Friday 21 June 2019

Only doing their duty; Henry Vickers (1868-1917) & Frederick Charles Sell (1872-1917), West Ham Cemetery

49 year Sub Officer Henry Vickers and 45 year old Fireman Frederick Charles Sell were members of the West Ham Corporation Fire Brigade based at the fire station in Silvertown. They were both killed in the 1917 Silvertown Explosion, caused by a fire in a TNT factory which the government had, with minimal regard for health and safety, set up in the Brunner Mond Chemical works, just across the road from the fire station. The factory had opened in 1893 to produce soda crystals and caustic soda. In 1912 management terminated production of caustic soda which left spare capacity in the factory which the government requisitioned in 1916 to carry out the extremely dangerous process of purifying TNT. Brunner Mond objected, pointing out that the factory was in a heavily populated area of London. It was also a very poor area of London so Brunner Mond’s objections went unheeded.  On the evening of 19th January 1917 a fire broke out in the melt pot room of the factory. The fire station was literally a few hundred yards away and so the corporation’s fire fighters were quickly on the scene and already tackling the blaze when it ignited 50 long tons of TNT. The resulting explosion spread red hot debris for miles around, causing many secondary fires.  A chunk of heated masonry hit a gasometer on the Greenwich peninsula, 200,000 cubic feet of gas exploding into a spectacular fireball.  60,000 buildings were damaged but, amazingly, only 73 people died, mainly because at 7pm on a Friday the factory and surrounding workplaces were all deserted. Many of the victims were mangled beyond recognition and identification, in those pre dental records/DNA test days, was a traumatic affair. Cases recorded by the Stratford Express include a fireman who was at the scene at the time of the explosion miraculously survived only to return home to find his wife and child had perished. A mother of a worker at the factory identified him by his head, which happened to be the only part his body that had been recovered. Another man identified a fellow lodger from the remains of a lower leg because he recognised the copy of the Daily Sketch which the victim had used to stuff a hole in the sole of his boots that morning before he left for work. A millhand identified the body of his 32 year old wife in one mortuary and his 13 year old son in another. His ten year old daughter he found in the ruins of his house. 

Henry Vickers and Frederick Charles Sell were both fighting the initial fire in the melt room and were killed instantly by the subsequent explosion.  Frederick’s 15 year old daughter Winifred and Ethel Betts, the 4 month old daughter of another fireman, are buried in the same plot in West Ham Cemetery. Henry’s son Harold formally identified the body of his father and his 15 year old sister. She had been in the fire station at the time of the explosion and was found in an adjacent field with her back broken. Harold arrived home in time to assist a colleague of his father’s carrying his sister from the field to the pavement in front of the fire station. He helped to lay her on a mattress where she quietly died. Two of his brothers and his mother had also been in the station at the time of the explosion but they survived. Also based at Silvertown fire station was George Betts. His wife had put their 3 children to bed at 6pm. After the explosion she brought two of them out into the street and a passing stranger went back into the house to find the third, four month old baby Ethel, but she was already dead. 

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