Remembering the victims of the Great London Beer Flood, 200 years ago today

Wherever you are at 5.30pm this evening, please stop a moment and raise a thought – a glass, too, if you have one, preferably of porter – to Hannah Banfield, aged four years and four months; Eleanor Cooper, 14, a pub servant; Elizabeth Smith, 27, the wife of a bricklayer; Mary Mulvey, 30, and her son by a previous marriage, Thomas Murry (sic), aged three; Sarah Bates, aged three years and five months; Ann Saville, 60; and Catharine Butler, a widow aged 65. All eight died 200 years ago today, victims of the Great London Beer Flood, when a huge vat filled with maturing porter fell apart at Henry Meux’s Horse Shoe brewery at the bottom of Tottenham Court Road, and more than 570 tons of beer crashed through the brewery’s back wall and out into the slums behind in a vast wave at least 15 feet high, flooding streets and cellars and smashing into buildings, in at least one case knocking people from a first-floor room. It could have been worse: the vat that broke was actually one of the smallest of 70 or so at the brewery, and contained just under 3,600 barrels of beer, while the largest vat at the brewery held 18,000 barrels. In addition, if the vat had burst an hour or so later, the men of the district would have been home from work, and the buildings behind the brewery, all in multiple occupancy, with one family to a room, would have been much fuller when the tsunami of porter hit them.

From a Dr Who cartoon novel in 2012: was the Great Beer Flood caused by time-travellers? (No, obviously not …)

From a Dr Who cartoon novel in 2012: was the Great Beer Flood caused by time-travellers? (No, obviously not …)

Here’s about the only eye witness report of what it’s like to be hit in the back by a giant wave of beer, written by an anonymous American who had been unlucky in taking a short-cut down New Street, behind the brewery, when the vat burst:

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 – now 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.

Accounts today of the Meux brewery beer flood are full of claims of “besotted mobs flinging themselves into gutters full of beer, hampering rescue efforts” and claims that “many were suffocated in the crush of hundreds trying to get a free beer” and “the death toll eventually reached 20, including some deaths from alcohol coma”. None of this is borne out by any newspaper reports at the time, and nor are the stories about riots at the Middlesex Hospital when victims were taken there stinking of beer, because other patients smelt the porter and thought free drink was being given away, or the floor at the pub where several of the victims’ bodies were laid out collapsing under the weight of sightseers and more people being killed. All those stories appear to be completely made up. It would be an interesting exercise to track these myths back and see when and where they first arose.

Here’s an account of the accident from a contemporary journal:



Monday night, the 17th October, one of those accidents which fortunately for the inhabitants of the metropolis is of rare occurence threw the neighhourhood of St Giles’s into the utmost consternation. About six o clock one of the vats in the extensive premises of Messrs Henry Meux and Co in Banbury street St Giles’s burst apart; in a moment New street George street and several others in the vicinity were deluged with the contents of 3,555 barrels of strong beer. The fluid in its course swept every thing before it. Two houses in New street adjoining the brew house were totally demolished. The inhabitants, who were of the poorer class, were all at home. In the first floor of one of them a mother and daughter were at tea; the mother was washed out of the window and the daughter was swept away by the current through a partition and dashed to pieces. The back parts of the houses of Mr Goodwin, poulterer, of Mr Hawse, Tavistock Arms, and Nos 24 and 25 in Great Russel street were nearly destroyed. The female servant of the Tavistock Arms was suffocated. Three of Mr Meux’s men employed in the brewery were rescued with great difficulty. The site of the place is low and flat, and there being no declivity to carry off the fluid in its fall, it spread and sunk into the neighbouring cellars, all of which were inhabited. Even the cellars in Russel street were inundated and breaches made through the houses. The inhabitants, to save themselves from drowning, had to mount their highest pieces of furniture. The bursting of the brew house walls and the fall of heavy timber materially contributed to aggravate the mischief by forcing the roofs and walls of the adjoining houses. It was feared at first that the lives lost exceeded 20, but we are happy to find the account reduced to eight, whose bodies have been all recovered.

