In 1814 the St. Giles area of London was known as a rookery. A rookery was simply a city slum, inhabited by the poorest of the poor, with living quarters in deplorable condition. Low-quality housing was flung up wherever there was a little free space, and a single room might house an entire family, or even more than one family.
St. Giles had some commercial interests as well, and one of the most prominent was the Meux and Company Brewery. They specialized in the production of porter, a dark beer that had come into favor in the late 18th century. Porter was a fairly strong beer, and was generally aged. The usual procedure was to age some porter for a period of 18 months or so, and then mix it with younger, unaged porter before it was sold for consumption.
Naturally, the beer business was competitive, and brewers were not ones to miss any opportunity for publicity. The current craze, in the early 19th century, was for huge beer barrels. Henry Thrale, a competitor of the Meux Brewery, had introduced his new vat by holding a dinner party for 100 people inside it. The Meux company went them one better — a dinner inside their vat was held for 200 people.
The Meux porter vat was 23 feet high and 60 feet in diameter, so it must have been a little cramped during the dinner hour. Still, it held an awful lot of beer — more than 323,000 imperial gallons in fact. With that much beer, you really want to be sure your barrel is secure.
The first indication that anything was wrong came at about 4:30 in the afternoon on October 17, 1814. George Crick, a brewery clerk, was making his rounds and noticed that on of the hoops had fallen off the vat. It was the bottom hoop of 29, made of iron and weighing over 700 pounds. He wasn’t too concerned; that sort of thing happened two or three times a year. He did make a note for Florance Young, one of the brewery partners, however, so that he could have someone come and repair it.
At about 5:30 Crick heard a tremendous noise. It was said later that the sound was heard five miles away. He ran to the storeroom and saw that the huge vat had burst asunder, and the resulting flood had swept away the end wall of the storage room, made of stone and 22 inches thick. What’s worse, the flying debris had smashed several other barrels of porter, and knocked the stopper out of another huge vat, nearly as large as the first one.
All of Crick’s attention was absorbed in trying to save his fellow workers, and as much of the beer as possible. He wasn’t aware of what was going on outside, and if he had been, there wouldn’t have been much he could have done about it anyway. A tsunami of beer, at least 15 feet high, was sweeping down the street. It smashed at least two buildings to smithereens, and flooded all the basements.
At a nearby tavern, a 14-year-old girl was trapped underneath a collapsing wall and killed. A four year old girl was swept out of an upstairs window and drowned. In the cellars, people climbed onto the highest furniture they owned, attempting to avoid drowning. In all, eight people died, all women or children. Five of the victims had been gathered in a cellar, mourning the death of a two year old boy who had died the previous day. The death toll would have been much higher if the vat had burst an hour or two later. At 5:30 pm, most of the men were still at work.
According to some accounts, people flocked to the area in the aftermath, filling up every pot and kettle they could find. This story appears in only one newspaper account, however, and may not be true. (Remember that 19th century London streets were filled with sewage and dead animals in the best neighborhoods, and would have been much worse in the rookery.) There this also a story, possibly apocryphal, that there was a ninth victim, a man who died the following day of alcohol poisoning.
The injured were taken to a nearby hospital, where their presence nearly caused a riot. Other patients, who could smell the newcomers, were convinced that the hospital was serving them beer, and demanded their own share. They were restrained only with difficulty.
Once the initial terror had subsided, many were curious to see what “death by beer” would look like. They crowded to the homes of the victims, and some families even began charging a penny or two admission. In one case, so many people crowded into a home to see the deceased that the floor gave way, and the spectators crashed into the cellar below, which was still half-filled with beer.
Meux and Company was taken to court over the incident, but the judge ruled that the accident had been an Act of God, and they were not held accountable. In fact, since they had already paid duty on the beer that had been lost, they petitioned Parliament — successfully — to have the excise applied to the following year’s production.
Sources: Chase’s Calendar of Events, 2011 Edition: The Ultimate Go-To Guide for Special Days, Weeks, and Months, Editors of Chase’s Calendar of Events; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/October 17; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/London_Beer_Flood; http://www.damninteresting.com/beer-flood-claims-nine-souls/; http://www.snopes.com/horrors/freakish/beer.asp; http://h2g2.com/dna/h2g2/A42129876; http://www.3ammagazine.com/short_stories/non-fict/truetales/beerflood.html; http://www.badassdigest.com/2011/06/09/the-london-beer-flood-of-1814; http://www.ircrisk.com/blognet/post/2011/01/13/The-Great-Beer-Flood-of-1814.aspx; http://historicalromanceuk.blogspot.com/2010/03/london-beer-flood-of-1814.html; http://londonhistorians.wordpress.com/2010/10/17/the-london-beer-flood-of-1814/; http://everything2.com/title/The+London+Beer+Flood+of+1814; http://www.brewsnews.com.au/2010/02/porter-explodes-no-really/; http://zythophile.wordpress.com/2010/10/17/so-what-really-happened-on-october-17-1814/.