‘The area surrounding the rear of the brewery showed a scene of desolation that presented a most awful and terrific appearance, equal to fire or earthquake.’
The London Beer Flood was an accident at Meux & Co’s Horse Shoe Brewery that stood at the corner of Great Russell Street and Tottenham Court Road in October 1814. It took place when one of the 22-foot-tall wooden vats of fermenting porter burst. The escaping liquid pressure dislodged the valve of another vessel and destroyed several large barrels: between 128,000 and 323,000 gallons of beer were released in total.
At around 4:30 in the afternoon of 17 October 1814, George Crick, Meux’s storehouse clerk, saw that one of the 700-pound iron bands around a vat had slipped. The 22-foot tall vessel was filled to within four inches of the top with 3,555 imperial barrels of ten-month-old porter, weighing approximately 32 long tons. As bands slipped off the vats two or three times a year, Crick was unconcerned. He told his supervisor about the problem but was told that no harm whatever would ensue. Crick was told to write a note to Mr Young, one of the partners of the brewery, to have it fixed later.
An hour after the hoop fell off. Crick was standing on a platform thirty feet from the vat, holding the note to Mr Young, when the vessel burst. The force of the liquid’s release knocked the stopcock from a neighbouring vat, which also began discharging its contents. The liquid force destroyed the brewery’s rear wall; it was 25 feet high and two-and-a-half bricks thick. Some bricks from the back wall were knocked upwards and fell onto the houses’ roofs in the nearby Great Russell Street.
A wave of beer some 15 feet high swept into New Street, where it destroyed two houses and damaged two others. In one house, a four-year-old girl, Hannah Bamfield, was having tea with her mother and another child. The wave of beer swept the mother and the second child into the street; Hannah was killed. In the second destroyed house, a wake was being held by an Irish family for a two-year-old boy; Anne Saville, the boy’s mother, and four other mourners (Mary Mulvey and her three-year-old son, Elizabeth Smith and Catherine Butler) were killed. Eleanor Cooper, a 14-year-old servant of the Tavistock Arms publican in Great Russell Street, died when she was buried under the brewery’s collapsed wall while washing pots in the pub’s yard. Another child, Sarah Bates, was found dead in another house in New Street. The land around the building was low-lying and flat. With insufficient drainage, the beer flowed into cellars, many of which were inhabited, and people were forced to climb on furniture to avoid drowning.
All those in the brewery survived, although three workmen had to be rescued from the rubble; the superintendent and one worker were taken to Middlesex Hospital, along with three others. A few days after watchmen at the brewery charged people to view the destroyed beer vats’ remains, and several hundred spectators came to view the scene. The mourners killed in the cellar were given their own wake at The Ship public house in Bainbridge Street. The other bodies were laid out in a nearby yard by their families; the public came to see them and donated money for their funerals.
Only two days after the catastrophe, a jury convened to investigate the accident. After visiting the site of the tragedy, viewing the bodies of the victims and hearing testimony from Crick and others, the jury rendered its verdict that the incident had been an ‘Act of God’ and that the victims had met their deaths’ casually, accidentally and by misfortune.’
Not only did the brewery escape paying damages to the destitute victims, it received a waiver from the British Parliament for excise taxes it had already paid on the thousands of barrels of beer it lost.
The brewing industry gradually stopped using large wooden vats after the accident. The brewery moved in 1921, and the Dominion Theatre is now where the brewery used to stand. Meux & Co went into liquidation in 1961.
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