And here’s a report of the coroner’s inquest:

On Thursday a Coroner’s Inquest was held on the dead bodies at St Giles’s workhouse. George Crick deposed that he was store house clerk to Messrs H Meux and Co of the Horse Shoe Brew house in St Giles’s, with whom he had lived 17 years. Monday afternoon one of the large iron hoops of the vat which burst fell off. He was not alarmed, as it happened frequently and was not attended by any serious consequence. He wrote to inform a partner, Mr Young, also a vat builder, of the accident, he had the letter in his hand to send to Mr Young, about half past five, half an hour after the accident, and was standing on a platform within three yards of the vat when he heard it burst. He ran to the store house where the vat, was and was shocked to see that one side of the brew house, upwards of 25 feet in height and two bricks and a half thick, with a considerable part of the roof, lay in ruins. The next object that took his attention was his brother, J Crick, who was a superintendent under him, lying senseless, he being pulled from under one of the butts. He and the labourer were now in the Middlesex Hospital. An hour after, witness found the body of Ann Saville floating among the butts, and also part of a private still, both of which floated from neighbouring houses. The cellar and two deep wells in it were full of beer, which witness and those about him endeavoured to save, so that they could not go to see the accident, which happened outwardly. The height of the vat that burst was 22 feet; it was filled within 4 inches of the top and then contained 3555 barrels of entire, being beer that was ten months brewed; the four inches would hold between 30 and 40 barrels more; the hoop which burst was 700 cwt, which was the least weight of any of 22 hoops on the vat. There were seven large hoops, each of which weighed near a ton. When the vat burst the force and pressure was so great that it stove several hogsheads of porter and also knocked the cock out of a vat nearly as large that was in the cellar or regions below; this vat contained 2100 barrels all of which except 800 barrel also ran; about they lost in all between 8 and 9000 barrels of beer; the vat from whence the cock was knocked out ran about a barrel a minute; the vat that burst had been built between eight and nine years and was kept always nearly full. It had an opening on the top about a yard square; it was about eight inches from the wall; witness supposes it was the rivets of the hoops that slipped, none of the hoops being broke and the foundation where the vat stood not giving way. The beer was old, so that the accident could not have been occasioned by the fermentation, that natural process being past; besides, the action would then have been upwards and thrown off the flap made moveable for that purpose.

Richard Hawes deposed that he lived at No 22 Great Russel strcet Bloomsbury, the Tavistock Arms Public house; about half past five o’ clock on Monday evening witness was in his tap room when he heard the crash; the back part of his house was beaten in and every thing in his cellar destroyed; the cellar and tap room filled with beer so that it was pouring across the street into the areas on the opposite side; the deceased, Eleanor Cooper, his servant, was in the yard washing pots at the time the accident happened; she was buried under the ruins, from whence she was dug out about 10 minutes past eight o’ clock; she was found standing by the water butt, quite dead.

John Cummins deposed that he was a bricklayer and lived in Pratt’s place, Camden Town, being the owner of some houses in New street where the principal part of the persons who were lost, resided; he attended on the spot all day on Tuesday to render assistance to the sufferers. Elizabeth Smith, a bricklayer’s wife, was the first body they found, about twelve o’clock in the ruins of a first floor. Sarah Bates, a child, was discovered in about an hour afterward in the ruins of No 3 New street. Catharine Butler, a widow, Mary Mulvey and her son Thomas Murry, a boy three years of age, were found about four o clock, on Tuesday afternoon. Hannah Banfield, a girl about four years and a half old, with her mother and another child, were at tea on the first floor; the two former were washed by the flood into the ruins; the dead body of Hannah Banfield was found in the ruins about half past six; the mother was carried to the Middlesex Hospital, and the last mentioned child was found nearly suffocated in a bed in the room.

