On Monday the 17th of October, 1814, one of history’s strangest industrial tragedies struck the St. Giles borough of London.
The event, which would later become known as the London Beer Flood, claimed the lives of 9 people, as well as injuring many more and causing damage to multiple houses and buildings in the area.
Sitting on the corner of Great Russel Street and Tottenham Court Road, the Horse Shoe Brewery was a large-scale brewery with several 22-foot high wooden fermentation tanks. Each of these vats was used for brewing a stout-like beer, and they all held the equivalent of 3,500 barrels worth of beer within them.
A Faulty Iron Ring
Each one of the brewery’s large vats was held in place by a sturdy iron ring. On that fateful October afternoon, one of these iron rings around the tank snapped due to years of stress and fatigue.
About an hour after this, the whole tank exploded, released hot fermenting ale out into the factory. The force of this alcoholic tsunami caused several other tanks to rupture, adding their contents to the flood.
The combined 320,000 gallons of beer hit the brewery’s wall with such force that it collapsed under the tide, pouring out onto the unsuspecting slum streets of St. Giles Rookery.
A 15-foot tall wave
The torrent of beer reached George Street and New Street within mere minutes washing over everything in its path. The 15-foot wave of beer and debris poured down the streets, flooding the basements of two houses and causing them to collapse in on themselves like a house of cards.
In one of these houses, Mary Barnfield and her 4-year old daughter Hannah were having their afternoon meal when the flood hit. The resulting collapse of their house caused both of their deaths.
In the other basement, an Irish wake was being held for a 2-year old boy who had died the day before. All four of the mourners inside the basement were killed when the beer flooded in and crashed the house down upon itself.
In an ironic twist of fate, the beer flood also broke down the wall of the Tavistock Arms pub, trapping and killing teenage barmaid Eleanor Cooper. Another pub-goer was also trapped and killed in the wall’s collapse.
Three brewery workers were able to miraculously survive the incident, being pulled from the waist-high flood, whilst another was rescued from the rubble of the wall that the beer had broken out from.
Free Beer and the Aftermath
The locals living in the affected area did possibly the most British thing they could do: they saw this as an opportunity for free beer!
Hundreds of people took to the streets, scooping up the liquid in whatever containers they could find – cups, bowls and even buckets! In fact, there were even some reports days later of a ninth victim dying of alcohol poisoning from drinking too much of the runaway beer.
Some local residents tried to make a little bit of money by exhibiting the corpses of victims. This backfired for one person when a bunch of visitors looking at one basement all plunged into the waist-high flooded cellar after the floor they were stood on collapsed under the stress of the beer flood and their weight.
The stench of beer clung to the St. Giles Rookery area for months afterwards.
An Act of God
The Horse Shoe Brewery and their owners, Meux and Company, were taken to court over the incident. However, both judge and the jury deemed the accident to be an “Act of God,” and as such the charges levied against them were dropped.
The flood cost the brewery about £23,000 at the time – that’s the equivalent £1.25 million by today’s standards!
However, because the brewery had already paid duty on the beer, they were able to appeal to the courts to reclaim the cost of the duty. The courts granted them £7,250 (roughly £400,000 today) which stopped them from going into bankruptcy.
Due in part to this disaster, wooden fermentation tanks were eventually phased out of use and replaced by sturdier, lined concrete vats.
So there you have it, the outright weird and wacky story of the London Beer Flood that claimed the lives of eight people and damaged countless amounts of homes and properties in London. The next time you’re having a pint at the pub with your mates, hope you don’t get more than you bargained for!