Work

A forgotten WW1 disaster: the Barking factory explosion of 1917

The Ajax Chemical Works explosion occurred in what is now the borough of Barking, but most of the victims were working-class residents of Newham. In brief, on 9 August 1917, there was a catastrophic incident at the factory, which seems to have been making some kind of explosive – no doubt part of the “war effort” – in which 13 women workers were killed, 11 of them from Newham.

There is not much history of the event other than contemporary press reports. The Victoria County History of Barking does not mention it. The website of the Imperial War Museum provides some access to the press of the time, and more can be read through the British Newspaper Archive. I have assembled some of it below, hopefully enough to tell the story.

As far as I know, there has never been any memorial to these women workers, and the centenary of the explosion went unmarked in 2017.

I assume that the Ajax Chemical Works was on the marshy area banking the Thames – it is described in one press report as being in “open country”.

The coroner’s inquest seems to have been sympathetic to the victims and their families, but neither the coroner nor his jury seem to have taken any pains to probe the causes of the incident.

A young worker gave evidence that the mixture he had been preparing earlier in the day, and which he had delivered to the room where the fire or explosion started, had caught fire, and that the chemist in charge had told him not to advise the workers that there might be any danger from it. The same chemist was said to have been unable to give an explanation for the incident. The chemist was not examined by the coroner.

The owner of the works asked the coroner not to use the word “explosion” unless it could be proven that an explosion had taken place, The inquest jury concluded that the deaths of the 13 women workers was caused by suffocation caused by “a fire, the origin or cause of which remained unknown.”

"EXPLOSION IN AN EAST END FACTORY. THIRTEEN LIVES LOST IN A PANIC. STORIES TOLD BY SURVIVORS."

An article in the Birmingham Daily Post on Saturday 11 August 1917 reads:

"Thirteen women lost their lives and three were injured the result of an explosion which occurred at the Ajax Chemical Works, Barking, on Thursday evening. A small fire broke out in two-storeyed building fifty yards away from the main premises, and was followed by an explosion on the top floor. Sixteen women were working at the benches, and thirteen were immediately overcome by smoke, and their bodies were burned before any rescue could be attempted.

Fire engines, together with, doctors and ambulances, were quickly the spot, which lies in open country, and the outbreak of fire did not last very long. The names of the victims are:

Mrs. Maskell, Caulfield Road. East Ham;

Mrs. Abbott, her sister;

Mrs. England, Washington Road, Upton Park;

Mrs. E. Smith, Bartle Avenue, East Ham;

Mrs. Foley, Hockley Road, Barking Road;

Mrs. Curry, Talbot Road, East Ham;

Mrs. Stevens, Napier Road, East Ham;

Mrs. King, Arthur Road, East Ham;

Miss Knight, Walton Read. Manor Park;

Miss Clark, Parkhurst Road, Manor Park;

Miss Alice Cole, Howards Road, Barking;

Mrs. Webb, Talbot Road, East Ham; and

Miss Rainbow, Hardwick Street. Barking.

The dead sisters were found together in one room. The families of the dead women were attended to yesterday by the firm. There were about 100 women at work when the explosion took place, and it seems that the women on the upper storey ran to the stairs where a jam occurred through one girl falling and the others, due to the volume of smoke, tripping over her. Before they could resume their struggle for safety they were overcome by the fumes. Most of the girls were working overtime, and several owe their safety to the fact that they had left in order to get water for tea. Although identification has not been definitely established, one of the bodies is believed to be that of Mrs. Stevens, of Napier Road, East Ham. Further enquiries show that two women one of them Mrs. Wales—and a boy named Terry were injured. All three are in hospital. The total casualties were 13 killed and 3 injured.

Little Noise From Explosion.

The noise of the explosion was not very loud, and some people in the vicinity thought that it was merely gunfire, and were unaware that anything serious had occurred until they saw the fire-engines. Work in the main building was not interfered with by the explosion, the premises remaining undamaged. The detached brick building in which the explosion occurred was burnt out, leaving the wails standing. The explosion caused practically no damage to the fabric, and, curiously enough, the glass in the main buildings was not broken.

