Heritage: The men held responsible for the Rainham Chemical Works tragedy

An oak tree and plaque in memory of the workers who died in the fire at the Rainham Chemical Works w

An oak tree and plaque in memory of the workers who died in the fire at the Rainham Chemical Works was planted in 2016. Photo: BD&H TUC - Credit: Archant

Prof Ged Martin reveals a dubious scheme to make money out of the First World War

Criticised when the British Army failed to break through German lines in March 1915, the generals claimed they’d run out of shells.

This caused a political crisis. The dynamic Lloyd George was appointed Minister of Munitions. His job was to produce shells, lots of them, by any means.

Two Swiss scientists had invented a new process to manufacture picric acid (trinitrophenol), a volatile component of explosives. They needed investment.

Two unlikely backers appeared. Samuel James Feldman was a retired solicitor. Robert William Partridge was an art dealer, who lived in London’s West End.

They knew nothing about chemistry, but Partridge had money and Feldman was a smart lawyer.

The pair hired a manager, Captain Church, and secured a government contract on very favourable terms.

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Safety was not a major concern. Before the war, fireworks manufacturer Brock had operated a factory deep in the fields beyond Prospect Road, Harold Wood.

Bangers and sparklers were made in huts scattered across a large area, to contain any risk of fire.

By contrast, Feldman and Partridge rented a cramped site at Rainham from a company that made soap. Buildings were close together, and surrounded by other riverside warehouses.

Amazingly, the location was directly under the route flown by Zeppelins on their way to bomb London.

Workers were not even warned that they were handling a dangerous substance.

On September 14, 1916, fire broke out, and quickly spread. Within minutes, the whole factory blew sky high. An official report (kept secret in wartime) blamed an employee for smoking, but this was never proved.

Alerted by the explosion and a massive plume of smoke, Romford’s fire brigade rushed to the scene.

Seven people were killed, 69 were injured, over twenty of them seriously.

Among the dead was Captain Church, praised for his “energy and bravery” in the disaster.

But another report, in 1917, criticised “futile efforts to extinguish the fires”. Priority should have been given to evacuating people.

In fact, a brave young Welshman, Griffith John – a science teacher in peacetime – lost his life warning women workers to get away.

Hiding behind wartime press censorship, the government issued an anodyne statement, intended to check rumours. It didn’t even mention Rainham.

Not until 1919, after the war, did the truth emerge.

The explosion had damaged nearby buildings, including warehouses belonging to Ind Coope, the Romford brewery.

Ind Coope sued for compensation.

Feldman and Partridge argued they’d been working for the Ministry of Munitions, so the government was responsible. Judges rejected this.

The defendants also claimed that it wasn’t their factory anyway.

In March 1916, Feldman and Partridge had transferred ownership to a company, Rainham Chemical Works Limited.

But this outfit was completely controlled by two directors – Feldman and Partridge. Its formal capital was £5,000, made up of 100,000 shilling (5p) shares. But only two shares were actually paid up, making the company’s actual resources a mere two shillings (10p). Feldman and Partridge had each contributed just 5p.

If you’ve a problem, they told their Rainham neighbours, sue the company that owned the chemical works. Of course, it had gone into liquidation.

The case dragged on until 1921, with appeals all the way to the House of Lords, then Britain’s highest court.

At every level, their learned lordships decided that the company, Rainham Chemical Works Limited, was “essentially a sham”. The business was “substantially carried on by Feldman and Partridge”.

Verdict: they were “personally liable for damages”.

It was a good decision. Feldman and Partridge had aimed to profit from the war.

When lives were lost and families torn apart, they tried to hide behind the dodgy device of a phantom company.

In recent years, stories in the Recorder have lifted the veil on this forgotten tragedy.

There’s now a local project to create a memorial that will name the victims. I’m sure it won’t mention Feldman and Partridge.