by Carol Rice
On Monday the 17th of October, 1814, a terrible disaster claimed the lives of at least eight people in St Giles, London. A bizarre industrial accident resulted in the release of a beer tsunami onto the streets around Tottenham Court Road.
The Horse Shoe Brewery, run by Meux and Co., was the site of a tragic disaster. In 1810, they had a 23-foot-high wooden fermentation tank in- stalled on the premises. It was bound together with massive iron rings and held the equivalent of more 3,500 barrels of brown porter ale.
On the afternoon of the fateful day, 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 ale also blasted open several more vats, adding their contents to the flood which rushed onto the street. More than 320,000 gallons of beer poured into the 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-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 in a first-floor room when the flood hit. Both were killed. ‘The mother was washed out of the window,’ noted the Scots Magazine. The daughter was swept away by the current through a partition and dashed to pieces.’ Down in a nearby basement, four mourners—three women and a 3-year-old boy—were drowned while they were attending a wake for a boy who had just died on Sunday. The wave also took out the wall of the Tavistock Arms pub, trapping the teenage barmaid, Eleanor Cooper, in the rubble. The remaining victim was killed on New Street, a small but densely packed alley at the back of the brewery. In all, eight people were killed. Three brewery workers were rescued from the waist-high flood and another was pulled alive from the wreckage. From here, the brown tide spilled out onto Great Russell Street and the surrounding rookeries of St Giles, filling basements and destroying homes.
The Morning Post described the disaster scene as an ‘immense mass of ruins…the surrounding scene of desolation presents a most awful and terrific appearance, equal to that which fire or earthquake may be supposed to occasion’. The inundation of one of London’s poorest areas with near-limitless quantities of alcohol no doubt had other effects. Secondary accounts talk of locals lapping up the free beer with gusto, and one man is said to have died of alcohol poisoning — though no evidence for these things can be found in the newspapers of the time, nor the coroner’s report of the incident.
That the beer flood caused such damage and loss of life says a lot about the neighbor-hood where it took place. By 1814, the Parish of St. Giles was a teeming, poverty-stricken quarter swollen with recent immigrants from Ireland. Later to become a setting for several of Dickens’ grimier scenes, it was a ramshackle area of blow-me-down buildings and narrow courts where even the basements were full to the rafters. At the subsequent investigation, the jury verdict was that the unfortunate neighbors had met their deaths ‘casually, accidentally and by misfortune’. In short, this was deemed an act of God for which nobody was to blame. Meux and Co. suffered great financial loss from the tragedy. An estimated £23,000 [more than $30,000 today] of beer had gone to waste. However, the company successfully claimed back the £7,000 excise duty on the lost beer, which had already been paid. This saved the company from bankruptcy. The brewery continued for over a century. It eventually closed in 1921 to make way for the Dominion theatre.
What makes the flood particularly ironic is that this exact neighborhood is where William Hogarth set his famous print “Gin Lane.” The satirical image shows Londoners destitute and sick thanks to the hard liquor Britons still call Mother’s Ruin. It was created to contrast with the same artist’s “Beer Street.” This showed the city flourishing under the nourishing, temperate influence of ale. Hogarth might have been surprised to learn that after his death it was not gin but his wholesome beer that would bring so many people in the area to their deaths.