Police Constable Edward George Brown Greenoff (1886 - 1917) was on his beat, serving with the Metropolitan Police's K division, when, on the night of 19th January 1917, he noticed that the Bruner Mond chemical factory, off North Woolwich Road, was on fire.
Since the factory, which had closed in 1912, had been pressed into service in 1915 to purify TNT for the War effort, Greenoff would have been well aware of the danger of an imminent explosion; yet he bravely, ran towards to fire to assist with the evacuation of factory personnel.
His plaque in Postman's Park reads, "P C Edward George Brown Greenoff, Metropolitan Police, Many Lives Were Saved By His Devotion To Duty At The Terrible Explosion At Silvertown. 19 Jan 1917."
The Leeds Mercury reported on how the tragedy had unfolded in its edition of Monday 21st January 1917:-
"The night was very dark. In the munitions factory the evening shift had commenced their duties. Without warning a fire broke out - the exact place is not ascertained, though one account mentions a mixing shop. Another says that chemicals caught alight.
At any rate, the fire spread rapidly, and the brigade whose headquarters - a brand new building - were situated a stone's throw of the factory was summoned. An engine was playing on the flames almost immediately.
Inside the factory the awful peril was at once realised.
Therefore, while the flames were being attacked by the firemen, the officials did their best to get the operatives out.
In the ten minutes which elapsed between the outbreak and the explosion many managed to escape from the factory, if not from the danger zone. Otherwise the death roll would have been enormously increased.
As the flames extended, the agony of mind of the officials must have been terrible, fro they could see the inevitable doom awaiting everybody.
REMAINED AT HIS POST
The heroism of Dr. Angell, the chief chemist, was on everybody's lips yesterday.
Though exhorting the operatives to flee, he himself remained at his post, took a hand in combating the fire, warned the firemen and the police of the peril, and finally, died more gallantly than many a soldier in the thick of fighting, for he knew there was no escape for him.
Another brave figure in the story was that of Police-constable Edward Greenoff.
Like Dr. Angell, he was aware of the deadly consequences which might ensue, and he urged the spectators to disperse.
As is the nature of a crowd, they moved back a little, re-sorted themselves, and stayed where they were.
Even when warned by the constable of what might happen, they took no heed, so fascinating was the spectacle of a fire at a factory which was well known to all.
A VAST EXPLOSION
Suddenly the explosion came. A hiss and a low rumble and a mighty roar split the heavens and set the earth rocking. A blazing volcano opened up, the sky assumed a fiery red glow for miles around, and a tornado of flame swept through the air in all directions to a great height, bearing with it, as if feathers, huge girders and large fragments of iron and steel weighing anything, five, six, seven, and ten hundred weight, and even a boiler several tons in weight.
A miscellaneous hail descended on a far-flung area already devastated by the concussion, roofs were stripped off like cardboard, cottages collapsed like packs of cards, walls gave way or bulged, ceilings fell, windows shattered and house fronts were torn out.
Over a radius of half to three-quarters of a mile, the full force of the explosion was experienced. Nothing could resist it. In a moment buildings were leveled and a number of residents crushed and buried beneath the wreckage..."
Police Constable Greenoff actually survived the initial explosion and he didn't actually die of his injuries until either the 28th or 29th of January.
On Saturday 3rd February 1917, the Kerry Evening Post carried the following report:-
" The "Times" says - The Commissioner of Police has received the following letter from the King's Private Secretary:- " The King is grieved to hear that Police Constable George Greenoff, through whose self-sacrificing efforts many lives were saved on the occasion of a recent explosion at a munitions factory in the vicinity of London, has succumbed to the injuries he then received.
I am commanded to ask you to convey to his widow and family the expression of His Majesty's sincere sympathy, and at the same time to assure you of the King's sense of admiration that the best traditions of the police have been so nobly maintained in this signal act of courage and of devotion to duty."
Just how brave the constable had been had already been demonstrated at the inquest into his death, which had taken place on Tuesday 30th January 1917.
Under the above headline, the Derry Journal published the following article on 31st January 1917:-
"During the course of further inquests today by the East London Coroner on two victims of the great explosion, a moving story was told of Police Constable Greenoff's devotion to duty.
The widow stated her husband was brought home from duty at nine o'clock in a van. He was conscious, and explained he was trying to keep the crowds back from the fire when the explosion occurred.
He was knocked down and rendered unconscious for a time.
Then, he crawled until he could crawl no longer. While crawling things were flying about and kept hitting him.
He died from severe injuries to the head.
Corporal Charles William Roberts, of the Royal Defence Corps, deposed that deceased told the people to stand away, as he expected an explosion at any minute.
"It was deceased's devotion to duty that saved my life," added the witness.
