I can stake a tenuous family link to the Great London Beer Flood disaster of 1814, which took place exactly 196 years ago today. My great-great-great-great grandfather on my mother’s side, Maurice Donno, was living in Soho, a minute or three’s walk from the Horse Shoe Brewery off Tottenham Court Road, when a huge vat of maturing porter at the brewery collapsed violently and flooded the surrounding tenements, killing eight people. Most, if not all, of those who died were poor Irish immigrants to London, part of a mass of people living in the slums around St Giles’s Church, the infamous St Giles “rookeries” (later to be cleaned away by the building of New Oxford Street in 1847). Maurice Donno was very probably Irish, his surname most likely a variation of Donough or something similar (which would make his first name a common Anglicisation of the Irish Muirgheas). Perhaps he knew some of those who died, or were injured, in the Great Beer Flood, or knew people who knew them. It seems very likely he would have gone across the road at some point after the tragedy, to join the hundreds who came to see the destruction wreaked by that dreadful black tsunami of beer.
What has prompted me to write about the Great Meux Brewery Beer Flood, is not the anniversary, however, It’s because I have finally been called out over some dodgy maths in the book Beer: The Story of the Pint, which I wrote in 2003.
I said in BTSOTP, correctly, that the vat of porter which burst suddenly on Monday October 17, 1814 at Henry Meux’s Horse Shoe Brewery contained 3,550 barrels of beer. I said, correctly, that this amounted to more than a million pints. Then for some mad brain-burp reason I said the beer in the vat weighed “around 38 tons” – almost precisely 15 times less than the correct answer, which was actually more than 571 tons.
Thank you, Eugene Tolstov, for pointing to my mistake, and for not laughing too much at my inability to multiply 3,555 by 36 by 10 and divide by 2,240. But at least my narrative on probably the worst industrial accident involving a British brewery was more accurate than many. The late Alan Eames, for example, in The Secret Life of Beer, claimed that the vat burst “with a boom heard five miles away” – not mentioned in any of the many sources from the time that I’ve read – while “eyewitnesses told of besotted mobs flinging themselves into gutters full of beer, hampering rescue efforts” – no, newspaper reports of the rescue don’t support this at all – and “many were killed suffocated in the crush of hundreds trying to get a free beer” – again, the contemporary reports don’t say this – while “the death toll eventually reached 20, including some deaths from alcohol coma” – no, the newspaper reports from the time make it clear that only eight people died, all women and children, and all killed by the initial huge wave of beer and the destruction it caused to the buildings in the tenements behind the brewery.
Similarly there’s a myth arisen that when those injured after the vat burst were taken to the nearby Middlesex Hospital, “patients already there for illnesses unrelated to the beer disaster smelled the ale and began a riot, accusing doctors and nurses of holding out on the beer they thought was being served elsewhere in the hospital”, while another myth claims that when bodies of those killed were taken “to a nearby house for identification”, so many people turned up to see them that “the floor collapsed under the sheer weight of onlookers” and “many inside the building perished in the collapse.” None of this is in any reports of the accident from newspapers in 1814, and if any of it had happened, you can bet one of them would have written about it.
The vat that burst, in spite of all the death and destruction it caused, was not actually the largest at the brewery: indeed, this report from a visit to the Horse Shoe Brewery in 1812, two years before the disaster, written by a 34-year-old Orkney-born novelist called Mrs Mary Brunton, suggests it was one of the smallest:
In Meux’s Brewery every thing is as filthy as steam and smoke, and dust and rust can make it; except the steam engine, which is as polished and as clean as the bars of a drawing-room grate. The first operation of this engine is to stir the malt in vats of twenty-eight feet diameter, filled with boiling water; the second is, in due time, to raise the wort to the coolers, in the floor above; then this wort is conveyed by leaden pipes into the tub where it is to ferment, and afterwards into the casks where the porter is first deposited. One of these casks, which I saw, measures seventy feet in diameter, and is said to have cost £10,000; the iron hoops on it weigh eighty tons; and we were told that it actually contained, when we saw it, 18,000 barrels, or £40,000 worth of porter. Another contained 16,000 barrels, and from thence to 4,000; there are above seventy casks in the store.