The Jury without hesitation, returned a Verdict of Died by Casualty Accidentally and by Misfortune.

Why did they store such huge quantities of porter at the brewery in such enormous vessels? Because experience had shown that porter stored for months in vats acquired a particularly sought-after set of flavours, and storing it in really big vessels reduced the risk of oxidisation (since the surface area merely squared as the volume cubed). This “stale” (meaning “stood for some time”, rather than “off”), flat and probably quite sour aged porter was then send out in casks when ready, and mixed at the time of service in the pub with porter from a cask that was “mild”, that is, fresh and still lively, and probably a little sweet. Customers would specify the degree of mildness or staleness they would like their porter drawn, having it mixed to their own preference. Tastes changed over the 19th century, “stale” porter fell out of favour, and by the 1890s the big vats were being dismantled, the oak they were made from recycled into pub bar-tops. Quite possibly there are pubs in London now whose bars are made out of old porter vats.

The Meux (pronounced “mewks”) brewery stood at the corner of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street until the early 1920s, but production was shifted in 1921 to Nine Elms (itself now demolished and the site of New Covent Garden flower and vegetable market) and the Horse Shoe brewery was replaced by the Dominion Theatre. The Horseshoe Inn next door remained open until the 1990s or so, but eventually closed itself: you can still get a drink on the site, as a branch of Cafe Rouge now occupies the ground floor, but you can’t, alas, get a pint of porter.

At the Brewery History Society we have been trying to get a plaque put up to commemorate the event, and honour the victims, but with no success: I believe the American company that owns the Dominion Theatre failed even to reply, while the Camden Historical Society, inside whose borough the site now falls, took the strange view that “not enough people died” to make it worthwhile having a permanent memorial. How many dead women and children is enough, Camden?

The Meux brewery at the corner of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street exactly 100 years ago, in 1914

The Meux brewery at the corner of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street exactly 100 years ago, in 1914

(There’s a rather fuller account of the flood, and the history of the Horse Shoe brewery by me here.)

Why is Camra still getting beer history so very badly wrong?

Excuse the indentations in my forehead, that’s where I’ve been banging my head hard against my desk.

I’ve been reading the “Beer Styles” section in the just-published 2014 edition of the Good Beer Guide. Ron Pattinson gave a comprehensive triple kicking last year to the effectively identical section in the 2013 GBG, and yet this year the GBG’s claims about the history of British beer styles are still just as horribly, awfully wrong. It’s as if nothing Ron, or I, or other researchers into the history of beer have written over the past ten to 15 years or so had ever existed: a stew of errors, misinterpretations, myths, erroneous assumptions and factually baseless inventions. All of the errors, frankly, even before Ron gave them a good pounding back in 2012, were heartily demolished (apologies for the sound of my own trumpet) in my book Amber Gold and Black, published three years ago (and which sprang, as it happens, from a series of articles published in Camra’s own What’s Brewing on the history of beer styles). But since the GBG sells far more every year than AG&B has, that’s many thousands of beer lovers being fed gross inaccuracies about the history of the beers they drink, and only a few thousand getting the truth.

Rising Sun Enfield

Pale and stock ales advertised as on sale at the Rising Sun, Enfield circa 1900: you won’t find stock ales in many style guides, but they were aged versions of the drink otherwise sold “mild”, in other words, “old ales”.

What exactly is the Campaign for Real Ale Good Beer Guide getting wrong? Let’s begin with its insistence that “pale ale” and “bitter” are different products, which leads to the nonsensical statement (p29, last paragraph) that “From the early years of the 20th century, Bitter began to overtake pale ale in popularity, and as a result pale ale became mainly a bottled product.” This is completely wrong, and a total misunderstanding, as I pointed out back in 2007 here. From the moment that bitter beers started to become popular in Britain, around the beginning of the 1840s, “bitter beer” and “pale ale” were used by brewers and commentators as synonyms. There never was any difference between the two. Why did “pale ale” come to be appended as a name mostly to the bottled version of bitter? Because generally in the 19th century brewers called the drink in the brewery “pale ale”, and that’s the name they put on their bottle labels, but in the pub drinkers called this new drink “bitter”, to differentiate it from the older, sweeter, but still (then) pale mild ales.

