On this day in 1814, a massive vat of fermenting beer in a central London brewery suddenly burst, leading to the flooding of the surrounding area in what was dubbed the London Beer Flood.
The brewery owned by the Meux’s Brewing Company was located in the parish of St. Giles near the intersection of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street. The surrounding area was known as St. Giles Rookery (rookery being the colloquial word for a slum). It was a particularly poor area and would have formed the basis for some of Charles Dickens’ descriptions of poverty in Victorian England. Today the area is popular with tourists and theatre-goers.
In the early 19th century the Horse Shoe Brewery, as it was called, was famous for both the porter it produced and the enormous size of the vat in which it was fermented. The great porter vat was 22 feet high and contained more than 3,500 barrels, the equivalent of over 1,000,000 imperial pints—or half the size of an Olympic-size swimming pool. Porter is a dark beer with a comparatively high alcohol content that was widely popular in the 19th century, especially amongst London’s porters after whom it is named.
At around 6 PM on 17 October 1814, disaster struck as the large vat burst, due apparently to the insecure state of its steel hoops. The walls of the brewery erupted under the pressure and porter flooded the surrounding slums. The crowded tenements were flooded and mayhem reigned. According to the following day’s report in the Times of London, “gentlemen” called for quiet as labourers scavenged and searched for survivors who may have been calling out for help. In the end at least eight fatalities were recorded including a teenage girl working in the nearby Tavistock Arms.
The brewery was destroyed over a century later in 1922 and part of the site is now home to the Dominion Theatre.
Credit: Alamy B1EXFY
Caption: During what was dubbed the London Beer Flood, 1,000,000 imperial pints of dark beer flooded St. Giles Rookery.