From the top of the immense building, which holds this vast apparatus, we had a complete view of London and the adjacent country. I must own, however, that I was rejoiced to find myself once more safe in the street … I never feel myself in a very elevated situation, without being seized with an universal tremor. I shook in every limb for an hour after coming down.
At the time of the disaster the Horse Shoe brewery had been in the hands of Henry Meux for just five years. The brewery’s origins are obscure: in the 20th century, at least, Meux & Co claimed a foundation date of 1764. Printed sources for its history are hit-and-miss. Richmond and Turton’s The Brewing Industry: a Guide to Historical Records, which is not always a reliable witness, asserts that it was “founded prior to 1764, after which date it was run by Blackburn and Bywell”. The Victorian History of the County of Middlesex wrote that it was “founded by a Mr Blackburn”, while Old and New London by Edward Walford, published in 1891, says that the brewery “was founded early in the reign of George III by Messrs Blackburn and Bywell whose name it bore until Mr Henry Meux, at that time a partner in the brewery of Messrs Meux in Liquorpond Street, joined the firm”. As we shall see, this misses out two early owners of the brewery and gets the name wrong of a third.
The “brewery tap” on Tottenham Court Road, called the Horseshoe, is supposed to have been in existence as a tavern since 1623, and to have been called the Horseshoe from the shape of its first dining room. Its age, if true, suggests the brewery was named after the tavern. The first reference to any owner of the brewery I can find is from an Old Bailey court case in April 1785 involving a break-in at the Yorkshire Grey pub, Red Lion Square, near the brewery, when “Thomas Fasset” (sic) the brewer is mentioned: Thomas Fassett was certainly the owner of the Horse Shoe brewery soon after, and probably then as well. In the list of London brewers’ output from 1786-7, Fassett’s was the 11th largest porter brewery in the capital, producing 40,279 barrels of beer a year, a long way behind the leader, Samuel Whitbread, on more than 150,000 barrels a year.
By 1792 the brewery was in the hands of John Stephenson. He was the “natural” son of another John Stephenson, a wealthy London merchant, originally from Cumberland. John Stephenson senior, whose uncle was at one time Lord Mayor of London, was an MP for more than 30 years from 1761 until his death at his home in Bedford Square in April 1794, aged 84. Stephenson senior was unmarried, and left almost all his estate, which included land in Cumbria, to his son. John junior, his wife Susan and their six or seven children moved after John senior’s death from nearby Charlotte Street into the rather finer house in Bedford Square, which was itself only a short walk north from the brewery. (Many of the streets and squares, and indeed pubs, in the area, incidentally, took their names from the local landowners, the Russell family, Dukes of Bedford and Marquesses of Tavistock, whose arms bore a red lion.)
Tragically, John junior had little time to enjoy his extra wealth. Like other breweries at the time, the Horse Shoe brewery cooled the hopped wort after it was boiled by pumping it into large, shallow vessels at the top of the building, before it was run into the fermenting vessels and pitched with yeast. Around 10am on the morning of Thursday, November 13, 1794, one of the brewery workers spotted a hat swimming on top of the beer in one of the coolers. It was Stephenson’s. Just a short time before he had been in the brewery “accompting house”. Unnoticed, he had gone up to where the coolers were, fallen in and drowned.
Poor John was followed as owner of the brewery by Edward Biley, whom he must have known well, since Biley was one of the executors of John junior’s will. It seems to have taken several years to transfer the ownership, since the regular listings of London brewers’ annual outputs continue to call the concern “Stephenson’s” until 1798, when Biley is finally included in the tally. Biley ran the brewery until at least January 1809, when he, John Blackburn (the other executor of John Stephenson junior’s will) and Edward Gale Bolero, a banker, are named as partners in the concern in another Old Bailey court case, this one involving the alleged theft of yeast from the brewery. (John Blackburn and Edward Biley are clearly the “Blackburn and Bywell” Old and New London claimed ran the brewery.)
Soon after, some time towards the end of 1809, the Horse Shoe brewery was bought by Henry Meux, who had been a partner in one of the largest of London’s porter brewers, Meux Reid. His father, Richard Meux (pronounced mewks), who came from an old landed family on the Isle of Wight, had been born in or just before 1734 (he was christened at the other St Giles, in Cripplegate, on the edge of the City). In 1757 Richard had gone into business, aged only 23 or so, as a partner in a brewery in Long Acre, Covent Garden. That brewery was badly damaged by fire in 1763, and Meux and his partner built a new one in Liquorpond Street, Clerkenwell, which they called the Griffin brewery, after the crest of Gray’s Inn nearby. The Griffin brewery was one of the first to go in for building absolutely enormous vats for maturing porter (ageing at least some of the porter sent to publicans was regarded, from at least the 1730s, as essential to achieve the flavour customers sought). In 1790 one vat was unveiled in Liquorpond Street that stood 20 feet high and 60 feet across: more than 200 people sat down to a dinner inside. Five years later Richard Meux was constructing another vat at the Griffin brewery, the “XYZ”, with a capacity of 20,000 barrels, at a cost of £10,000, equivalent to more than £750,000 today.
The Griffin brewery’s success – it was the fifth largest in London in 1796, with production of just under 104,000 barrels – attracted rich new partners. These included a distiller and wine and spirit merchant called Andrew Reid, in 1793 (whereupon the brewery became known as Meux Reid), and, in 1798, Sir Robert Wigram, East India merchant, ship builder and owner of Blackwall docks on the Thames. Their capital helped the brewery acquire more pubs (it controlled more than 100 licensed houses in 1795) and extend more loans to publicans to increase their share in the furiously competitive London porter market.
In 1800 Richard Meux retired from the business. leaving the management of the Griffin brewery to his sons Richard junior, Henry and Thomas. Richard junior, was declared insane in 1806 (something that was also to happen to Henry Meux’s son decades later). Henry, the second eldest, and Thomas, the third, carried on, Thomas in charge of brewing, Henry looking after sales and tied houses. Unfortunately Henry became heavily involved with an extremely dodgy character called James Deady, one of the brewery’s two “abroad coopers”, or outside reps. Dodgy Deady’s tricks included seducing the wife of a free trade publican, and then having the publican jailed for failing to pay his bills to the brewery. Worse, as far as the company was concerned, Deady and Henry Meux were secretly running a distillery, a rival operation to the one owned by Andrew Reid. Eventually Reid found out, and in 1808 he launched a Court of Chancery case against Henry Meux, claiming that Meux had misappropriated £163,000 of the brewery’s capital.
The Court of Chancery judgment gave an option for the Meuxes to be bought out of the partnership, and in 1809 the Griffin brewery was put up for sale and purchased by members of the Reid and Wigram families, with the Meuxes getting a fifth of the proceeds. Thomas Meux remained one of 20 members of the new partnership (he eventually left in 1816, when the brewery became known simply as Reid & Co). It has been claimed that on the break-up of the original Meux-Reid-Wigram partnership, “Henry Meux summoned two hackney carriages and went off with the deeds of the public houses, leaving the Reids with the brewery and the free trade.” Sadly, there is no proof of that. But Henry Meux does seem to have taken with him a number of the Griffin brewery’s employees, including James Deady, when he and several partners acquired the Horse Shoe Brewery.
