An unlimited, free supply of beer – it sounds wonderful doesn’t it? But when it is over one million litres in volume and in a tidal wave at least 15 feet high, as it was in the London Beer Flood on 17 October 1814, the prospect seems less appealing.
Two hundred years to this day, a broken vat at the Horse Shoe Brewery on Tottenham Court Road flooded the local area with porter, a dark beer native to the capital, killing eight people and demolishing a pair of homes. George Crick, the clerk on duty, told a newspaper what happened: “I was on a platform about 30 feet from the vat when it burst. I heard the crash as it went off, and ran immediately to the storehouse, where the vat was situated. It caused dreadful devastation on the premises - it knocked four butts over, and staved several, as the pressure was so excessive. Between 8 and 9,000 barrels of porter [were] lost.”
The beer inundated the nearby slum of St Giles Rookery – an area of poverty and vice which inspired Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’ – flooding the cellars where whole families lived. Some of the inhabitants survived by clambering onto pieces of furniture. Others were not so lucky. Hannah Banfield, a little girl, was taking tea with her mother, Mary, at their house in New Street when the deluge hit. Both were swept away in the current, and perished.
10 best British beers
10 best British beers
1/10 St Austell Korev
Now available in cute and portable 330ml cans, this classy Cornish lager, in the Munich Helles style, has the benefit of tasting fresher than most imports. Don’t judge us: we’ve been enjoying drinking it straight from the tin. £32 for 24 cans, staustellbreweryshop.co.uk
2/10 Brew By Numbers Saison
This up-and-coming London brewery produce so many different beers that they use a numbering system: anything beginning 01 is a Belgian-style summer 'saison' with a twist. We most recently enjoyed a spritzy, Pimms-like variant with cucumber and juniper. £2.80, eebria.com
3/10 Lees Manchester Pale Ale
A rather old-fashioned family brewery, this attempt by Lees to brew a hoppy golden ale is actually something of an homage to Boddington's Bitter as it was 40 years ago - quenchingly bitter, dry and bluntly northern. Best enjoyed in the cool gloom of the back room of a pub. £14 for case of 8, jwlees.co.uk
4/10 Thornbridge Tzara
The team at this Derbyshire brewery express a distinct streak of Germanophilia and this beer is their precisely-observed homage to the traditions of the city Cologne. The native beer style, Kölsch, looks and tastes much like any other lager except for a subtle, flowery fruitiness derived from a distinctive yeast. Short of a weekend break, Tzara is the best way to experience it – far fresher than any imported bottle. £23.80 for 12, thornbridgebrewery.co.uk
5/10 Schlenkerla Helles
An oddity from Bamberg in the beer paradise of Franconia, Germany. The brewery’s flagship products are dark, bacon-y Rauchbiers made with smoked malt. This pale lager often, but not always, picks up a subtle smokiness on its way through the brewing kit. Perfect with grilled meat. €23.00 for 20, schlenkerla.de
6/10 Schneider Weisse Original
The most interesting of the German wheat beers, darker and a little more complex than its rivals, Schneider Weisse is nonetheless great fun: banana, bubblegum and toffee flavours all wrapped up in an effervescent body, under a Mr Whippy head. only available in certain bars, schneider-weisse.de
It’s not the trendiest product – the brand is owned these days by AB-InBev of Stella Artois fame – but remains the gold standard for the coriander and orange peel infused Belgian wheat beer style. Straightforwardly satisfying, it’s great value in bottles, too. only available in certain bars, hoegaarden.com
8/10 Redemption trinity
Billed as a ‘light ale’, this zippy, zesty ale from London is just intoxicating enough to keep your buzz going throughout a long afternoon session in a beer garden. Pick your pub carefully, though: it needs to be served cellar-cool. only available in certain bars, redemptionbrewing.co.uk
9/10 Magic Rock Salty Kiss
This attempt to revive an almost extinct German beer style, Gose, by the cult Huddersfield-based brewery is not an earnest academic exercise: it’s like Tango for grown-ups. Salty and snappily sour, it has also included various fruits, from lime to gooseberry. Our top beer of 2013. only available in certain bars, magicrockbrewing.com
10/10 Wild Beer Co Ninkasi
This ‘celebration beer’ is brewed by a Californian in Somerset, using Belgian yeast and a small amount of apple juice. Finished off and packaged like Champagne, it’s great for sharing, and much more refreshing than the strength might lead you to believe. only available in certain bars, wildbeerco.com
After the accident, watchmen charged people a penny or two-pence to see the ruins of the beer vats, and visitors came in their hundreds to witness the macabre spectacle. But a report in The Times praised local people’s response to the disaster, noting how the crowd kept quiet so the cries of trapped victims could be heard.
In fact, it seems like later rumours that people collected the beer in pots and pans were untrue, as Martyn Cornell, author of Amber, Gold and Black: The History of Britain’s Great Beers, explains: “None of the London newspapers report anyone trying to drink the beer after the flood, indeed, they say the crowds that gathered were pretty well behaved. Only much later did stories start being told about riots, people getting drunk and so on: these seem to have been be prompted by what people thought ought to have happened, rather than what did happen.”
An inquest heard that there had been an indication that the vat was unstable earlier in the afternoon of the 17th, when one of the metal hoops holding it together snapped. A jury cleared the brewers of any wrongdoing, considering the incident as an unavoidable act of God. Henry Meux & Co., the owners, received a refund for the excise duty they had paid to produce the beer they had lost.
However, one person, addressing himself only as a “friend of humanity” in a letter to the Morning Post newspaper, thought the accident should have been foreseen. “I have always held it as my firm opinion, that the many breweries and distilleries in this metropolis… are most dangerous establishments, and should not be permitted to stand in the heart of the town,” the correspondent wrote. “I am only surprised, when I consider the immense body contained in these ponderous vats, that similar accidents do not more frequently occur."
The Horse Shoe Brewery soon went back into production, only closing in 1921, when it was replaced by the Dominion Theatre. The terrible scene that unfolded there two hundred years ago has been largely forgotten, although a local pub - The Holborn Whippet – brews a special anniversary ale each year.Reuse content