The section also claims that pale ale was invented because IPA was “considered too bitter for the domestic market” – total made-up rubbish, there is no evidence anywhere for this, and if IPA was “too bitter for the domestic market”, why did so many brewers advertise an IPA as part of their line-up? The weaker pale ales, below IPAs in brewers’ price lists, simply reflected 19th century brewers’ practice of selling two, three or four examples of each beer type, ale (that is, old-fashioned lightly hopped ale), porter/stout and the newer bitter/pale ale, at different “price points” (to use a modern expression) for different budgets. Thus, for example, the Aylesbury Brewery Company in 1899 sold four grades of pale ale, BA (for Bitter Ale), at the IPA “price point” of one shilling and sixpence a gallon (almost all “IPAs” sold at 1s 6d), BA No 2 at 1s 2d a gallon, BPA at one shilling a gallon and AK at 10 pence a gallon; four grades of mild ales, from XXXX at 1s 6d to XA at 10d; and three black beers, from Double Stout at 1s 6d to Porter at 1s. Shepherd Neame two years earlier was calling all its four grades of bitter beers “India Pale Ale”, from “Stock KK India Pale Ale” at 1s 8d a gallon through East India Pale Ales Nos 1 and 2 at 1s 4d and 1s a gallon to East India Pale Ale AK (sic) at 11d a gallon.

That brings us to the section on IPA itself. There’s the usual canard about the original IPAs being “strong in alcohol” to survive the journey east, although as Ron P has shown conclusively, at around 6 to 6.5 per cent alcohol by volume, 19th century IPAs were in the middle of the contemporary strength range, and weaker than 19th century milds. The GBG also asserts that India Pale Ale “changed the face of brewing in the 19th century”, and “the new technologies of the Industrial Revolution enabled brewers to use pale malts to fashion beers that were pale bronze in colour.” Wrong again – for a start, pale ale was around from at least the second half of the 17th century, a good hundred years before the Industrial Revolution began, as I showed in 2009. Second, almost ALL beers called “ale” in the 18th and 19th century were made from pale malt, as Ron Pattinson has comprehensively demonstrated with extracts from actual brewers’ records, which led eventually to “ale” meaning any malt liquor pale in colour, with “beer” restricted to the dark kinds, stout and porter, something I wrote about here. So in appearance, IPA wasn’t new at all. What it was, was the first bitter, well-hopped pale ale, as opposed to older sorts of pale ale that, following the style of malt liquors in Britain of the post-1710s “ale” type, were hopped (unlike the original unhopped ales) but less-hopped than “beers” such as porter and stout, and which were sold either “mild” (fresh) or “old” (aged).

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When Brick Lane was home to the biggest brewery in the world

Black Eagle sign

Black Eagle sign, Brick Lane

The huge sign on the outside of the building on the corner of Hanbury Street and Brick Lane is clear enough: Truman Black Eagle Brewery. Nobody passing by could have any doubt what used to happen here, even though no beer brewing has taken place on the premises for more than 20 years. But what few people know is that for a couple of decades in the middle of the 19th century, this was the biggest brewery in the world.