Frederick James Rushby related a similar story.
The people were flocking down, and deceased, who was only a few yards from the building, gave orders not to let them pass.
Death from misadventure was the verdict."
Other witnesses came forward to applaud the deceased constable's unstinting courage.
On 30th January 1917, The Globe reported that:-
"A verdict of death from misadventure was returned this afternoon on victims of the recent explosion who had since died in Poplar Hospital - Eliza Letson, aged 63, and Edward Greenoff, aged 30, a Metropolitan police-constable.
Greenoff was on duty keeping the crowd back from the scene of the fire.
He constantly warned people there was likely to be a big explosion, and when it occurred he was knocked over an became unconscious.
Cyril Roberts, who took the advice of the constable and went away, said it was due to Greenoff's devotion to duty that his life was saved."
Pc Greenoff's Funeral took place on the afternoon of Saturday 3rd February 1917.
Under the above headline The Hendon and Finchley Times carried a full report on it in its edition of Friday 9th February 1917:-
"Amid the silent tributes of sorrow and sympathy of his comrades in blue and of his friends and neighbours of Finchley and Woolwich, the badly mutilated remains of P. C. Edward George Greenoff, the policeman-hero of the great explosion, were laid to rest in St Marylebone Cemetery, East Finchley. on Saturday afternoon.
The scene will long be remembered by those present.
Some time before the appointed hour hundreds of people formed in groups along the route, and waited for the procession, regardless of the snow underfoot and the biting wind.
At about 2 o'clock the coffin (which was of polished oak with solid brass fittings) was borne from the residence of the hero's mother by six of his stalwart comrades, and was surmounted by the deceased's helmet and belt.
The funeral cortege then moved off down Trinity-road headed by the band of the "K" Division, and slowly wended its way to the Cemetery via Long-lane, Church-lane, and East End -road, Beethoven's Funeral March and the Dead Marc In "Saul" being played en route.
It was a most solemn and impressive sight.
The hearse was drawn by four horses, and literally covered with magnificent floral tributes sent from all parts of the Metropolis.
Following the five mourning coaches marched nearly 500 constables and officers from all over London.
On arrival at the Cemetery a short service was conducted by the Rev. G. H. Mitchell (the minister who was with P. C. Greenoff until the end, and who, previous to entering the ministry, was himself a constable and known as the policeman-poet).
The coffin was then borne to the grave through double ranks of the late constable's comrades standing bare-headed, followed by the widow and little son (Edward), the mother, Mr Stanley Greenoff, Mr Samuel A. Greenoff and Master Ernest Greenoff (brothers).
the scene at the graveside was most impressive.
A large, clear space for the mourners was held by the Police and Specials, and a huge crowd gathered round, silent and respectful, as all that remained of the brave fellow was committed to the earth.
In the chill air of the bleak winter afternoon a silence reigned that could almost be felt as the Rev. Mr. Mitchell spoke of the death which Greenoff accepted in the discharge of his duty.
he lost his life in saving others, but in so losing it he found it.
His memory would be enshrined in the hearts of many as one of the noblest of the band of heroes who placed others before himself and his country before all.
His last words to his wife were, "I shall be with you. I shall look down upon you," and, filled with a sincere faith in God, he passed away.
Reverence and esteem was depicted in the faces of the 500 magnificent specimens of the Metropolitan Police Force, who stood, bare-headed, by the grave, and subsequently passed in single file to give a last glance and pay a final tribute to their departed comrade.
Among the many very beautiful floral tributes were the following:-
From his sorrowing wife.
Dear Daddy, from his devoted children.
In loving memory, from his broken-hearted mother.
Immortelles were received as follows:-
In loving memory of our late comrade, P. C. 389 K Greenoff, from the Officers and Men of the North Woolwich Police Station."
The committee appointed by the Home Secretary to inquire into the cause of the explosion failed to isolate an exact cause of the fire that preceded it.
However, the members of the committee were moved to comment on the extraordinary bravery that had been demonstrated on the night of the explosion.
On 28th March 1917, The Newcastle Journal reported that:-
"In the course of the committee's inquiry their attention was called to the gallant conduct of Mr Angel, chemist in charge of the works, Mr. Geo. Wenborne, the leading male hand on the shift, and Police Constable Edward George Brown Greenoff, who was on beat duty outside the works.
These three men bravely remained at their posts when they could have escaped, and lost their lives in their endeavour to save the lives of others by warning them of the danger of an explosion.
The Home Secretary is glad to announce that His Majesty the King has been pleased to confer the Edward Medal of the First Class upon Mr. Angel and Mr. Wenborne, and the King's Police Medal upon Police Constable Greenoff."