London Beer Flood of the 19th Century

A frothy mug of beer. Clip art.

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 it 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, but, eventually, in 1809, Henry Meux and his partners acquired it under the name of Henry Meux and Company.

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

The Horseshoe, which had been named for the shape of its dining room, became part of the Meux identity and it was incorporated 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.

Three years later a devastating accident 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. The vat contained at the time 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 an 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 under one of the butts that was lay on its side and men were pulling him free. In addition, he saw other workers in danger and watched as rescuers, with great difficulty, pulled them to safety.

One newspaper reported:

“The height of the vat was 22 feet: it was filled within about four inches of the top, and then contained 3555 barrels of entire, being beer that was ten months brewed; the four inches that were empty of the vat would hold between thirty and forty barrels more; the hoops which burst was about seven hundred weight, which was the least weight of any of the 22 hoops on the vat and seven large hoops, each of which weighed near a ton. When the vat burst, the force and pressure was so great, that it stove several hogsheads of porter, and also knocked the cock off as nearly as large a vat as that which was in the cellar, or regions below.”[1]

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 nothing to stop the beer from spreading and gushing into the first floors of neighboring houses. It also flowed into cellars. Most of these building were inhabited, and when the beer rushed in, to save themselves, inhabitants tried to climb to the highest point or mounted the highest pieces of furniture in the room. One newspaper provided some further details:

“The cries and the groans which issued from the ruins were dreadful, and it is feared, that a great number of them may have perished. …The impetuosity of the torrent was such as to break through the wall and to force up the floors, which on the subsiding of the liquor fell into the cellar.”[2]

Another paper reported:

“The street opposite to the doors of two or three houses that had particularly suffered was covered with mounds of rubbish carried out from the broken-down rear and partitions walls. The whole extent of the mischief done by this dreadful and extraordinary event, can scarcely be ascertained.”[3]

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. Richard Hawes 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.”[4]

Searchers eventually found five other dead victims of the beer flood. One was a 30-year-old married woman named Mary Mulvey, along with her 3-year-old son, Thomas Murray, by her former husband. 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 flood, a court case ensued against the brewery for negligence. The impaneled jury was sworn in before they visited the “dead-house” where five dead victims had been taken. They also went to the scene of the accident, and then traveled to three homes where the three remaining bodies were laid out. When testimony began, Crick was the first witness to be called. Another witness was Hawes whose testimony was summarized by one newspaper:

“About half-past five o’clock on Monday evening, witness was in his tap-room, when he heard the crash; the back part of his house was beaten in, and every thing in his cellar destroyed; the cellar and tap room filled with beer, so that it was pouring across street into the areas on the opposite side; the deceased Elenor Cooper, his servant, was in the yard washing pots at the time … she was buried under the ruins, from whence she was dug out about 20 minutes past eight o’clock; she was found standing by the water butt; Surgeon Ogle attended to render medical assistance, but she was quite dead.”[5]

More testimonies of witnesses followed. When they had finished and the evidence examined, “the Jury, without hesitation returned a verdict of — Died by Casualty, accidentally, and by misfortune.”[6] It was an unfortunate verdict, but as was often the case at the time, the jury decided it had been an act of God, and, so, they determined no one could be held responsible. As to Meux and Company, they 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:

  • [1] “The Catastrophe at Mr. Meux’s,” in Morning Post, 20 October 1814, p. 3.
  • [2] “Dreadful Accident,” in Oxford University and City Herald, 22 October 1814, p. 2.
  • [3] “Dreadful Occurrence,” in Leeds Mercury, 22 October 1814, p. 2.
  • [4] The Knickerbocker, Volume 6, 1835, p. 133-134.
  • [5] “The Catastrophe at Mr. Meux’s,” p. 3.
  • [6] Ibid.

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