Lyn Brown

Member of Parliament for West Ham

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Lessons of justice can be learned from the Silvertown explosion

In the early evening of January 19, 1917, Catherine Oates, a beautiful determined, fiercely loyal woman was walking in Silvertown when she was caught up in the biggest explosion London has ever seen. She was to become my Nan.

A huge cache of TNT flattened the local fire station and many nearby buildings. Seventy-two people died. One was her eight-year-old brother, Thomas. Nan lost her left arm, below the elbow.

Some 328 Silvertown residents were injured in ensuing explosions, which hurled burning material as far away as North Greenwich, damaged 60,000 homes and caused mass homelessness.

It’s inconceivable today to locate risky munitions production amidst crowded residential areas, but the 1917 Government had made just that decision, against the advice of the factory’s owners.

All those families who suffered injury or loss of life received about £30,000, split between them.

I have no idea what my family were paid for a boy of eight, but it wasn’t much: certainly not enough to move them out of cramped rented accommodation in Silvertown. Tellingly, local companies and factories were compensated by over £1,000,000.

No doubt the government then saw people like Nan as expendable; but also clearly understood they were at fault.

The official inquiry into the explosion, which lay much of the blame in the hands of the government, wasn’t published until the 1950s.

Much has changed since the days of the Silvertown explosion and the subsequent inquiry, but victims of state negligence, incompetence or violence still struggle to get justice – sadly shown in the horrific saga of the Hillsborough disaster inquests.

Survivors, family and friends in these cases face the full force of government’s lawyers and struggle to be heard during long and difficult court cases.

That’s why I propose giving victims’ families funding, at least equal to what the government spend, in cases involving state injustice.

Public money should be used to discover the truth, not defend public institutions.

It’s too late for my Nan, but for those still seeking justice, such as the 21 victims of the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings, it might offer a glimmer of hope.

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