The Brunner Mond chemical factory had been built in 1893 to manufacture caustic soda and soda crystals. However, declining demand for caustic soda meant that production ceased in 1912 and parts of the factory stood idle. Due to a crippling shell shortage following the onset of the First World War, the War Office chose to use the spare capacity at the Silvertown site to purify TNT for explosive shells.
The chief scientist at the factory described the purification process as “manifestly very dangerous” and the company bosses themselves tried to dissuade the government for going ahead with the plan. Despite these concerns, and the fact that the factory was situated in a highly populated area, the Silvertown plant began to produce TNT in September 1915 at a rate of approximately 9 long tons per day.
At 6.52pm on the evening of 19 January 1917, a fire that had broken out in another part of the factory reached the stores of TNT. Approximately 50 tonnes exploded, completely destroying the factory and many nearby buildings. The blast could be heard as far away as Sandringham in Norfolk while molten metal was strewn across several miles, some of which damaged a gasometer in Greenwich and caused a giant fireball as 200,000 cubic metres of gas caught fire.
Over 60,000 properties suffered some form of damage from the blast, but the loss of life was fortunately a lot lower than it could have been. The explosion took place in the early evening when there were not many people in the factory, and people had not yet gone to bed in the upstairs rooms of their homes that suffered the most damage.
The first traveller’s cheques, in the form of a ‘circular note’ issued by a bank, went on sale in London.
Devised by the Scottish banker Robert Herries, circular notes were an immediate hit with young British aristocrats who needed to obtain foreign currency while exploring Europe on the Grand Tour. They needed an easy way to access to their British-based wealth, and Herries’ creation provided it.
Having secured the cooperation of a number of continental banks, Herries was able to ensure that his customers could withdraw local currency in more than 80 European cities. The notes were issued against the payment of cash to the bank in London, meaning that the customer was freed from the burden of travelling with gold. Since the notes had to be countersigned by the recipient they also provided much greater security. Any unused notes could be returned to the issuing bank in London and the cash refunded.
A century later, and just two years after the first round-the-world tour, the British company Thomas Cook began issuing their own circular notes to help customers manage the constant change of currencies. This idea was developed further by American Express, who launched the first branded Travelers Cheque in 1891. It is said that the system was developed by American Express employee Marcellus Flemming Berry after the company’s founder, J. C. Fargo, experienced problems obtaining funds on a European trip.
The popularity of traveller’s cheques has declined in recent years due to the creation of pre-paid currency cards alongside debit and credit cards. Yet their fundamental aim remains that same as the circular notes introduced by Robert Herries in 1772. They all allow travellers to access funds while away from home.
On the 25th December 1066, William of Normandy was crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey. The event ended in chaos as Norman guards outside mistook the sounds of the cheering crowd inside for the start of a riot.
William, having defeated the English king Harold at the Battle of Hastings on the 14th October 1066, was forced to fight on after a number of English nobles nominated Edgar the Ætheling as the new king. When he crossed the Thames at Wallingford in early December he was met by Stigand, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who just a few weeks earlier had elected Edgar as king. However, he immediately abandoned Edgar and submitted to William, who soon marched to Berkhamsted where Edgar himself gave up his claim to the throne.
William’s coronation in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day saw both Norman and English nobility in attendance. Norman troops were stationed outside the abbey and in the surrounding streets in case of trouble while the coronation itself was conducted by Geoffrey, the Bishop of Coutances, and Ealdred, the Archbishop of York. The account of Orderic Vitalis, the Anglo-French chronicler of Norman England, tells how the assembled nobles cheered loudly when asked if they agreed to William becoming King of England.
The troops outside mistook these cheers for a fight between the Normans and English inside the church, so set fire to some of the English houses nearby before charging into the Abbey itself. The arrival of the troops panicked the coronation guests, many of whom fled the Abbey while the bishops frantically finished the ceremony amongst the commotion.
On the 19th December 1843, Charles Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol was published in London by Chapman & Hall. Since first being published it has never been out of print and, despite the first run selling out within 6 days, Dickens was disappointed with the amount of money he made from the book.
A Christmas Carol was written in just six weeks from September 1843. Although released by an established publisher, Dickens was unwilling to take a lump-sum fee for the story and so instead published it at his own expense. However, the high production costs meant that the profits were smaller than he hoped for.
