During World War I, University of Oxford chemistry lecturer, Andrea Angel, volunteered for war work and was employed to oversee a TNT purification factory.
Andrea Angel was born in Bradford in 1877. He was the son of an Inland Revenue supervisor, and his maternal grandfather was an Italian refugee who, after ten years’ imprisonment on political grounds in Northern Italy, escaped to the UK.
Little is known of Angel’s early life, but it is known that after he finished his education at Exeter School, he was awarded a scholarship to Christ Church College, Oxford, to study chemistry in 1896. He excelled in sports, playing tennis and rugby while at college. After three years at Oxford University he graduated with a first-class degree, and shortly after, began his research career.
Initially working at Christ Church College, where he was awarded a BSc (an MSc today) for his “brilliant research work”, he subsequently taught chemistry at Keble and Brasenose colleges for several years. In 1912, he returned to Christ Church to run its laboratory, but the outbreak of war four years later put an end to his time at Oxford.
Angel was keen to join the army, but the demand for chemistry skills in munitions manufacture meant that he was forbidden to enlist. Instead, he was given the job of managing a TNT processing factory in Silvertown, East London.
This plant was owned by the Brunner Mond Company, and until 1912, had produced caustic soda. When soda production ceased, the factory lay dormant and was therefore available for war use. Despite the high population density around the factory site, the demand for explosives was so great that Brunner Mond was persuaded by the government to re-open the factory as a TNT plant.
The team of, mostly women, plant operatives were not skilled in chemistry, but Angel’s teaching experience at Oxford University was of use and many of the workers became good chemists under his instruction. He was also able to maintain his research interests while at the factory, despite the considerable demands on his time and expertise.
By 1917, the plant was producing purified TNT at a rate of 9 tons per day, but at considerable risk to those involved. On 19 January 1917, disaster struck the factory: a fire had started in one of the upper rooms, and shortly afterwards 50 tons of TNT ignited. The explosion destroyed the factory instantly, and devastated much of the surrounding area. Large, red-hot lumps of brick and metal started fires miles away from the factory site, and burnt freely as the nearby fire station had been flattened. Seventy-three people were killed by the explosion, and the damage was estimated to cost £2,500,000.
At the time of the fire, Angel was on duty in the factory supervising the period between the departure of the day shift and the arrival of the night shift. Realising instantly that the fire would have catastrophic consequences, he focused his efforts on evacuating as many of his factory workers as was possible. Concerned that not all the workers had been able to escape, he re-entered the factory shortly before the final explosion, and was killed instantly. For his actions to save others, he was posthumously awarded the Albert Medal by King George V.
Words by Stephen McCarthy
Main Image/Insert Image© Governing Body of Christ Church, Oxford
Thumbnail/Gallery Image © The Senior Common Room, Christ Church, Oxford
Published September 2014