Under Henry Meux the Horse Shoe Brewery’s production absolutely rocketed, from 40,663 barrels in 1809 to 93,660 in 1810 and 103,502 barrels in 1811 (though this was still less than half that of Meux Reid’s 220,094 barrels, and far behind Barclay Perkins’s 264,105 barrels in 1811, the huge rise pushed the Horseshoe Brewery up from 10th to sixth place in the London porter brewery league table.) In 1813 or 1814 the Horse Shoe brewery acquired or merged with a smaller concern, Clowes & Co of the Stoney Lane brewhouse in Bermondsey. Then came the disaster.
The first hint of what was going to happen occurred at around half past four in the afternoon of Monday October 17 1814, when a seven-hundredweight iron hoop, the smallest of 22 securing a 22-feet-high vat in the storehouse at the back of the brewery, and about three feet from the bottom of the vat, fell off. The vat was filled within four inches of the top with 3,555 barrels of “entire”, porter already 10 months old and destined to be sent out when judged properly mature to be mixed with freshly brewed porter to customers’ tastes, in Meux’s pubs. George Crick, the storehouse clerk, who was on duty at the time, told the inquest held into the deaths of the victims of the disaster that he was “not alarmed” at the hoop falling off as it happened “frequently”, two or three times a year, and was “not attended by any serious consequence”. Nevertheless, Crick said, he wrote a note to Florance Young, one of the brewery partners, who ran a back-making (that is, brewery vessel making) business, to let him know what had happened, so that someone would come to mend the hoop.
At 5.30pm Crick was standing just a short distance from the vat in question, with the note for Young in his hand, when he heard the vat burst. He ran to the storehouse where the vat was, and was shocked to see that the end wall, at least 25 feet high, 60 feet long and 22 inches thick at its broadest part, together with a large part of the roof, lay in ruins. The force of the escaping beer, and flying debris, including the huge staves of the collapsing vat, smashed several hogsheads of porter in the storehouse and knocked the cock out of another large vat in the cellar below which contained 2,100 barrels of beer, all of which except 800 or 900 barrels joined the flood.
Crick and his colleagues, now up to their waists in porter, were too busy rescuing their fellow workers injured as the vat collapsed, and trying to save as much beer as possible, to pay attention to what had happened outside. The vast flood of escaping porter, weighing hundreds of tons, had crashed down New Street behind the brewery and smashed into the buildings there and fronting Great Russell Street to the north. By good fortune the tenements in and around New Street, all in multiple occupation, were comparatively empty, because of the time of day. Had the accident happened an hour or more later, the men would have been home from work and the death toll greater. Instead all those killed were women and children. As the huge wave of beer, at least 15 feet high, roared down the street it flooded cellars, knocked in the backs of houses and washed people from first-floor rooms. One little girl, Hannah Banfield, aged four, was taking tea with her mother Mary, a coalheaver’s wife, in an upstairs room of one of the New Street houses when the vat collapsed. When the torrent of porter rushed in, Hannah was swept from the room through a partition and killed, while her mother was washed out of the window and badly injured and another child in the room “nearly suffocated”.
Houses in Great Russell Street, including the Tavistock Arms pub at number 22, that backed on to New Street had their cellars and ground floors filled with beer and their backs badly damaged. Those living in the cellars had to climb up on top of their highest pieces of furniture to save themselves from drowning in porter. At the Tavistock Arms, where beer had washed right through the taproom and into the street outside, pouring into the “areas” (basement entrances) of the houses opposite, part of the back wall collapsed on top of one of the pub servants, Eleanor Cooper, aged 14, who was at the pump in the yard, scouring pots. She was dug out of the ruins nearly three hours later, still standing upright, but dead.
Most tragically, in one of the cellars in New Street a group of people, all or nearly all Irish immigrants, had gathered to “wake” John Saville, the two-year-old son of Ann Saville, who had died the previous day. As the flood of beer crashed in, five of the mourners were killed, including the grieving mother herself; Elizabeth Smith, 27, the wife of a bricklayer; Mary Mulvey, 30, and her son by a previous marriage, Thomas Murry, aged three; and Catharine Butler, a widow aged 65.