Despite this disappointing financial return for its author, A Christmas Carol is said to be responsible for establishing much of the modern interpretation of the Christmas holiday. Historian Ronald Hutton refers to the book’s theme of ‘social reconciliation’, and views the story as establishing the link between individuals, families and their place within the wider community as well as the importance of charitable giving.
Dickens’ tale is also responsible for introducing key terms into the English language of which the name “Scrooge”, and the phrase “Bah! Humbug!” are the most obvious. However, it is also responsible for popularising the phrase “Merry Christmas”. Although this greeting had been around since the 16th Century, by 1843 the meaning of the word ‘merry’ was changing – originally it simply meant ‘pleasant’, but by the time of Dickens’ book it had begun to mean ‘cheerful’ or ‘jolly’ and it is within this context that Scrooge uses the term extensively at the end of the story.
The worst fire in the history of the London Underground killed 31 people at Kings Cross St Pancras station.
King’s Cross St Pancras is a major intersection on the London Underground network. Numerous deep platforms serve the Metropolitan, Northern, Piccadilly, and Victoria lines in addition to the Thameslink service. At the time many of these platforms were reached by wooden escalators that had been in place for many years, inside which large amounts of combustible waste had accumulated.
At approximately 7.30pm, passengers reported a fire on one of the Piccadilly Line escalators. The official inquiry later determined that it had been started by a lit match being dropped, which caused the fire to break out beneath the escalator in an area that was difficult to reach with a conventional fire extinguisher. Although water fog equipment was present in the station the staff had not been trained on how to use it so the fire brigade was called instead.
The decision was soon made to evacuate the station using the Victoria Line escalators, and just a few minutes later the fire brigade arrived to find a small fire that soon engulfed the entire escalator. Superheated gases rose to the ceiling of the tunnel, where layers of old paint absorbed the heat that caused a devastating flashover at 7.45pm. Due to the construction of the escalator and the 30° angle of the shaft, a jet of flames and smoke burst into the ticket hall in what scientists now refer to as the ‘trench effect’.
The intense heat of the flashover killed or seriously injured the people who were still in the ticket hall, while hundreds more were trapped below ground and were forced to escape on trains. London Underground were later criticised for failing to train staff effectively on how to deal with fires and evacuate passengers.
The Tyneside town of Jarrow had been the site for Palmer’s Shipyard that was responsible for a large proportion of the town’s employment. Having operated since 1851, the yard was sold in 1933 due to a collapse in the British shipbuilding industry and the impact of the Great Depression.
The shipyard closed shortly afterwards and, although American entrepreneur T. Vosper Salt proposed turning the site into a steelworks, he was forced to withdraw after members of the British Iron and Steel Federation lobbied to make the project unfeasible.
The collapse of the steelwork plan was a devastating blow to the people of Jarrow, where unemployment had hit 70% in the months following the closure of the shipyard. In response David Riley, the chairman of Jarrow Borough Council, proposed a march to London in order to raise the profile of the economic disaster.
The marchers had the full support of their local Labour MP, Ellen Wilkinson, and secured funding for the march from the local community including all the political parties. Over 1,200 men volunteered to take part in the march, of whom 200 were chosen to take the petition to London. They marched for 25 days and received a generally positive reception wherever they passed through.
Arriving in London on 31 October the marchers entrusted the petition of 11,000 names to Wilkinson, who presented it in the House of Commons on 4 November. It achieved no immediate response from the government, and the marchers returned home feeling that they had failed.
The Metropolitan Police, which is often considered to be the first modern police force, began operating in London.
Informally known as ‘the Met’, the Metropolitan Police Act 1829 established the first structured system of law enforcement. Policing had previously been the responsibility of unpaid parish constables, although paid ‘thief-takers’ were sometimes employed by the victims of crime to catch criminals.
The appointment of Sir Robert Peel as Home Secretary in 1822 brought about the reinvigoration of a committee tasked to investigate the current system of policing. Peel immediately acted upon the committee’s findings, distilling the key aspects of his approach into a series of ‘Peelian principles’ that involved the payment of police officers who were organised along civilian lines.
Peel’s ideas for the system of policing were approved by Parliament in the Metropolitan Police Act with Royal Assent being granted on 19 June 1829. The 895 constables of the new force, nicknamed ‘Peelers’ or ‘Bobbies’ after their founder, were responsible for law enforcement and public order within a seven-mile radius of Charing Cross. They were overseen by a progressing hierarchy of Sergeants, Inspectors, Superintendents and two Commissioners who reported directly to Peel himself.
