Appeal to relatives of munitions blast firemen in Rainham

Chris Van Holby, grandson of George Alfred Holby

Chris Van Holby, grandson of George Alfred Holby - Credit: Archant

The grandson of a firefighter who helped to rescue 13 women from a munitions factory moments before it exploded is appealing for other relatives to come forward as the anniversary approaches.

As a child, Chris Van-Holby loved to hear tales about his heroic grandfather, George Alfred Holby.

On September 14, 1916, seven men died and more than 80 people were injured after the blast in Ferry Lane, Rainham. Fleeing residents used boats to escape down river.

George and colleagues from Romford Fire Brigade rescued 13 women from the blaze, just moments before the building exploded and sent debris flying hundreds of feet down the river.

Now, as the centenary of the incident approaches, Chris is inviting relatives to get in touch.

You may also want to watch:

He said: “It would be great to hear from anyone. I suspect there is still a lot of people around there, who are related or knew someone who was working there.

“I’ve enjoyed learning more about my grandfather, who really was an amazing man.

Most Read

“He worked as a fireman for 44 years and even attended a fire just one week before he died of pneumonia, in 1932.”

The incident wasn’t reported in the Recorder at the time – to ensure intelligence didn’t leak about where ammunition was being made – but George and five other Romford firefighters received OBEs four years later.

George, 52, had volunteered to join the fire brigade as he was too old to enlist for the First World War.

He worked for the fire captain Samuel Davis’ building firm, as most of the volunteer firefighters did.

On that fateful day in September, the men were alerted to the catastrophe that awaited them by the huge plumes of smoke filling the skyline, more than five miles away.

The J.C and J Fields factory, a former soap manufacturer, had been rented by Rainham Chemical Works – and housed several volatile chemicals.

After a fire broke out at 2.50pm in the drying room, workers began removing barrels of dinitrophenol (a TNT substitute) from the room.

But the supervising captain recognised the immediate danger this posed and urged all of the workers to leave, which saved many of their lives.

As the firefighters from Romford arrived, they headed straight into the blaze, equipped with wet cloths to aid breathing, a whistle and string to tie cloth around their heads.

Just after the final female worker was rescued at 2.57pm, the factory exploded.

Chief chemist, Dr David Maron, 57, from Russia, chemist Richard Brynaffryn John, 37, and plumber Frank Randall, 42, were killed instantaneously.

Four more workers died over the next three days.

An initial report blamed the boilermaker’s mate, Mr Warman, for smoking in the dryroom.

That report, by Major Conningham, said the building was completely destroyed and dismissed the idea that the incident was an accident, as the “room was cold at the time”.

It described Mr Warman as a “poor witness” who had been reprimanded for smoking just a week earlier and said he should be “severely censured”.

However, in the official report made two years later and sent to prime minister Winston Churchill, the writer said he was “practically certain” that no worker was responsible, clearing Mr Warman of blame.

It found that at the time of the incident, repairs were being carried out to the fire pump at the factory.

As a result, it only gave a pressure of 15 feet, inadequate for such a large factory.

Chris told the Recorder he wishes to use the story to highlight the dangers that firefighters still face today.

“They do very good work and sometimes with not much more equipment than they had 100 years ago!” he said.

“It’s a very brave job.”

If you are a relative or would like to get in touch with Chris to share any information, email

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter