The London Beer Flood occurred on 17 October 1814 at the Meux and Company Brewery in London’s Tottenham Court Road. A huge vat that contained over 600,000 litres of beer ruptured, causing other vats in the building to explode in a domino effect. Almost 1.5 million litres of beer gushed into the streets, creating a 15ft. high tsunami of tipple. The tidal wave destroyed two homes and the wall of the nearby Tavistock Arms pub and within minutes the neighbouring George Street and New Street were also swamped.
The Meux brewery was founded in 1764 and by 1785 the company had manufactured the largest beer vat in the world that stood at over 20ft. in height. It could hold up to 22,000 barrels of porter (a stout-like ale) and was held together by twenty nine huge iron hoops.
By 1814, after nearly thirty years of use, a man named George Crick who was the brewery’s storehouse clerk, reported that he had found a crack in one of the iron hoops but was promptly ignored by the vat builder because it was thought that the other hoops would hold the giant structure together.
On the afternoon of October 17th however, one of the ageing iron rings around the tank snapped and about an hour later the whole tank exploded, expelling fermenting ale with such force that the back wall of the brewery collapsed. Other vats in the brewhouse also exploded as a result, adding their contents to the ensuing flood which now poured violently into the street.
Hundreds of thousands of gallons of beer were sent gushing into the surrounding area which was a densely populated slum called St. Giles Rookery.
Mr. Crick gave an account of what happened to a newspaper shortly after the incident: “I was on a platform about 30 feet from the vat when it burst. I heard the crash as it went off, and ran immediately to the storehouse, where the vat was situated. It caused dreadful devastation on the premises – it knocked four butts over, and staved several, as the pressure was so excessive. Between 8 and 9,000 barrels of porter [were] lost.”
The beer wave entered the basements of two nearby houses which caused them to collapse. In one of the houses, a lady named Mary Banfield and her daughter Hannah were both killed whilst taking tea when the flood struck. In the other house, a funeral wake was being held and four mourners were also killed. The wall of the Tavistock Arms pub was destroyed and teenage barmaid Eleanor Cooper died after getting trapped in the rubble.
8 people were killed in total and three brewery workers were rescued from the waist-high deluge whilst another was pulled alive from the surrounding rubble.
Legend has it that the abundance of ‘free’ beer led to hundreds of people scooping it all up in whatever containers they could lay their hands on, whilst some resorted to simply drinking it, leading to reports of a ninth death a few days later from alcoholic poisoning.
Martyn Cornell states in his book Amber, Gold and Black: The History of Britain’s Great Beers, however that: “None of the London newspapers report anyone trying to drink the beer after the flood, indeed, they say the crowds that gathered were pretty well behaved. Only much later did stories start being told about riots, people getting drunk and so on: these seem to have been be prompted by what people thought ought to have happened, rather than what did happen.”
Act of God
The brewery was eventually sued over the accident, but the disaster was ruled to be an Act of God, meaning nobody was legally responsible for what happened.
The Meux brewery lost about £23,000 (approximately £1.25 million in today’s money) as a result of the flood, however the company was able to reclaim the excise duty it had paid on the beer, ultimately saving them from bankruptcy and they were also granted ₤7,250 (₤400,000 today) as compensation for the lost beer.
The result of this seemingly random disaster was the gradual phasing out of wooden fermentation casks which were replaced by lined concrete vats and the Meux Brewery continued to trade until it was demolished in 1922 to be replaced on the site by the Dominion Theatre.
Even though the 200 year old disaster has been largely forgotten, a nearby local pub called The Holborn Whippet still apparently brews a special anniversary ale every year in commemoration of the events that took place.
Whilst the events of the London Beer Flood were undoubtedly tragic, we can’t help thinking that drowning in a flood of strong ale might be one of the more raucous ways to perish if you’re unfortunate enough to meet an untimely end as a result of a natural disaster!