October 17 1814: London Beer Flood

On October 17 1814, enormous vats of beer, located in the Horse Shoe Brewery, explode. A torrent of beer floods the surrounding streets of central London. Some 323,000 gallons or 1,470,000 liters of beer escape.  The wall of the brewery is breached and collapses. A wave of beer rises some fifteen feet high. Several houses are overwhelmed and destroyed. It is a grand disaster that would be comical but for the fact that eight or nine people are killed, including a four year old girl, Hannah Banfield, who is having tea with her mother.

The writer  Martyn Cornell has the best description of what happened.  He writes:

The first hint of what was going to happen occurred at around half past four in the afternoon of Monday October 17 1814, when a seven-hundredweight iron hoop, the smallest of 22 securing a 22-feet-high vat in the storehouse at the back of the brewery, and about three feet from the bottom of the vat, fell off. The vat was filled within four inches of the top with 3,555 barrels of “entire”, porter already 10 months old and destined to be sent out when judged properly mature to be mixed with freshly brewed porter to customers’ tastes, in Meux’s pubs. George Crick, the storehouse clerk, who was on duty at the time, told the inquest held into the deaths of the victims of the disaster that he was “not alarmed” at the hoop falling off as it happened “frequently”, two or three times a year, and was “not attended by any serious consequence”. Nevertheless, Crick said, he wrote a note to Florance Young, one of the brewery partners, who ran a back-making (that is, brewery vessel making) business, to let him know what had happened, so that someone would come to mend the hoop.

At 5.30 pm Crick was standing just a short distance from the vat in question, with the note for Young in his hand, when he heard the vat burst. He ran to the storehouse where the vat was, and was shocked to see that the end wall, at least 25 feet high, 60 feet long and 22 inches thick at its broadest part, together with a large part of the roof, lay in ruins. The force of the escaping beer, and flying debris, including the huge staves of the collapsing vat, smashed several hogsheads of porter in the storehouse and knocked the cock out of another large vat in the cellar below which contained 2,100 barrels of beer, all of which except 800 or 900 barrels joined the flood.

Crick and his colleagues, now up to their waists in porter, were too busy rescuing their fellow workers injured as the vat collapsed, and trying to save as much beer as possible, to pay attention to what had happened outside. The vast flood of escaping porter, weighing hundreds of tons, had crashed down New Street behind the brewery and smashed into the buildings there and fronting Great Russell Street to the north. By good fortune the tenements in and around New Street, all in multiple occupation, were comparatively empty, because of the time of day. Had the accident happened an hour or more later, the men would have been home from work and the death toll greater. Instead all those killed were women and children. As the huge wave of beer, at least 15 feet high, roared down the street it flooded cellars, knocked in the backs of houses and washed people from first-floor rooms. One little girl, Hannah Banfield, aged four, was taking tea with her mother Mary, a coalheaver’s wife, in an upstairs room of one of the New Street houses when the vat collapsed. When the torrent of porter rushed in, Hannah was swept from the room through a partition and killed, while her mother was washed out of the window and badly injured and another child in the room “nearly suffocated”.

Houses in Great Russell Street, including the Tavistock Arms pub at number 22, that backed on to New Street had their cellars and ground floors filled with beer and their backs badly damaged. Those living in the cellars had to climb up on top of their highest pieces of furniture to save themselves from drowning in porter. At the Tavistock Arms, where beer had washed right through the taproom and into the street outside, pouring into the “areas” (basement entrances) of the houses opposite, part of the back wall collapsed on top of one of the pub servants, Eleanor Cooper, aged 14, who was at the pump in the yard, scouring pots. She was dug out of the ruins nearly three hours later, still standing upright, but dead.

Most tragically, in one of the cellars in New Street a group of people, all or nearly all Irish immigrants, had gathered to “wake” John Saville, the two-year-old son of Ann Saville, who had died the previous day. As the flood of beer crashed in, five of the mourners were killed, including the grieving mother herself; Elizabeth Smith, 27, the wife of a bricklayer; Mary Mulvey, 30, and her son by a previous marriage, Thomas Murry, aged three; and Catharine Butler, a widow aged 65.