Today Brick Lane, Spitalfields, in the East End of London is bustling and cosmopolitan, the heart of what is sometimes called “Banglatown”. For hundreds of years Spitalfields – filled with cheap housing, in large part because it was to the east of the City, so that the prevailing westerly winds dump all the soot from the West End over it – has been a place where poor immigrants to England come to try to scrabble a living, generally in trades connected with making clothes: Huguenot silk weavers from France fleeing Catholic oppression,  Irish linen weavers fleeing unemployment in Ireland, Jewish refugees fleeing pogroms in Russia, Bangladeshis fleeing poverty, all adding their tales to a place crowded with both people and history. But it wasn’t always thus: the author Daniel Defoe, who was born in 1660, remembered Brick Lane from his childhood in the early years of the Restoration as “a deep, dirty road frequented chiefly by carts fetching bricks into Whitechapel”.

Over the decade after Charles II returned to England, as London expanded, development spread up Brick Lane itself from the south, and new streets were laid out in Spitalfields where previously cows had grazed. Two of these streets, on the west side of Brick Lane, were named Grey Eagle Street and Black Eagle Street. Thomas Bucknall, a London entrepreneur, is said by some to have built the Black Eagle brewhouse in about 1666, the year of the Great Fire of London, on land known as Lolsworth Field, Spittlehope belonging to Sir William Wheler. However, it remains unclear whether Bucknall actually was a brewer: the best that can be said is that on the land he leased “in 1681-2 the lay-out of buildings on this part of Brick Lane approximated to the present arrangement of brewery buildings round an entrance yard, and that this lay-out may date back to 1675.”

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Endangered beers

Beers, like animals, can be endangered species: some can even go extinct. Nobody’s seen West Country White Ale in the wild for more than 125 years.

Camra, I’m very pleased to say, has recently decided that it could be doing much more than Make May a Mild Month for promoting endangered beers, and has set up a Beer Styles Working Group to look at ways of plugging and encouraging endangered beer styles of all sorts.

I’ve managed to blag my way onto the working group, mostly because I’m keen to point out to Camra members, and beer festival organisers (and brewers) that endangered beer styles in Britain go a long way beyond mild, stout and porter, and to try to get the other half-dozen or more endangered British beer styles recognition and promotion as well: and maybe even get some of the extinct beers remade. (That’s the advantage of beer: it may turn out to be impossible to resurrect the mammoth, but reproducing a vanished beer style generally only requires the will, a recipe and the right ingredients.)

So what ARE Britain’s vulnerable and endangered (and extinct) beer styles? Here’s my personal checklist: Continue reading

London’s brewing, London’s brewing …

The London Brewers Alliance beer festival at Vinopolis, by Borough Market, a couple of Saturdays ago was a terrific event, thoroughly enjoyable. In one room were gathered a dozen or more (I forgot to count) stalls representing breweries from in and around London, with the brewers themselves serving their beers and happy to talk to the punters about them.

It was the kind of “meet the brewer” show common in the US but almost unheard of in the UK that we really should be seeing repeated across this country. And it’s good to see London’s brewers working together in the 21st century to support each other in exactly the same way their ancestors did almost eight centuries ago, when the Brewers’ Guild was founded at All Hallows’ Church, London Wall.

It was also good, for me, to see that the Brewery History Society had a stall there: the LBA clearly has an interest in London’s history as a world-class brewing city, and everybody needs to be reminded of this almost forgotten heritage. I’d argue that, historically, London has an excellent claim to be regarded as the greatest brewing city in the world. Yes, I AM a Londoner, so of course I’m biased, but I dare you to deny that over the centuries London has given the world more new beer styles than any other brewing centre on the planet:
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Imperial Stout – Russian or Irish?

A very early Russian Stout ad from 1922

It was terrific to see a positive story on the BBC about beer, with the coverage of the Great Baltic Adventure, the project to take Imperial Russian Stout back to Russia by boat, just the way it was done 200 and more years ago. But what’s this claim here, at 1:05 by BBC reporter Steve Rosenberg, talking about the first exports of stout from England to the Baltic:

“The problem was that by the time it had got to Russia it had frozen, so the brewers back home bumped up the alcohol content to make sure it didn’t turn into ice-lollies.”