It stated that this is the third fire that has occurred during the past eight weeks, Mr. A. Rymer, an official at the works, in an interview, said: A fire occurred which caused an explosion in one of the rooms. The girls working at the benches were immediately overcome by the smoke, and before they could be rescued they were burned to death.” Mr. Rymer said in another interview: A fire occurred in one of the rooms, and then there was a dull explosion. A huge volume of smoke was emitted, and gave hardly any time for the girls get out. Thirteen were afterwards found suffocated and three injured. Altogether the works employs 150 persons, 90% of them women and girls. Most the women who lost their lives have families. There were many attempts at rescue. I was not here myself; it was the first day I have been away for twelve months. Everybody was splendid in their attempts bring some of the women down, but really the smoke and the flames were so intense that nothing more could be done. We had a fire here a little time ago, but not in the same room, and knew the cause it. So far I cannot say what was the cause of this fire."

A Woman’s Story.

Mrs- Carr, who worked in the building where the explosion occurred, said in the course of an interview, My daughter, who worked in the same place, had just called me to her. I had gone downstairs to tell her I intended to work overtime, so that luckily I was outside the door when the explosion occurred. After the explosion the doors immediately shut with bang, and I screamed ‘Fire.’ Mr. Cox, one of the staff, came running up with Mr. Reed, the chemist, and Mr. Cox went inside. As he got through the door there was another explosion, and the door slammed on him, leaving him inside. I afterwards heard he got out all right. I shall never forget what I saw. Four women rushed to the windows and jumped through to the ground. The others had no chance. They must have been suffocated straight away. I saw a little girl brought out in flames, and they rolled her on the grass to extinguish her blazing clothing. As soon as I heard the bang the place seemed to fill with dense smoke, which came streaming out of the windows, where the glass was all shattered”

Another woman said that other girls were brought out with their clothing on fire. It seemed to be all over in a minute,” said a workman. “We heard the explosion and saw the flames, and the brigade had the outbreak in hand in no time.” An allotment holder said that, hearing an explosion he looked across to the works, and saw one building amass of flames, which came from every window- “We ran across to render what assistance we could, and the fire was promptly got under by the brigade.”

There was a pathetic incident yesterday, when Mr. King, the husband of one of the victims, went to the factory and learnt that his wife was dead. He had just arrived home after being discharged from the army."

"Many pathetic incidents and heroic attempts at rescue"

This article is from the Yorkshire Evening Post on  Saturday 11 August 1917:

"Further details of the explosion and fire at the Ajax Chemical Company's factory at Barking on Thursday night reveal many pathetic incidents and heroic attempts at rescue.

As reported in yesterday's Yorkshire Evening Post, thirteen women and girls lost their lives, and their bodies have been recovered from the ruins, while two women and a boy were seriously injured and are in hospital.

The works are owned by Mr. H. Rymer and gave employment to about 150 women and girls. Every precaution had been taken to avoid accidents, and the escape stairways are unusually wide. About 6 o'clock, just as the women were getting ready to leave for the day, a small fire broke out in one of the filling rooms.

A dull explosion immediately followed, a bluish, suffocating smoke arose, being followed instantly by a fierce blaze which shot outwards through the open windows. Women in the yard screamed an alarm, and Mr. Cox, an official of the works, ran into the burning building. Two girls and a boy jumped from windows, one of the girls injuring herself so badly by the fall that she had to be taken to the emergency hospital. Women from the upper floor escaped by a fire ladder.

Those on the ground floor were all out in a minute or two. The Barking Fire Brigade and members of the St. John Ambulance Association came quickly, but the fire was so intense that it was three-quarters of an hour before they could get inside the building.

The bodies were badly burned. Few could be identified except by chance, such as the recognition of a ring or piece of dentist's work. As all except one who were killed were employed in the room where the explosion occurred, and as the windows were opened and only twelve feet from the ground, it is assumed that they were overcome by fumes before the flames touched them. A pathetic incident is that among the victims were some soldiers' wives.

