The Horse Shoe Brewery, owned and operated by Henry Meux, was at the corner of Great Russell Street and Tottenham Court Road. Near the back of the building was the tank, made of wood but held together with more than 20 massive iron rings. The barrel held 3,555 barrels of rich brown porter - not unlike the stout of today - which was enough to serve a million people with one pint each. The liquid alone weighed more than 571 tons.
At about 4:30 in the afternoon on October 17, 1814, the smallest of the iron rings fell victim to age and corrosion, and snapped. The clerk on duty, George Crick, at the time made note of the breakage, but wasn't overly alarmed - it happened, he later said, about two or three times a year, and they would simply call someone to come and fix it. However, about an hour later, the barrel ruptured, and hot beer burst out of the vat. Crick was standing nearby, but by the time he reacted and ran to the barrel, the back wall of the building had been blown out by sheer force. Also, several smaller barrels and another large vat had been blasted apart, adding their contents to the flood. A tsunami of beer - over 7,500 barrels' worth in all - then burst out into the streets of London with significant force.
The neighborhood around the brewery at the time (shown here at left) was called the St. Giles rookery, and was essentially a slum, with low-cost houses and tenements filled with poor residents, Irish immigrants, criminals, and prostitutes. A 15-foot-high wave of beer and debris poured into it, filling the basements of two nearby houses, undermining the structures and collapsing them completely, killing a mother and daughter who were having tea inside one of them. One building held Mary Banfield and her daughter Hannah, who were taking tea in their upstairs room when the flood killed them both. The other held an Irish wake in the basement for a two-year-old boy who died the previous day; all four mourners were killed by the flood as well, including the little boy's mother. The flood also knocked down the wall of the nearby Tavistock Arms Pub, crushing a teenaged serving girl beneath it; she was buried in the rubble and was still standing upright when her body was found hours later. In all, eight people were killed (though there was a report of a ninth dying of alcohol poisoning several days later), and two went missing. Three brewery workers (including George Crick's brother, John) were rescued by townspeople who waded through waist-high beer to reach them, and another was successfully excavated from the rubble, alive. The area smelled like beer for months.
The disaster cost the Horse Shoe Brewery about ₤23,000 (equivalent to roughly ₤1.25 million today) in reparations, although Parliament, by special petition and supported by the Prince Regent, granted Meux ₤7,250 (roughly ₤400,000 today) as compensation for about 7,600 barrels of lost beer. Meanwhile, locals raised about ₤830 to assist the families of the survivors, who lost an estimated ₤3,000 worth of property. Nevertheless, the amount granted by Parliament was enough to keep the brewery in business, and Henry Meux even built an expansion. An inquest determined that the flood was an act of God and so Henry (shown below) was not charged with any crimes; he was later made a Baronet in 1831 by King William IV. The "Beer Flood" also caused the industry to reexamine the use of wooden fermentation vats; during the course of the 19th century, breweries would change over to concrete vats, lined with resin, asphalt, enamel or slate, to prevent just such a calamity from happening again. The Horse Shoe Brewery was ultimately razed in 1922, and the West End's Dominion Theatre now lies partly on its site.
Links and Sources:
"Dreadful Accident", The London Times, October 19, 1814, page 3.
"The London Beer Flood of 1814" by Mike Paterson, at the London Historians' Blog, retrieved March 24, 2012.
" A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 2: General; Ashford, East Bedfont with Hatton, Feltham, Hampton with Hampton Wick, Hanworth, Laleham, Littleton" (1911), pp. 168-178, retrieved March 24, 2012.
The Oxford Companion to Beer, by Tom Colicchio et. al., Oxford University Press, 2011.
A History of Beer and Brewing, by Ian Spencer Hornsey, Royal Society of Chemistry, 2003.
Beer: The Story of the Pint: The History of Britain's Most Popular Drink, by Martyn Cornell, Headline, 2003.
All images are very old and are in the public domain.