Death by Beer: The London Beer Flood of 1814

While the concept of a flood of beer filling the streets of your city does not sound frightening at first, the London Beer Flood of 1814 was a terrifying disaster that took eight people’s lives. 

The streets of London and many other cities during this period were narrow and cramped. Many people also lived below the street level, which means that during the beer flood, their homes filled with beer in a matter of minutes.

The London Beer Flood of 1814 led to reforming some safety considerations in the beer brewing process. It is considered one of the first positive responses related to public safety by the industry as a whole. 

The magnitude of the flood itself is a bit staggering, and the disaster served as a cautionary tale since it occurred.

What Led to the Beer Flood?

The Horse Shoe Brewery was located at the corner of Great Russell Street and Tottenham Court Road. In 1810, the brewery had installed a 22-foot-high wooden fermentation tank to brew porter. 

The vat was held together with iron rings and held approximately enough to fill 3,500 barrels of brown porter ale.

On October 17th, 1814, one of the iron rings of the vat failed. This was discovered, but there was no immediate solution to the problem. 

Often the rings on beer vats slipped, and there was usually no need to fix the issue quickly. The storehouse clerk, George Crick, even noted that one of the rings had slipped and told someone to deal with it later. Everyone went about their business for an hour or so without worrying about the slipped ring since this event was so common.

Crick was standing on a platform thirty feet above the vat an hour later when the entire tank ruptured. Three hundred twenty thousand gallons of beer flooded the factory and smashed through the wall at the back of the yard. 

The beer rush also pulled the stopcock from a neighboring vat, causing this even more beer to be released as well. The flood of beer rushed into St. Giles Rookery, which was, at the time, a London slum full of the poor and the needy. The wave of beer was not only hot and smelly, but it was also fourteen or fifteen feet high.

The beer flood rushed through the area, reaching George and New Street within minutes. Residents on the street were swept along by the force of the beer tsunami. Beer flooded into the basements of tenement buildings, taking the lives of Mary Banfield and her four-year-old daughter Hannah who had just sat down to tea.

An Irish wake for a two-year-old boy was being held nearby, and the flood of beer took Anne Saville’s and four mourners’ lives in their basement tenement. 

The beer wave grievously damaged the Tavistock Arms pub, and teenage servant Eleanor Cooper who was washing pots in its yard, lost her life after the beer knocked a nearby wall on top of her. The brewery workers all survived, but many were severely injured.

It was rumored that people in the streets who were not injured or swept away by the flood ran about gathering the beer in whatever containers they could lay hands on and drinking it. 

There are unconfirmed reports of people dying of alcohol poisoning related to the frenzy of beer drinking, but this is likely apocryphal information. 

The press was no friend to the large Irish population living in the rookery area at the time, and if there had been generalized revelry, it would have been reported about in the most negative of lights. 

As there is no report of any type of drunken behavior in the papers, likely, all of these stories are merely tall tales that were added to accounts of the event later.

Watchmen for the area decided to start charging a penny or two to allow people to see the disaster scene, and a stream of Londoners came by over the next few days to pay their respects and gawk at the remnants of the beer tsunami. 

The pennies and shillings that were collected for the right to look at the carnage were used to pay for the funerals of those who lost their lives in the flood.

Investigation Into the Flood

The Morning Post reported that the beer flood was “one of the most melancholy accidents we ever remember.” 

People who had wandered the streets listening at the windows and doors of basement lodgings, pleading with those who were rushing through the waist-high flood to be quiet so they could listen for the sounds of people trapped in their homes, no doubt hoped for some form of legal action to be taken against the brewery.

A jury was convened to investigate the accident two days later. While there might have been no such attention to a significant industrial accident of this nature in previous times, the times were slowly changing. It likely helped that many young people had lost their lives in the Beer Flood, making the case more pitiable.

The jury looked at the information presented and listened to the testimony of Crick and others who had witnessed the entire incident. 

After seeing the site of the tragedy and reviewing the information that had been collected for the investigation, the Beer Flood was ruled an “Act of God.” 

As a result, the brewery did not have to pay damages to the victims and was given a waiver from the British Parliament for the excise tax it had lost.

The flood cost the brewery about ¬£23,000. This would be about ¬£1.5 million today. The government’s reprieve regarding the excise tax and compensation that was granted for the lost beer helped save the company. 

No such considerations were given to those who had lost their loved ones due to the flood. However, the use of wooden vats in brewing beer was phased out across England’s beer brewing industry within a few years. 

Lined concrete vats replaced wooden ones, making the brewing industry slightly safer.

The area where the flood had taken place stank of beer for months after the incident, and cleaning up the mess took weeks. The flood events were largely forgotten by everyone except those who lived in St. Giles Rookery and those who had lost loved ones when the beer wave flooded their part of London. 

The casual disregard for the lives of the poor displayed by the Great Beer Flood of 1814 indicates a social attitude that would continue until the 1960s in England.

The Legacy of the Beer Flood of 1814

The brewery did go back into production after the flood, but it closed in 1921. The brewery site has since become The Dominion Theater, which still stands at the location today. Sadly for those who suffered greatly or lost their lives due to the Great Beer Flood of 1814, there is no official memorial or observance for the day of the disaster. 

Much like the Great Molasses Flood of 1919 in Boston, this event has faded from everyone’s minds over time.

The Holborn Whippet, however, which is a local pub in the area of the flood, does brew an anniversary ale each year to help commemorate the event. But, unfortunately, the tendency of industry to want to sweep these kinds of disasters under the rug has led to many such landmark events being largely forgotten by the public. 

The social impact of the unbridled greed, or at best, casual indifference, that many industrialists and businesses showed toward the people who worked for them or lived near their industrial properties cannot be overstated. 

The Great Beer Flood of 1814 is just one of many examples of the callous indifference of business owners toward the lives of those they considered their inferiors.

Sources

Johnson, Ben. “The London Beer Flood of 1814.” Historic UK, https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofBritain/The-London-Beer-Flood-of-1814/. Accessed February 7th 2023.

“The London Beer Flood.” The History Press, https://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/articles/the-london-beer-flood/. Accessed February 7th 2023.

Klein, Christopher. “The London Beer Flood.” History.com, October 9th 2019, https://www.history.com/news/london-beer-flood. Accessed February 7th 2023.

Eschner, Kat. “This 1814 Beer Flood Killed Eight People.” The Smithsonian Magazine, August 4th 2017, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/1814-beer-flood-killed-eight-people-180964256/. Accessed February 7th 2023.

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