One man returned home yesterday on leave. When he reached his house, with the trench mud still thick upon him, it was only to be informed that, half an hour previously, his wife's body had been recovered from the ruined building. The husband of another victim left for the front on Wednesday. Another soldier husband came home yesterday, just discharged from hospital, and it was not until he reached home that he heard of the tragedy. A third soldier husband, father of nine children, is expected home Monday.

Two of the victims, Mrs. Abbott and Mrs. Maskell, were sisters. "I happened to be in the yard at the time," said a woman worker. "I heard a sort of soft noise, more like a sudden burst of air than an explosion. I saw the smoke pouring out and then the flames. I shouted 'Fire!' And then I saw two girls and a boy jump from a window. One of the girls was picked up and handed to me. Her back seemed to be hurt from the fall. Mr Cox was grand. He went in when the place was blazing, and we heard that he had been closed in. It was a relief to hear afterwards that he was safe. All the people in the first shop must have been made senseless by the fumes or they would have jumped out. Some of the windows on the ground floor were neither broken nor burnt."

Firemen made gallant attempts to rescue the women and girls who had been cut off, and tried to dash up the staircases, but the fumes from the chemicals drove them back again and again, choking and half suffocated. In the end they were forced to give up attempts at rescue in despair. ... The dead sisters were found together in one room. It seems that the women on the upper story ran to the stairs, and then a jam occurred through one girl falling, and the others in the volume of smoke tripping over her. Before they could resume their struggle for safety they were overcome by the fumes."

"It had blown out the windows and the whole of the upper floor was alight."

This account of the inquest comes from the Birmingham Daily Post on Tuesday 14 August 1917:

"Dr. F. Collins opened the inquest yesterday on thirteen victims of the explosion and fire which occurred at the Ajax Chemical Works, Barking, on Thursday evening. Dr. Collins said that he only proposed to take evidence of identification before an adjournment. One body, which had hitherto been unrecognised, had now been identified. The evidence as to how the calamity occurred, what resulted from the first flash, and the rest of the horrible details he would take after the adjournment. He would also have something to say about the heroic conduct of the people who had tried do their best to save life in face of insuperable difficulty.

Mrs. Maskell, of Caulfield Road, East Ham, was identified by the false teeth she was wearing. There was considerable difficulty in recognising other victims. Miss Clark was recognised by part of her dress and Miss Cole and Miss Gurry by their teeth. Others were identified by marks on the bodies. When Mr. King gave evidence to his wife the Coroner said that it was a particularly sad case, inasmuch as the unfortunate husband was discharged from the army the day the tragedy happened. King identified his wife by her ring. "l last saw her alive June 25,” said, “when she bid me good-bye at Waterloo Station, when I was going back to camp.” The Coroner said that all their sympathy went out to King. When Mrs. Knight was speaking about her daughter she broke down and had to be led out of court. "I identify her,” she said, "by the way her hair was done. She had the habit of doing it a particular way.” In every case the witness gave some special means by which identification was alone possible. A doctor, who was on the scene within three minutes, said it was impossible to carry out effective rescue work because of the flames.

The Coroner; Was the whole building alight?—lt had blown out the windows and the whole of the upper floor was alight. It was impossible to enter the building in consequence of the smoke and heat. At the earliest possible moment Superintendent Abbott went inside and soon recovered the first body. Were these unfortunate women killed by the flames, or were the bodies calcined after death?—l believe that they were all suffocated, and that the bodies were then burned and charred. And suffocation would practically instantaneous ? —Very rapid indeed.

The density of the smoke in the building was extraordinary, and it would render them quite unconscious. I saw all the thirteen bodies taken out, and they were all suffocated end then burned. There was evidence of struggles in two cases only. The inquest was adjourned until Wednesday. Mr. Du Parcq expressed the sympathy of the company with the relatives. He said that there would be no doubt that all concerned behaved with the utmost resource under the terrible circumstances. Steps had already been taken in cases of necessity to give relief, and in other cases it was only necessary for application, to be made. The Coroner said that the calamity marked an epoch in disasters. He was pretty hardened, but this was one the worst cases had ever seen. He would do all he could to ease and spare the feelings of the relatives, but they would have to see whether anything could done to prevent similar occurrences."

