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ADVERTISER 150: Death on the waterfront in 1969 as blast rips through Dudgeon's Wharf

PUBLISHED: 19:06 19 December 2016 | UPDATED: 19:06 19 December 2016

Billboard headline July 25, 1969, after Dudgeon's Wharf tragedy

Billboard headline July 25, 1969, after Dudgeon's Wharf tragedy

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The horrifying and sad story of the Dudgeon's Wharf disaster makes the headlines as our nightly series commemorating the East London Advertiser's 150th anniversary reaches the end of the 1960s. A disused oil storage depot on the Isle of Dogs is being demolished on the waterfront at Millwall, but a spark from a cutting torch ignites oil vapours and there is a terrific blast heard for miles —and six men are hurled to their deaths...

Dudgeon's Wharf damage inspection after the exlosion that kills six men on July [photo: London |Fire Brigade]Dudgeon's Wharf damage inspection after the exlosion that kills six men on July [photo: London |Fire Brigade]

1969: The East End is rocked by tragedy at Cubitt Town’s Dudgeon’s Wharf oil depot on the Isle of Dogs when five firemen and a demolition worker are killed in a huge explosion.

A blaze had previously broken out on that Thursday afternoon, July 17, at the disused depot on the Thames waterfront, which is being demolished.

Fire crews arrive from Poplar’s Brunswick Road fire station to make sure it is out. They believe the 60ft tank is empty and stand by on top, ready to cool the inside with hoses, while demolition worker Richard Adamas cuts open an inspection cover through the thick steel hull.

Clearing up operation after Dudgeon's Wharf blast  [photo: London |Fire Brigade]Clearing up operation after Dudgeon's Wharf blast [photo: London |Fire Brigade]

But air rushing in through the opening mixes with vapour from the residual oil at the bottom of the tank. A spark from Richard’s oxyacetylene torch ignites and a blast sends the crew hurtling 60ft to their deaths. Wreckage from the blast lands 150ft away.

A neighbour living in Manchester Road calls the East London Advertiser office at 12.25pm telling us: “The explosion rocked our flats—it was just like the Blitz all over again.”

The man who had raised the alarm, plant office manager Alf Moon, later gives his own account to the paper: “A fire broke out in tank number 97 during the demolition work and I called the fire brigade.

“But before I had even put the telephone down, the men signalled that they had extinguished it.

1969: A week on... funeral of six men killed at Dudgeon's Wharf reported on Advertiser's front page, July 25.1969: A week on... funeral of six men killed at Dudgeon's Wharf reported on Advertiser's front page, July 25.

“The brigade arrived to make sure the tank was safe. That’s when it exploded into a sheet of flames. It was just like a rocket taking off.

“The men who had been on top of the tank were sailing through the air with their arms and legs outstretched and twisted metal flying around them.”

The explosion can be heard across the Isle of Dogs. Police and nearby dockers race to the scene searching the rubble for bodies, while the injured are rushed to Poplar Hospital. Mothers run to Cubitt Town School to make sure their children are safe.

One demolition worker who helps find the bodies is metal-cutter Roy Measom, whose friend Reg is killed.

Funeral procession at All Saint's, Stratford [Advertiser photo: Ken Newman]Funeral procession at All Saint's, Stratford [Advertiser photo: Ken Newman]

He tells our reporter: “The firemen wanted to get inside the tank, but there was no point—the fire was already out.

“They told me to cut off bolts holding an inspection cover.

“But as soon as I started, there was an explosion and the oxyacetylene gun was torn from my hand. Reg landed face down on the jetty. I think he was killed instantly.”

Roy sees the top of the metal tank flying towards him and dived between two other tanks.

“It’s a miracle I survived,” he recalls. “There was no need to cut into the tank. We should have left it to cool, not take the inspection plate off.”

But ‘it’s too late. The blast leaves five firemen and a demolition worker dead.

One of the firemen killed in the blast was the one he said gave him the order to cut through the bolts.

“There was no need to cut into the tank,” Roy added. “The fire was out. We should have left it to cool, not take the inspection plate off.”

The East End went into mourning for its tragic loss. Hundreds of firemen from all over Britain arrive the following week for the funeral of their comrades from Millwall, Brunswick Road and Cannon Street fire-stations.

They form a Guard of Honour four deep as the coffins, draped in Union Jacks, are carried into All Saints Church at Stratford.

Crowds line the street to see the five fire-tenders bearing the coffins arrive, with brass-helmeted trumpeters sounding The Last Post.

Fire Brigade Missionary Jack Woodgate describes all six men, including civilian Richard Adamas, as “comrades in death”.

Traffic came to a halt after the service and passengers get off buses to pay respect as the cortege makes its way slowly to the City of London Cemetery at Manor Park.

A plaque is unveiled 40 years later on the site of Dudgeons Wharf marking the tragedy of July 17, 1969, commemorating the lost lives of sub-officer Michael Gamble and Alfred Smee from Millwall fire-station, John Appleby and Terrence Breen from Poplar’s Brunswick Road fire-station and Paul Carvosso from Cannon Street fire-station in the City, as well as demolition worker Richard Adamas who has became their ‘comrade in death’.

It was the greatest loss of life in the London Fire Brigade from a single incident since the Second World War three decades before, a tragedy the East End does not forget.

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