London Beer Flood of the 19th Century

London Beer Flood

The word “flood” comes from the Old English word “flod.” Hundreds of myths exist about floods with claims that either a deity or deities would destroy civilization with a flood. Yet, one of the most interesting floods proved not to be a myth and did not happen with water. Rather the flood consisted of beer and became known as the London Beer Flood.

The London Beer Flood occurred in the parish of St. Giles, London, England, at the Meux and Company Brewery. The brewery was located in central London on Tottenham Court Road. It sat in the middle of a squalid and tightly packed area of poor houses and tenements, known as the rookery. Established in the mid 1760s under the name of Horseshoe Brewery, the brewery passed through several owners. Eventually, however, in 1809, Henry Meux and his partners acquired it under the name of Henry Meux and Company.

The Horseshoe, which had been named for the shape of its dining room, then became part of the Meux identity, and they incorporated it into their logo. As part of Meux, the brewery quickly turned a profit. In fact, by 1811, Meux’s production reached 103,502 barrels, which made it the sixth largest brewer of porter in London.

Meux Brewery on Tottenham Court Road in 1830, Public Domain.
Meux Brewery on Tottenham Court Road in 1830, Public Domain.

Three years later a devastating accident happened. It happened on a Monday afternoon on 17 October 1814. According to a Meux storehouse clerk named George Crick, he was on site when a large iron hoop (one of twenty-nine) on one of the vats suddenly burst due to corrosion. At the time, the vat contained between 76,000 and 135,000 imperial gallons of beer. Crick was not initially alarmed as this had happened before. However, Crick did immediately sit down and write a letter to one of Meux’s partners detailing the incident.

About a half hour later Crick was standing on a platform with his letter in hand, when the remaining twenty-eight hoops broke in quick succession. This started a domino effect and the other vats began bursting. Crick ran to the storehouse and found himself suddenly up to his knees in beer. It got worse. Crick saw his injured brother pulled from under one of the butts that lay on its side. In addition, he saw other endangered workers and watched as rescuers, with great difficulty, pulled them to safety.

The bursting of the vats was so powerful frothy amber beer forced itself through the brew house walls, which caused heavy timber to fall and resulted in the roofs of adjoining houses collapsing. It did not take long for the immediate area to be deluged in beer. Moreover, because the area was low and flat, there was nowhere for the beer to go, so it spread out. It gushed into the first floors of neighboring houses and flowed into house cellars, all inhabited. To save themselves, inhabitants tried to climb to the highest point or mount the highest pieces of furniture.

Pandemonium struck as the beer spread, and the deluge was so powerful, eight people died and damage occurred everywhere. For instance, on New-street a 4-year-old girl name Hannah Banfield and her mother were sharing tea when the flood hit. The mother was washed out the window and in critical condition at the hospital, while Hannah was swept away by the current and dashed to pieces. Two houses on Great Russel-street were also nearly destroyed. One of the houses belonged to Mr. Hawse of Tavistock Arms. His 14-year-old servant was discovered buried under some ruins having been suffocated. Her name was Eleanor Cooper. In addition, a bricklayer discovered his 27-year-old wife, Elizabeth Smith, dead likely whisked off her feet when the deluge hit.

One eyewitness reported:

“All at once, I found myself borne onward with great velocity by a torrent which burst upon me so suddenly as almost to deprive me of breath. A roar as of falling buildings at a distance, and suffocating fumes, were in my ears and nostrils. I was rescued with great difficulty by the people who immediately collected around me, and from whom I learned the nature of the disaster which had befallen me. An immense vat belonging to a brew house situated in Banbury-street, Saint Giles, and containing four or five thousand barrels of strong beer, had suddenly burst and swept every thing before it. Whole dwellings were literally riddled by the flood — numbers were killed, — and from among the crowds which filled the narrow passages in every direction came the groans of sufferers.”

Searchers found five other victims of the beer flood. One was a 30-year-old married woman named Mary Mulvey. Another, the 3-year-old son of Thomas Murray and Mary Mulvey. Three-year-old Sarah Bates also died, as did 60-year-old Anne Saville. Finally, a 65-year-old widow name Catherine Butler was found dead. Yet, for all the dead, at least one miracle occurred. A girl standing outside in the yard was miraculously saved when a beam fell over her without harming her and then protected her from the rubbish and other objects that were buffeted along in the flowing beer.

After the London beer flood, a court case ensued against the brewery for negligence. Unfortunately, as was often the case at this time, the jury ruled the flood an Act of God, and, so, they determined no one could be held responsible. Meux and Company suffered a significant financial loss because they had already paid duty on the beer and then lost it all in the flood. Hoping to recoup their losses, they applied to Parliament to reclaim the duty, which then allowed them to continue trading.

References:

  • “Accident at Meux’s Brewhouse,” in Morning Chronicle, 20 October 1814
  • “At H. Meux and Co.’s Brewhouse, London,” in Lancaster Gazette, 29 October 1814
  • Bickerdyke, John, The Curiosities of Ale & Beer, 1886
  • “Dreadful Accident,” in The Scots Magazine, 01 November 1814
  • “Dreadful Occurrence,” in Leeds Mercury – Saturday 22 October 1814
  • Hayden, Joseph, Dictionary of Dates, 1861
  • The Knickerbocker, Volume 6, 1835

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