Nostalgia: We remember Rainham’s ‘forgotten hero’ Griffith John, who died in an explosion in 1916

12:10 17 April 2013

Griffith John

Griffith John


A forgotten war hero who died trying to save his factory co-workers is to be commemorated at last thanks to a project in Wales – and a chance clue in the Romford Recorder. Ramzy Alwakeel finds out how.

Rainham beach, near where the factory exploded in 1916Rainham beach, near where the factory exploded in 1916

On September 14, 1916, former schoolteacher and Royal Engineer Griffith John was killed after a factory in Rainham caught fire and exploded. Griffith’s local paper the Llanelly Mercury reported that Griffith, “thinking only of others,” had run through the burning factory “to give warning to the female employees, and so he lost his life in the attempt to save the women.”

But the Mercury’s report, conscious of the need for secrecy, gave no information about where in the UK the factory had been.

Steve John and Les Nixon from the West Wales War Memorial Project had already dug up some information about Griffith’s time with the Royal Engineers during their own research.

But it wasn’t until Les caught sight of the Romford Recorder that the pieces came together.

The Llanelly Mercury's report about Griffith's death - which makes no reference to where he was killedThe Llanelly Mercury's report about Griffith's death - which makes no reference to where he was killed

The Recorder ran a story in March about two Romford firefighters who received the OBE for helping save workers from a factory fire in Rainham – in September 1916.

Moments after George and Edward Holby had made it out, the factory was blown hundreds of feet into the River Thames.

Les said: “Naturally, in the middle of the war no details were given as to the whereabouts of the munitions factory.

“It wasn’t until reading the article in the Recorder that we were able to piece things together and deduce that Griffith must have been killed in the explosion at Rainham.”

Griffith John's death certificate, dug out by the West Essex War Memorial ProjectGriffith John's death certificate, dug out by the West Essex War Memorial Project

They sent for a death certificate to be sure – and, indeed, it was found that a 37-year-old Griffith John, born near Llanelli, south-west Wales, died at the Rainham Chemical Works that day.

Researcher Steve said Griffith had been all but forgotten for the simple reason he’d been injured and invalided from the Royal Engineers before he died.

“As a civilian munitions worker, Griffith’s selfless heroism went unrecognised,” he said. “Had he not been invalided out of the Royal Engineers weeks earlier he would have at least been commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission but, like hundreds of civilian munitions workers who sacrificed their lives in two world wars, Griffith’s bravery received no recognition.”

Griffith, a science teacher at Slough Secondary School, had enlisted in the Royal Engineers in August 1915 – but within three months he’d been sent home. Following an injury he was deemed “not likely to become an efficient soldier”.

Rather than going back to Slough, he started work at a weapons factory at Rainham Ferry. The site had been used to make soap and candles for J. C. and J. Fields, but began manufacturing a TNT substitute called Dinitrophenol when war broke out.

It is now thought the fire that killed Griffith was started by a night watchman smoking in the powder room.

Steve said Griffith’s sacrifice and bravery deserved to be known more widely.

“Through our website we try to commemorate men like Griffith who might otherwise be forgotten,” he said. “Hopefully, one day the part played by all munitions workers will be acknowledged.”

That day may be fairly soon. This week a parliamentary group announced it was hoping to raise upwards of £75,000 to commemorate wartime munitions workers.

The Parliamentary All Party Group on the Recognition of Munitions Workers, chaired by South Wales MP Huw Irranca-Davies, hopes to use the cash to build a permanent memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.

In the meantime, you can visit Steve’s website at, where men like Griffith are remembered.

Thanks to Steve John and Les Nixon for the research and photos used in this feature.

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