The only eyewitness account of the disaster from a member of the public that appears to have survived, strangely, is from an American who happened by unlucky chance to be passing down New Street “on a dismal night” on his way to Great Russell Street, thinking about the war then two years old between the United States and Great Britain, when the porter vat collapsed. More than 20 years later the anonymous American wrote in the New York magazine The Knickerbocker:
All at once, I found myself borne onward with great velocity by a torrent which burst upon me so suddenly as almost to deprive me of breath. A roar as of falling buildings at a distance, and suffocating fumes, were in my ears and nostrils. I was rescued with great difficulty by the people who immediately collected around me, and from whom I learned the nature of the disaster which had befallen me. An immense vat belonging to a brew house situated in Banbury street [sic – more properly Bainbridge Street], Saint Giles, and containing four or five thousand barrels of strong beer, had suddenly burst and swept every thing before it. Whole dwellings were literally riddled by the flood; numbers were killed; and from among the crowds which filled the narrow passages in every direction came the groans of sufferers. Though but just rescued, as it were, from the jaws of Death, my clothes heavy with the hot malt liquor which had saturated them, I can truly say that fifteen minutes had not elapsed before I had entirely forgotten the late disastrous occurrence, in the emotions excited by perusing in the Admiralty Bulletin an exaggerated account of a most brilliant victory gained over the American army before Baltimore, in which it was stated that twelve thousand Americans had been completely put to route by about four thousand British troops, including a brigade of seamen.*
Rescuers arrived quickly in great numbers to dig out those buried in the ruins, who included at least one small child, injured but alive. The Morning Chronicle wrote that “The cries and groans which issued from the wreckage were dreadful.” Another newspaper, the Morning Post, which said the scene behind the brewery resembled the aftermath of an earthquake, commended the “several Gentlemen” drawn to the spot who were anxious “to prevent any noise from among the crowd, that the persons who were employed in clearing away the rubbish might … direct their ears to the ground, in order to discover whether any of the victims were calling for assistance.” It added that “The caution and humanity with which the labourers proceeded in their distressing task … deserve warm approbation,” commenting that “To those that even approached the scene of ruin, the fumes of the beer were very offensive and overpowering.”
As far as I can discover, only the Bury and Norfolk Post, in its report of the tragedy nine days after the event, describes anyone drinking the escaped porter, claiming that “When the beer began to flow, the neighbourhood, consisting of the lower classes of the Irish, were busily employed in putting in their claim to a share, and every vessel, from a kettle to a cask, were put into requisition, and many of them were seen enjoying themselves at the expense of the proprietors.” None of the London papers, who would certainly not have been friends of the poor Irish, especially the Times, report anything like this. One wonders if the Post was describing what it expected to have happened.
First reports estimated that between 20 and 30 people had died in the disaster. But at the coroner’s inquest, held in St Giles’s Workhouse on the Wednesday, two days later, the only victims, most of whom were not found until the next day, were revealed to be three small children, the teenaged Eleanor Cooper, three women aged 27 to 35, and the elderly Catharine Butler. George Crick was the first witness called, and he told the coroner his surmise was that the rivets on the hoops around the vat that burst had slipped, since none of the hoops had broken, nor had the foundations underneath the vat collapsed. Instead the whole vat “had given way as completely as if a quart pot had been turned up on the table.” His own brother, John, was one of two brewery workers still in the Middlesex Hospital “in a dangerous way” after being injured in the accident, Crick said. He also revealed that the body of Ann Saville had been found “floating among the butts” an hour after the vat collapsed, where she had evidently been washed. Parts of a private still was also found floating in the beer: it appeared that someone in New Street had been engaged in a little illegal gin-making. The coroner’s jury, after hearing the evidence and viewing the bodies, returned a verdict “without hesitation” of “died by casualty, accidentally and by misfortune”.
