Black and white photo of the dock managers building
Royal Albert Dock, Dock Managers Office, 1984 | Photo: Newham Archives Local Studies Library

The docks opening, combined with the earlier Metropolitan Building Act of 1844, made crossing over Bow Creek an attractive proposition for business owners looking to open a factory. The following decades saw dozens of firms locate in Silvertown and North Woolwich, taking advantage of loose regulation and geographic location.  

Many of the firms who set up in Silvertown had links to preserving and reaping the benefits of Britain’s empire. S.W. Silver Co. were a leading manufacturer of telegraph cables essential to communications between Britain and its colonies, while the several sugar refiners in the area benefitted from British supremacy in the Caribbean and Africa.  

The economic and strategic importance of these organisations made those who ran them extremely powerful, with many high-profile players in British society owning shares or sitting on company boards.  

As well as profiting from exploitation overseas, factories in Silvertown and North Woolwich were equally adept at exploitation at home. There was initially little incentive for employers to provide fair and safe working conditions for their employees. 

The loose regulation that allowed rapid industrialisation and profiteering in Silvertown was not built on the back of strong workers’ rights. Accidents were extremely common, the most notable of which was an explosion of TNT at Brunner Mond in 1917 which killed 73 and injured at least 400 more.

Old photo of a factory front

While an event of this magnitude was exceptional, injuries occurred daily while deaths were treated almost with expectancy. Reverend H. Douglas remarked in 1859 that “…in one day no less than seven accidents had occurred”.  

Strike action was a frequent feature of life for workers, notably in a strike by workers at Silver’s in September 1889. Inspired by the recent success of striking dock workers, thousands of workers both ‘skilled’ and ‘unskilled’, men and women, downed their tools to demand an increase in pay from their employers.  

Ultimately the strike, which lasted three months, proved to be unsuccessful in the short term, but set a precedent for struggles to come later.

It was not only inside these factories that people were in danger. The Times reported in 1902 that: ‘The atmosphere is blackened with smoke and poisoned with the noxious fumes of chemicals, and the stench of bone manure and soap works, and the only sounds to be heard are the shriek of railway engines and the mournful foghorn hoots of the steamboats.’  

John Knight Ltd, main entrance | Photo: Newham Archives Local Studies Library
Old photo of a street, train and pub
Albert Road, 1985 | Photo: Newham Archives Local Studies Library

The industrial importance of the area made it a target for German bombs during the Second World War, with Tate & Lyle, John Knight and Silvertown Rubber Works all receiving extensive damage on the first night of The Blitz, with hundreds of homes also suffering damage and death.  

The people of Silvertown and North Woolwich felt all the negative effects of living beside these factories, but very little of the positive. Melanie McGrath summed up the atmosphere perfectly in her family memoir Silvertown:  

There was never any silver in Silvertown. ‘Smoketown’; ‘Sulphurtown’; ‘Sugartown’; the place could have been called any of these and no one would have blinked.

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Busy commuters walking past Henry Reichhold's One Hour installation 2019

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Photo: Newham Archives and Local Studies Library