What really happened in the London Beer Flood 200 years ago?

Reports of people stealing the beer and getting drunk followed the accident

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. 

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. 

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