On Friday the Morning Post was able to report that “by strict enquiry of the different beadles, and at the public houses to a late hour”, it could state that no other lives had been lost in the accident besides the eight on whom the inquest had been held. Five more victims, “some of whom are dreadfully bruised”, were still in the Middlesex Hospital: George Crick’s brother John; Patrick Murphy, a labourer at the brewery; Mary Banfield; and two children “who were picked up in a state of suffocation and much bruised”. Spectators were still arriving to see the devastation: “The numbers who were led to view the spot during the whole of yesterday, was beyond calculation,” the Post said, momentarily forgetting subject-verb number agreement. The five who died at the New Street cellar wake were waked themselves, in the parlour at the Ship pub in Bainbridge Street, on the south side of the brewery, while the coffins of the other three victims were laid out in a nearby yard. If the accident had happened just an hour later, the Morning Post commented, “many more lives would have been lost, as the men would have been home from work, and the cellar in which the wake was held would have been full, as is customary among the Irish.” All those who came to see the bodies were asked to make a small donation – sixpence or a shilling – towards the families of the survivors, with the collection at the Ship totalling £33 5s 7d.
It was not much, against estimates that the poor victims of the flood had lost £3,000 in ruined belongings. A fund was set up for their relief by the churchwardens of the two parishes that covered the area hit by the disaster, St Giles’s, and St George, Bloomsbury, and within a month more than £800 had been raised, including £30 from Florance Young (whose family later owned Young’s brewery in Wandsworth) and £10 from John Vickris Taylor of the Limehouse brewery.
Initial estimates for the amount of lost beer was 8,000 to 9,000 barrels, getting on for 10 per cent of total yearly production, though the final calculation came to only 7,664 barrels of porter. Meux and Co claimed their estimate total loss to be £23,000 “at the lowest calculation”, equivalent, on a share-of-GDP calculation, to more than £66 million today. The firm petitioned Parliament for a refund of the duty it had paid on the lost beer, and the malt and hops that went into it. An Act was passed the following year allowing the partners to brew duty free an amount equivalent in duties to the duty on the beer lost, which saved them around £7,250.
The Horse Shoe brewery maintained its position as one of London’s leading porter producers for the rest of the 19th century: indeed, it was the last one to remain solely a porter brewer, with production of ale not being introduced until 1872.
In 1921 the Horse Shoe Brewery, which was increasingly an anachronism as a large brewery in the heart of London, finally closed, with production transferred to Thorne Brothers’ Nine Elms brewery in Wandsworth, which Meux had bought in 1914. (The brewery was demolished in 1922, and in 1927-28 the Dominion Theatre was erected on the site.) In 1956 Meux merged with Friary Holroyd and Healey of Guildford to form Friary Meux. Eight years later, in 1964, Friary Meux was snapped up by the fast-expanding Allied Breweries. Like Taylor Walker, the name was revived by Allied in 1979 as a disguise for one of its pub-owning subsidiaries, but vanished again when Allied sold its pubs to Punch 20 years later.
Drink a toast, then, tonight, to the memory of Ann Saville, Eleanor Cooper, Elizabeth Smith, Sarah Bates, Catharine Butler, Mary Mulvey, Thomas Murry and Hannah Banfield, innocent victims of man’s desire for well-aged porter. I’m hoping that for the 200th anniversary of the tragedy we can get a plaque put up on the site of the brewery recording their names. Meanwhile if you were one of the several thousand people who bought Beer: the Story of the Pint, many thanks, and would you mind turning to page 130 (in the hardback edition), run down to line four, strike out the figure “38” and insert “571” instead.
* The anonymous American was right to call the report “exaggerated”: the Americans had, in fact, successfully beaten off the British assault on Baltimore, a defence that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the song that became known as “The Star-Spangled Banner”