody…. They then received a tip-off that two members, Fritz Svaars and William Sokolow, were hiding at 100 Sidney Street, which is located at the heart of Stepney. A room at the address was being rented by Betsy Gershan, the girlfriend of Sokolow. Being the East End of London the area was very overpopulated and the property itself overcrowded….fourteen people were registered at the address, two families with young children….

At midday on the 2nd of January two horse-drawn vehicles arrived in Sidney Street; concealed inside were armed policemen – and the building was placed under observation….

During the early hours of the 3rd of January a long snaking line of over 200 policemen made their way to 100 Sidney Street. Some were armed – but their weapons, such as revolvers, shotguns and tube guns, were old and antiquated. The men had not been briefed as to the nature of the task at hand – but they knew it was dangerous, as married men had been excluded from the operation….


By dawn all was in place and the police were ready to take action. Somehow they managed to evacuate 100 Sidney Street and the surrounding properties without alerting Svaars and Sokolow, who were on the second floor…. The pair were Continue reading “On this day in history….3rd January 1911”