The London Beer Flood of 1814

Dec 23, 2021 0 comments

At the corner of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street, in the London Borough of Camden, where now stands the Dominion Theatre, there stood the Horse Shoe Brewery, one of London's’ largest brewery in the 19th century. The brewery was established in 1764, and by 1811 it had become the sixth largest brewery in London with an annual production of more than a hundred thousand barrels. The Horse Shoe Brewery was the site of an unusual tragedy. In 1814, several large vats of beer broke releasing a tsunami of fermented porter in the streets, that killed eight people.

The Horseshoe Brewery, London, circa 1800.

In those days, brewers, especially the larger ones, kept gigantic vats as show of their immense producing power. “One of the most spectacular sights, certainly at the major London porter breweries, was the sheer size of the storage vats, much kudos being attached to the brewery in possession of the largest example,” writes Ian S. Hornsey in A History of Beer and Brewing.

One of the first sizeable vats were installed by Parsons’ St Katherine’s Brewery in 1736. They were capable of holding 1,500 barrels each. From then on, the vats continued to get bigger until 1,500-barrel vats became commonplace. In 1790, Richard Meux built an enormous vat capable of holding 10,000 barrels. It was 23 feet high and 60 feet in diameter. On its inauguration, some 200 people sat down inside it to eat dinner. Five years later, Meux built an even larger vat, the largest recorded, with a capacity of 20,000 barrels. It was 25 feet high, and 195 feet in circumference. The vats at the Horse Shoe Brewery was no less impressive. It was 22 feet tall and capable of holding 18,000 barrels. The wooden planks were held together by large iron hoops, eighty tons in weight.

Depiction of a giant beer fermentation vat. Photo: History Collection

Until the catastrophe at the Horse Shoe Brewery in 1814, suffocation from alcohol fumes was the only hazard of working at large breweries. In 1797, three men lost their lives at a Meux’s brew house by “entering too soon into an empty vat for the purpose of cleaning it out, without taking the usual precaution of letting down a lighted candle.”

In the afternoon of 17 October 1814, one of Meux's storehouse clerk at the Horse Shoe Brewery, George Crick, saw that one of the 700-pound iron bands around a vat had slipped off. As bands slipped off the vats two or three times a year, the clerk was unconcerned. He told his supervisor about the problem, but was told “that no harm whatever would ensue”. An hour after the hoop fell off, Crick was standing on a platform thirty feet from the vat, when the vessel suddenly gave away. The force of the liquid's release knocked the stopcock from a neighboring vat, which also began discharging its contents. Around 323,000 imperial gallons of beer surged out of the broken vats, knocking the rear wall of the brewery. Some of the bricks from the back wall were thrown upwards into the air and fell onto the roofs of the houses in the nearby Great Russell Street.

A wave of porter beer 15 feet high swept into New Street, destroying houses and inundating basements. In one of the houses 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, while Hannah was drowned. In the basement of another house, an Irish family had gathered to grieve the death of a 2 year old boy who had died the previous day, when the wave crashed into the house killing five members of the family. The deluge also took out the wall of the Tavistock Arms pub, trapping the teenage barmaid Eleanor Cooper in the rubble. In all, eight people were killed. The death toll would have been higher had the incident occurred an hour or two later, when the men had returned home from work. All of those killed were women and children.

19th century engraving of the event. Photo: Historic UK

At the coroner's inquest, two days later, the jury ruled that the disaster was an act of God, and Meux & Co do not have to pay compensation. On the contrary, the brewery was waived excise taxes by the British Parliament for the thousands of barrels of beer it lost. In addition, it received an aid of ₤7,250 as compensation for the barrels of lost beer. The victims received nothing.

The beer flood led to the gradual phasing out of large wooden fermentation tanks in favor of lined concrete vats. The Horse Shoe Brewery, having survived bankruptcy, continued for another hundred years until it was closed in 1921. The following year, the brewery was demolished.


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