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1814, October 17: Beer Flood of London

Meuxs Brewery
The "Horse Shoe Brewery," ca. 1830 [Larger version here]

In 1784, English brewers finally met success in the challenge of creating a large vat or cistern that could store mass quanities of their liquid product. That year saw the first functional and safe cisterns, with a capacity of 2,400 barrels of product in each. With this major technical difficulty surmounted brewers were now free to expand their production, and a friendly competition arose to see who could have the largest storage vats for their product; it became a matter of both pride and prestige to be able to boast of having the largest vats in London. One brewer named two of his cisterns "King's Vault" and "Queen's Vault" in honor of a royal visit, and another brewer hosted a dinner for a hundred people inside one of their new vats. Soon, capacities ranging between 10,000 and 20,000 barrels for a single vat were being boasted of. Perhaps not surprisingly, in the middle of this competition the actual quality of the construction of the vats started to take a second place in importance to their capacities... and so the scene was set for a disaster to occur.

        Around five thirty on the evening of Monday, October 17, 1814, one of the great vats owned by Henry Meux and Company in the Horse Shoe Brewery of St. Giles, London, burst open and instantly released a tidal wave of 3,555 barrels worth of strong beer; this failure crushed and damaged several hogsheads of porter, bringing the total wave up to between 8,000 and 9,000 barrels of beer in all. The deluge instantly destroyed one wall of the brewery, no less than twenty-five feet in height and two and a half bricks in thickness, as well as collapsed a large section of the roof of the building, and the majority of this debris was carried forward by the crushing wave.

        Two houses in New Street that adjoined to the brewery were totally demolished. In the first floor of one of the houses, a mother and daughter were at tea when the disaster occurred. The mother was killed on the spot, and the daughter was swept away and "dashed to pieces." The back parts of four houses in Great Russel Street were nearly destroyed. A servant of one of the houses was in the backyard washing pots at the time the accident occurred; she was swept by the wave into the back of the house, and buried in the ruins... her body was recovered shortly after eight o'clock, as rescue efforts tried to locate the survivors. At the brewery itself, three of the men who had been working there had to be rescued "with great difficulty" by the people that gathered to help, who had to wade up to their middles in the beer.

        The whole of the terrain around the brewery was fairly flat so, instead of draining away, the beer quickly filled the cellars in the buildings around the brewery, all of which were inhabited by poorer residents. Many of these residents had to climb to the top of their tallest furniture to stay above the fluid invading their homes. The debris created by the flood also poured into the cellars and through the roads, creating a barrier against simple rescue. The crowd of spectators steadily grew through the night after the initial disaster, and many victims wandered among the streets and crowds trying to find parents, relatives, and friends.

        Rescue efforts focused on the collapsed houses in New Street, due to the large number of people who had been in the buildings when the disaster happened. Many were helped... but at midnight, the first of several dead bodies was found in the ruins.  The victims were all women and children -- possibly because most men were still out at work around five-thirty -- and their ages ranged from the elderly down to a three-year old. In all, eight dead were found, six being from the New Street houses.

The Inquest

        On the following Thursday, a Coroner's inquest was held to determine the cause of death for the eight victims, and to inquire into the cause of the accident. The storehouse clerk of the Horse Shoe Brewery, a man named George Crick who had worked with the owners -- Henry Meux and Co. -- for 17 years, had an interesting statement to make, for he was in the brewery when the accident happened.

        Crick stated that on Monday afternoon he was at the storehouse of the Horse Shoe Brewery when one of the giant iron hoops fell off from around the vat which would later fail. The hoop that fell off, one of twenty-two on the vat, was one of the smaller ones; seven of the hoops weighed at least a ton each. Strange to say, Crick was not alarmed by the hoop falling off... apparently, hoops had fallen off other vats frequently, and "was not attended by any serious consequence." In fact, his only response to it was to write a short letter to inform a partner, who was also a vat-builder, of the accident; this letter was in his hand a half-hour later, when the great vat broke. Crick was on a platform within three yards of the vat when he heard it burst; he ran to the storehouse only to discover that the whole wall was missing on one side.

        The vat that failed had been 22 ft. high, and was full to within four inches of the top when the disaster occurred. It had been built eight to nine years previously, and was always kept near full. It also had an opening on top a yard wide, and the beer it stored was old enough to no longer be in the process of fermintation; this meant that a build up of internal pressure was not the cause of the failure. Crick, having observed that the foundation under the vat had not been disturbed, could only suppose that the rivets had given out on the hoops holding it, as the hoop that fell earlier had been intact. Crick did not see what had happened outside of the brewery after the accident, as he was busy helping people within the brewery itself.

         Despite what seemed to be an admission of a known and ignored problem with the vats at the brewery, after the separate circumstances of each of the eight deaths were reviewed the jury returned a verdict for all eight of having "Died by Casualty, Accidentally, and by Misfortune." A handbill was distributed asking for charitable donations to assist the victims of the flood.

         Seven months later, Henry Meux and Company petitioned Parliament for a repayment of the duty they paid on 7,664 barrels of the lost beer, as well as an additional 916 other barrels deemed to have sustained "serious injury," with total estimated loss of 23,000£ in product (around $112,800 by the 1815 exchange rate). With no one less than the Prince Regent supporting their petition, they were awarded an 18s. 11d. per barrel drawback, which amounted to about 7,216£ (around $35,389) refunded back... enough to keep the brewers from going into bankruptcy over the disaster.