The only eyewitness account of the disaster from a member of the public that appears to have survived, strangely, is from an American who happened by unlucky chance to be passing down New Street “on a dismal night” on his way to Great Russell Street, thinking about the war then two years old between the United States and Great Britain, when the porter vat collapsed. More than 20 years later the anonymous American wrote in the New York magazine The Knickerbocker:

All at once, I found myself borne onward with great velocity by a torrent which burst upon me so suddenly as almost to deprive me of breath. A roar as of falling buildings at a distance, and suffocating fumes, were in my ears and nostrils. I was rescued with great difficulty by the people who immediately collected around me, and from whom I learned the nature of the disaster which had befallen me. An immense vat belonging to a brew house situated in Banbury street [sic – more properly Bainbridge Street], Saint Giles, and containing four or five thousand barrels of strong beer, had suddenly burst and swept every thing before it. Whole dwellings were literally riddled by the flood; numbers were killed; and from among the crowds which filled the narrow passages in every direction came the groans of sufferers. Though but just rescued, as it were, from the jaws of Death, my clothes heavy with the hot malt liquor which had saturated them, I can truly say that fifteen minutes had not elapsed before I had entirely forgotten the late disastrous occurrence, in the emotions excited by perusing in the Admiralty Bulletin an exaggerated account of a most brilliant victory gained over the American army before Baltimore, in which it was stated that twelve thousand Americans had been completely put to route by about four thousand British troops, including a brigade of seamen.*

Rescuers arrived quickly in great numbers to dig out those buried in the ruins, who included at least one small child, injured but alive. The Morning Chronicle wrote that “The cries and groans which issued from the wreckage were dreadful.” Another newspaper, the Morning Post, which said the scene behind the brewery resembled the aftermath of an earthquake, commended the “several Gentlemen” drawn to the spot who were anxious “to prevent any noise from among the crowd, that the persons who were employed in clearing away the rubbish might … direct their ears to the ground, in order to discover whether any of the victims were calling for assistance.” It added that “The caution and humanity with which the labourers proceeded in their distressing task … deserve warm approbation,” commenting that “To those that even approached the scene of ruin, the fumes of the beer were very offensive and overpowering.”

As far as I can discover, only the Bury and Norfolk Post, in its report of the tragedy nine days after the event, describes anyone drinking the escaped porter, claiming that “When the beer began to flow, the neighbourhood, consisting of the lower classes of the Irish, were busily employed in putting in their claim to a share, and every vessel, from a kettle to a cask, were put into requisition, and many of them were seen enjoying themselves at the expense of the proprietors.” None of the London papers, who would certainly not have been friends of the poor Irish, especially the Times, report anything like this. One wonders if the Post was describing what it expected to have happened.

First reports estimated that between 20 and 30 people had died in the disaster. But at the coroner’s inquest, held in St Giles’s Workhouse on the Wednesday, two days later, the only victims, most of whom were not found until the next day, were revealed to be three small children, the teenaged Eleanor Cooper, three women aged 27 to 35, and the elderly Catharine Butler. George Crick was the first witness called, and he told the coroner his surmise was that the rivets on the hoops around the vat that burst had slipped, since none of the hoops had broken, nor had the foundations underneath the vat collapsed. Instead the whole vat “had given way as completely as if a quart pot had been turned up on the table.” His own brother, John, was one of two brewery workers still in the Middlesex Hospital “in a dangerous way” after being injured in the accident, Crick said. He also revealed that the body of Ann Saville had been found “floating among the butts” an hour after the vat collapsed, where she had evidently been washed. Parts of a private still was also found floating in the beer: it appeared that someone in New Street had been engaged in a little illegal gin-making. The coroner’s jury, after hearing the evidence and viewing the bodies, returned a verdict “without hesitation” of “died by casualty, accidentally and by misfortune”.

On Friday the Morning Post was able to report that “by strict enquiry of the different beadles, and at the public houses to a late hour”, it could state that no other lives had been lost in the accident besides the eight on whom the inquest had been held. Five more victims, “some of whom are dreadfully bruised”, were still in the Middlesex Hospital: George Crick’s brother John; Patrick Murphy, a labourer at the brewery; Mary Banfield; and two children “who were picked up in a state of suffocation and much bruised”. Spectators were still arriving to see the devastation: “The numbers who were led to view the spot during the whole of yesterday, was beyond calculation,” the Post said, momentarily forgetting subject-verb number agreement. The five who died at the New Street cellar wake were waked themselves, in the parlour at the Ship pub in Bainbridge Street, on the south side of the brewery, while the coffins of the other three victims were laid out in a nearby yard. If the accident had happened just an hour later, theMorning Post commented, “many more lives would have been lost, as the men would have been home from work, and the cellar in which the wake was held would have been full, as is customary among the Irish.” All those who came to see the bodies were asked to make a small donation – sixpence or a shilling – towards the families of the survivors, with the collection at the Ship totalling £33 5s 7d.

It was not much, against estimates that the poor victims of the flood had lost £3,000 in ruined belongings. A fund was set up for their relief by the churchwardens of the two parishes that covered the area hit by the disaster, St Giles’s, and St George, Bloomsbury, and within a month more than £800 had been raised, including £30 from Florance Young (whose family later owned Young’s brewery in Wandsworth) and £10 from John Vickris Taylor of the Limehouse brewery.

The images are from the excellent article “Meux’s Horseshoe Brewery Disaster”  by Jeremy Mattfeld.

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