The Great London Beer Flood of 1814
By Alex Villasuso
Imagine this: A tidal wave of freshly brewed porter rushing toward you, chasing you down the street like a tsunami. Sounds like the plot of a low-budget B movie, right? For several unfortunate people back on October 17, 1814, the unthinkable became reality in what is now known in history books as the London Beer Flood.
The Fateful Tale
Back in the day, the Horse Shoe Brewery was the spot from which the tragedy spouted. Located at the intersection of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street, conditions in and around the Horse Shoe Brewery combined to be the makings of a perfect (albeit beer) storm: nearly 8,000 barrels of beer in a 22-feet-tall vat atop of the brewery, a cracked vat support hoop, and an overcrowded slum.
The Horse Shoe Brewery was owned by Meux Brewery Co., a large brewery established in London in 1764. Owned by Sir Henry Meux, the brewery had been actively acquiring smaller breweries recognized for producing good beer. Horse Shoe was known for its porter…and lots of it.
Shortly before that disastrous day, Horse Shoe had several massive vats of beer fermenting on its roof, the largest of which became the villain in this story. If the weight of that much beer – 300,000 gallons (1,224,000 liters) to be exact – was not enough of a concern, add on 29 iron rings that held the vats in place, with each ring weighing in at 500 pounds, and you’ll understand the gravity of the situation.
It was one of those iron rings that was the culprit that set the streets of St. Giles slum awash in porter. Record notes that a Horse Shoe employee, Mr. George Crick, had noticed a small crack in one of the vat support hoops. The storehouse clerk reported it to his supervisor; however, the issue was ignored by the vat builder. He wrongly believed the other 28 rings would adequately support the mammoth vats of beer and, as the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20.
And Then the Unthinkable Happened
On October 17, 1814, at about 6 p.m., the cracked hoop snapped and caused the porter vat to burst. All of that fermenting porter came gushing out of the 22-foot-tall vat, causing a chain reaction in the surrounding vats.
The result: a 15-foot tall tidal wave of beer whipping through the crowded Rookery, as that area was also referred. The rushing wave of Horse Shoe Brewery’s beer was so powerful that it completely washed away two houses, flooding many others and leaving an unknown number of people – due to the overcrowded slum – to perish in the aftermath.
What would later be known as the London Beer Flood of 1814 claimed the lives of nine unsuspecting women and children. The Meux Brewery Company was taken to court over the accident, but the judge ruled that, although devastating, the flood was an ‘Act of God’ and the deaths were simply by ‘casualty.’