"INQUEST ON VICTIMS. BARKING MYSTERY OF ORIGIN STILL UNSOLVED."

The Birmingham Daily Post speculated on the source of the explosion, on Thursday 16 August 1917:

"A verdict of “Accidental death from suffocation caused a fire, the origin or cause of which remained unknown,” was returned at the resumed inquest at Barking yesterday, on the 15 victims of the fire at the Ajax Chemical Works, Barking, on Thursday last. The jury also recommended that the searching of the employees be more thorough, that the materials completed be- removed as soon as finished and not stored in the workroom, that work of this nature should if possible, be carried out on the ground floor and that the front door on the ground floor should open outwards.

At the commencement yesterday Mr. Walter Lloyd (for the company) asked the Coroner if he would refrain from using the word “explosion” until it was definitely known if there had been an explosion.

The assistant-manager said there had been a fire on the premises previously, and every possible precaution was taken. It was customary to search the employees and nobody was allowed to take in matches. As he was coming from the office he saw a dense volume of smoke issuing from the first floor. He heard no cry and no explosion—only a dull sound similar to a box of matches going off. He got out the building but was overcome by smoke. When he recovered he gave what assistance he could.

When the front door was opened women ran out. There were 80 at work. There was considerable alarm and commotion. He saw a fire on the first floor. The glass had gone from the windows but nobody appeared at them. Two people jumped from windows about 10ft. high.

The Coroner: The place was like a rabbit warren as far doors were concerned—doors all over the place ?—Yes.

Had the occupants been given time they could have escaped?—Yes. They were overcome so quickly by the smoke

Mrs. Ada Walters, a finisher, who was sitting in the room by one of the victims, said she noticed smoke and a slight bang from behind where she was. The noise, witness agreed, was more like matches than a gun. There was dull thud and a lot of smoke, and she was blown downstairs, her clothes catching fire.

A Mixer’s Story.

Charles Panons (15) said he carried chemical from one place to another. He helped to mix the stuff according to directions in a shed away from the main building. About 20lbs. was mixed at time. On the day of the fire a piece caught alight. This was the only occasion had had a piece catch alight. Mr. Pawley, who was present, remarked. “You see how dangerous it is!” When he had finished mixing it, witness took it up into the room where the fire occurred later. He asked Mr. Pawley if he should tell the women it was dangerous, and Mr. Pawlev replied “No, Charlie, that is all right.” He understood that Mr Pawley had put in it something that made it dangerous. Thursday was the first day he had mixed up this particular stuff.

John Pawley, employed as a mixer, said he worked under the direction of the chemist. He did not know what the stuff was made of. The piece which caught alight burned like a match-head. He reported what had happened to the chemist, who reassured him. The chemist said; You mix as I tell you, and it will be all right.” He had not mixed any of that kind of stuff before the day of the tragedy or since.

Captain Abbott, Chief Officer of the Barking Fire Brigade, said that as soon as possible he penetrated beyond the ground floor and recovered three bodies Having got his smoke helmet, he recovered five or six more. Then he was overcome. Water seemed to have little effect the flames.

The Coroner: You consider it to have been chemical fire?— Yes.

Captain Abbott said thought the means of escape were adequate but the women were suffocated, and had no chance from the first. Eight or nine bodies were huddled together near the staircase.

The Coroner asked Mr. Lloyd if the company’s chemist could say how the fire arose.

Mr. Lloyd: No, sir; he says it is impossible- he can only give supposition.

The Coroner warmly commended the conduct of Captain Abbott."

 

Huge thanks to J.J. Plant for giving us permission to reproduce his article about the tragedy here, which was originally posted in the Newham History Society Facebook group on 3 April 2018. 

A few details of the life of one of the victims of the fire have been uncovered and recorded as part of the Imperial War Museum's Lives of the First World War project: find out more about Mary Ann Foley

As part of our Working For Equality project we're hoping to speak to women - or relatives who remember them - who worked in a factory in Barking and Dagenham between 1918 and 1968. If you have memories or family stories to share, please call Fani on 020 8553 3116 or email fani@eastendwomensmuseum.org.