Nooooooooooooo! Please, there are enough myths about beer history already, without new ones being started. Let’s make it clear, right now: the stout exported to Russia was NOT brewed strong to stop it freezing. If it had been cold enough to freeze the beer, the ocean itself would have frozen over, and the ships wouldn’t have been able to get through. It was brewed strong because that’s the way the customers liked it.

Actually, and with respect to Tim O’Rourke, whose idea the Great Baltic Adventure was, and who roped in 11 British brewers from Black Sheep to Meantime to supply Imperial Russian Stouts to take to St Petersburg by sea, the Russians also liked another strong English brew in the 18th century, Burton Ale, the thick, sweet, brown ale brewed in Burton upon Trent and shipped out of Hull. But on March 31 1822 the Russian government introduced a new tariff that banned almost every article of British manufacture, from cotton goods to plate glass, knives and forks to cheese, umbrellas to snuff boxes – and “Shrub, Liquors, Ale and Cyder”. Porter, however – and this included what we would now call stout – was left untouched. The Burton ale trade to the Baltic was wrecked, but British porter brewers could send as much of the black stuff to St Petersburg as they wanted. Continue reading

The 1900 Pub – the biggest surprise

If a 21st century time tripper stepped through the door into the public bar of a London pub in 1900, what would be the biggest surprise? Probably not the sawdust on the floor, or the lack of seating: most likely, I’d guess, the draught ginger beer on handpump.

The existence – and importance – of draught ginger beer in London pubs in the past is one of those uncountable little details of social history that slip past generally unrecorded because they seem so everyday and ordinary to contemporary observers, nobody bothers writing about them. Today’s equivalent would be the bar gun – ubiquitous, observed by everybody who has ever stood at a bar to be served, and mentioned, I’ll bet, in no account of the modern pub, anywhere.

Fortunately, back in the summer of Queen Victoria’s last full year on the throne, one anonymous worker in the brewing industry spotted a reference in the Daily Express to “half-and-half” as a beer mixture, a term not then used for several decades (it referred, in the early years of Victoria’s reign and before, to ale-and-porter), seized the nearest available umbrage at this anachronistic solecism and ran with it for 1,300 words of invaluable exposition on the drinks available from the pumps in a public bar in London, and how they were mixed together, which the Express printed for the education of future generations on page seven of its issue of Thursday August 2, 1900. And hurrah, digitisation and the web means that for a small subscription, 111 years later we can read about what beer mixtures our great-grandfathers drank without having to travel out to the British Newspaper Library in deepest Colindale and whirr through miles of microfilm.

It’s an absolutely fascinating piece, studded with gems – who knew (not me), for example, that in a London “boiled beef house” (a restaurant specialising in serving “a most delicious ‘portion’ of stewed beef done up in a sticky, coagulated, glutinous gravy of surpassing richness”, Google reveals), the accompanying drink of choice was porter? Slow-stewed beef and porter: I’m channelling Harry Champion just thinking about it. Please contact me if you’re now planning this as a FABPOW, I’ll be over to try it out.

It also confirms information from other sources, such as the availability of draught lager in at least some outlets in Victorian Britain, the identification of “ale” and “mild” as the same drink, and the higher status given to bitter, compared to ale and porter.

Below is the article in its entirety, with asides and footnotes in square brackets by me. The picture above is of the public bar of the Dover Castle, 172 Westminster Bridge Road, Lambeth, taken the year after it was rebuilt in 1895, and just the sort of bar being talked about: note the sawdust, the brass footrail (seats were found only in the saloon bar) the ten handpumps (the saloon bar only had one), and the rows of casks on the back bar filled with spirits from Old Tom (sweet gin) to brandy. No pumpclips: these never started appearing until the 1950s. I believe this pub was destroyed in the Second World War, since the site is now occupied by a building of typical late-1940s neo-Georgian style, though it’s still a bar, called the Walrus. Continue reading