When London’s Deadliest Porter Flooded The Streets

“There’s nought, no doubt, so much the spirit calms as rum and true religion.” —Lord Byron, Don Juan

In A Nutshell

On October 17, 1814, in an incident known as the London Beer Flood, a large vat of beer at a local brewery exploded. Other vats broke in a chain reaction which sent a wave of beer into the surrounding neighborhood, killing eight. The brewery was cleared of any wrongdoing despite claims of negligence and operated for another century.

The Whole Bushel

The Horse Shoe Brewery, between Bainbridge Street and Tottenham Court Road in London, was a prominent and established feature of the St. Giles neighborhood in the early 1800s. Owned by Henry Meux & Co. and established in the 1700s, the brewery was known for producing porter, a local type of dark beer. Brick walls 7.5 meters (25 ft) thick surrounded the brewery, separating it from the mostly Irish surrounding neighborhood, a place seen by many as a slum.

The Horse Shoe was running just fine on Monday, October 17, 1814. But at roughly 4:30 PM, a worker, George Crick, was inspecting the vats, which were basically giant wooden barrels held together by iron hoops. One vat in particular caught his eye. This vat, one of the largest in London, stood nearly 7 meters (22 ft) tall and was filled to the top with beer. One of its hoops, weighing 320 kilograms (700 lb), was broken. Crick reported the breakage, though he wasn’t too worried, as metal hoops broke periodically. His boss just told him to make a note to have the hoop fixed.

This broken hoop turned out to be much worse than a routine maintenance headache. At 5:30 the vat burst open, releasing 473,000 liters (125,000 gallons, or 1 million pints in drinking terms) of beer which smashed into the other vats. A chain reaction of breaking vats ensued. A wave of porter obliterated one of the thick walls surrounding the brewery, raining bricks over the area and crushing Eleanor Cooper, a 14-year-old girl who was cleaning pots at a water pump.

A 4.5-meter (15 ft) wave of beer flooded the nearby streets, which had no drainage at the time. Less sturdy structures were destroyed entirely. Hannah and Mary Banfield, a mother and her four-year-old daughter, were swept away and drowned when the wave struck their home. In a basement apartment, Anne Saville and four other women were mourning Anne’s two-year-old son, who had died the previous day. All five women were drowned when the beer poured in.

The area around the brewery was left in a waist-deep pool of beer filled with shell-shocked survivors searching for the injured. In all, eight women and children from the neighborhood were killed in the accident, with an unknown additional number of people injured. Many more might have died had most of St. Giles’ men not still been at work around the city. No brewery workers died.

There are conflicting accounts on certain aspects of the aftermath. Stories were told of gawkers and onlookers drinking the flooded beer, eventually getting drunk and rioting. There is no proof of these claims, however. Local newspapers reported that the crowds were quite helpful and disciplined, staying quiet so rescuers could hear residents trapped in debris calling for help. It is known that local watchmen charged people a penny to look at the ruins of the Horse Shoe’s vats. Though one anonymous worker claimed that the brewery management should have seen the disaster coming, Henry Meux & Co. were cleared of any culpability and were in fact refunded taxes that they had paid to produce the lost beer. The Horse Shoe Brewery continued to operate until 1921. Today, the Dominion Theatre stands in its place. A local pub called the Holborn Whippet brews a special beer on every anniversary of the London Beer Flood.

Show Me The Proof

History: The London Beer Flood, 200 Years Ago
The Independent: What really happened in the London Beer Flood 200 years ago?
Disaster!: A Compendium of Terrorist, Natural, and Man-Made Catastrophes, by Michael I. Greenberg