My daughter and I leave for our vacation to the United Kingdom in less than two weeks, so my mind is focused on all things British. One thing I noticed in the course of our planning is that our lodging in London is only 0.4 miles from the site of the 1814 London beer flood. Even though the brewery was torn down in the early 20th century and replaced by a theater, we may still want to take that short walk to check out the area.
To give you some perspective of what else was happening in 1814, that was the year that Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated and was exiled to Elba, the year the British burned down the White House and large parts of Washington D.C. during the War of 1812, and the year the War of 1812 ended. In 1814, St. Giles in the Fields Parish in London was a densely populated area, filled with tenements and low-income families.
In 1814, brewing beer was in a period of creative resurgence, with lots of competition, kind of like the craft beer movement today. Meux’s Brewing Co Ltd, established in 1746, was buying up smaller breweries and had purchased the Horse Shoe Brewery, which became Meux’s Horse Shoe Brewery. Some people just like to put their name on all their stuff.
Anyway, they had a series of standard size vats for fermenting, and also had a huge vat that was 22 feet tall and 60 feet wide. This vat held approximately 325,000 gallons of liquid. Keep in mind that a standard back yard in-ground swimming pool holds about 20,000 gallons of water. So just this large vat, not including the smaller ones, contained about 16 swimming pools full of hot, fermenting beer. The big vat was held together by 29 iron bands, each of which weighed about 700 pounds.
Late in the afternoon on October 17, 1814, one of those iron bands broke. The remaining 28 bands snapped under the strain, setting off a chain reaction that also destroyed all of the standard size vats. The force of the 15-foot wave of hot, fermenting beer broke out of the building and into the street and swept people off their feet, buried people in rubble, destroyed a couple of buildings, and flooded tenement basements.
There was no drainage on the city streets, nothing like our current system of storm drains. Rescuers waded through waist-deep beer to help those who had been trapped.
There were stories later, claiming that people were using any container they could find to scoop up the beer to drink, and that those who couldn’t find containers were drinking straight from the street. There is even an unproven story of a ninth victim, who died a few days later of alcohol poisoning. Nothing like that was reported initially, so I think it most likely that those stories were started later. It sounds more like something people say that they would have done in that situation, not understanding the true terror of facing a 15-foot wave of hot liquid.
In the end, eight people died, all women and children. There was an investigation held a few days later, but the court did not assign blame to the brewery, stating that the event was an “Act of God”.