Deliberately given blue uniforms to distinguish them from the red used by the military, the first police officers were equipped with only a wooden truncheon and a ratcheted rattle to raise the alarm. Despite these attempts to avoid the image of a totalitarian police force, some members of the public argued that the Met was a threat to civil liberties. Within a decade, however, the force had begun to prove itself and its powers were increased.
The Nazi German Luftwaffe launched the first of 57 consecutive days and nights of bombing raids on London in what became known as the Blitz.
The Luftwaffe had been attacking British targets in the Battle of Britain since June 1940. This was an attempt to achieve air superiority over the RAF to enable a land invasion by the Nazis or force the British government to sue for peace.
Having failed to defeat the RAF in the Battle of Britain, Hitler and Göring instead ordered a policy designed to crush civilian morale. The first raid of the Blitz took place on 7 September in which over 337 tons of bombs were dropped on London, and 448 civilians were killed. The earlier decision by Hugh Dowding, Air Officer Commanding Fighter Command, to focus on day fighter defences meant that Britain was woefully unprepared for German bomber attacks at night when they became the official policy on 7 October.
The Luftwaffe used technology known as beam navigation to locate their target, in which the crews had to detect converging radio signals from two or more ground stations. Britain countered this by transmitting false navigation signals that were designed to send the incoming crews off course. They also created a number of dummy targets such as diversionary airfields and industrial targets that used lighting effects to simulate factories and transport.
By the end of the Blitz on 11 May 1941, approximately 41,000 tons of bombs had been dropped by the Luftwaffe and more than 40,000 civilians had been killed. Yet, despite the psychological pressures of the situation in which class divisions and anti-Semitism often surfaced, British society continued to function, morale remained high and British industrial production actually rose.
The Great Fire of London began on the 2nd September 1666. Having famously started at a bakery in Pudding Lane, the catastrophic fire blazed for more than three days and destroyed over 13,000 houses, churches and government buildings.
London in the 17th Century was a sprawling and disorganised conurbation, with the thousands of buildings inside the old Roman wall at its heart. This area – known confusingly as ‘the City’ – may well have been the centre of English commerce but was also an enormous fire hazard due to its narrow warrens of houses and workshops. The ballooning population ignored the law that banned the use of wood and thatch, and continued to construct up to six- or seven-storey buildings with over-hanging ‘jetties’ whose roofs would often meet.
It’s generally accepted that the Lord Mayor should have acted more decisively when pressed to authorise the demolition of buildings to create a fire-break. Having failed to cut off the fire in the early hours of Sunday morning, it quickly spread to the south and west thanks to the wind. By lunchtime most residents had given up any hope of extinguishing the flames themselves, and instead were fleeing the fire. This mass of refugees in the narrow streets made it almost impossible for professional fire crews to reach the blaze.
It’s generally believed that the fire was only brought under control due to the use of gunpowder to create large firebreaks, which coincided with the previously strong winds dying down. Then the biggest challenge began: trying to rebuild the city from the smouldering ruins.
On the 31st August 1888, Mary Ann Nichols – commonly known as Polly – became the first confirmed victim of Jack the Ripper in the Whitechapel area of London. Not only had her throat been cut, but her body had been mutilated. Her corpse was left next to a gate in Buck’s Row, which is now known as Durward Street, and was discovered by a cart driver. It was three weeks before the inquest was concluded, by which time a second murder with a similar modus operandi had been committed. On studying the body of Annie Chapman, the coroner noted that “The similarity of the injuries in the two cases is considerable.”
Nichols was 43 years old when she was murdered, having found herself forced to live in boarding houses and workhouses after her alcoholism led her husband to leave her. She turned to prostitution as a way to earn money and, in the early hours of the night she was murdered, had gone out to make enough money to pay for her bed in a boarding house at 18 Thrawl Street.
An hour before her murder, her friend and roommate Nelly Holland spoke to her as she walked the streets. Nichols had already spent her night’s earnings on drink, and so continued to search for customers. Holland was the last person to see her alive before her body was found by Charles Cross at 3.40am.
Nichols’ killer was never found, and debate continues to rage about the identity of the Whitechapel murderer who was given the nickname ‘Jack the Ripper’.