The Great Beer Flood of London

Like many ancient cities, London has suffered its fair share of disasters, perhaps unduly so but whilst history is full of fires, wars, pestilence and biblical downpours, few places in the world can have suffered what is known as The Great Beer Flood of London.

It happened over 200 years ago on Monday 17th October 1814, a terrible disaster claimed the lives of at least 8 people in St Giles, London and was caused by a cataclysmic industrial accident which led to the sudden and unexpected tsunami of beer onto the streets around Tottenham Court Road.

The Horse Shoe Brewery stood at the corner of Great Russell Street and Tottenham Court Road. In 1810 the brewery, Meux and Company, had had a 22 foot high wooden fermentation tank installed on the premises. Held together with massive iron rings, containing a brew not dissimilar to stout, it is thought that the equivalent of up to 9,000 barrels of brown porter ale were unleashed

The_manor_house_of_Toten_Hall_-_1813

Even back then, disasters rarely came out of the blue and on the afternoon of October 17th 1814 one of the iron rings around the tank snapped. About an hour later the whole tank ruptured, releasing the hot fermenting ale with such force that the back wall of the brewery collapsed. The force also blasted open several more vats, adding their contents to the flood which now burst forth onto the street. More than 320,000 gallons of beer were released into the area. This was St Giles Rookery, a densely populated London slum of cheap housing and tenements inhabited by the poor, the destitute, prostitutes and criminals.

The flood reached George Street and New Street within minutes, swamping them with a tide of alcohol. The 15 foot (5 metre) high wave of beer and debris inundated the basements of two houses, causing them to collapse. In one of the houses, Mary Banfield and her daughter Hannah were taking tea when the flood hit; both were killed.

In the basement of the other house, an Irish wake was being held for a 2 year old boy who had died the previous day. The four mourners were all killed. The wave also took out the wall of the Tavistock Arms pub, trapping the teenage barmaid Eleanor Cooper in the rubble. In all, eight people were killed. Three brewery workers were rescued from the waist-high flood and another was pulled alive from the rubble.

London Beer Flood - 19th century etching
A contemporary engraving of the disaster.

All this ‘free’ beer led to hundreds of people scooping up the liquid in whatever containers they could. Some resorted to just drinking it, leading to reports of the death of a ninth victim some days later from alcoholic poisoning.

‘The bursting of the brew-house walls, and the fall of heavy timber, materially contributed to aggravate the mischief, by forcing the roofs and walls of the adjoining houses.‘ The Times, 19th October 1814.

Some relatives exhibited the corpses of the victims for money. In one house, the macabre exhibition resulted in the collapse of the floor under the weight of all the visitors, plunging everyone waist-high into a beer-flooded cellar.

It is said that the stench of beer persisted in the area for months after the tragedy.

The brewery was taken to court over the accident and whilst in the modern day having one of the iron rings snap may have given some indication that all was not well,   the disaster was nevertheless ruled to be an Act of God, leaving no one responsible.   In any case it is questionable whether the area could have been evacuated in less than an hour.

However, one person, addressing himself only as a “friend of humanity” in a letter to the Morning Post newspaper, thought the accident should have been foreseen. “I have always held it as my firm opinion, that the many breweries and distilleries in this metropolis… are most dangerous establishments, and should not be permitted to stand in the heart of the town,” the correspondent wrote. “I am only surprised, when I consider the immense body contained in these ponderous vats, that similar accidents do not more frequently occur.”

The Horse Shoe Brewery soon went back into production, only closing in 1921, when it was replaced by the Dominion Theatre. The terrible scene that unfolded there two hundred years ago has been largely forgotten, although a local pub – The Holborn Whippet – brews a special anniversary ale each year.

The flood cost the brewery around £23000 (approx. £1.25 million today). However the company were able to reclaim the excise duty paid on the beer, which saved them from bankruptcy. They were also granted ₤7,250 (₤400,000 today) as compensation for the barrels of lost beer.

This unique disaster was responsible for the gradual phasing out of wooden fermentation casks to be replaced by lined concrete vats. The Horse Shoe Brewery was demolished in 1922; the Dominion Theatre now sits partly on its site.

If you want to read of a really unique theatre in London then take a peek at the Wilton Music Hall.   If you’d like to visit some even older pubs that haven’t ended in disaster then check out my pub tours!

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About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including a #1 seller, I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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5 Responses to The Great Beer Flood of London

  1. Francis says:

    Crikey. Didn’t know there was a second way of dying from drink!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pete says:

    Always something new to learn about London

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pete says:

    Reblogged this on Pete's Favourite Things and commented:
    Always something new to learn about London. What an unusual story!

    Like

  4. Pingback: The Hartley Colliery Disaster of 1862 | Stephen Liddell

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