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:

DOMESTIC INTELLIGENCE

DREADFUL ACCIDENT

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.)

17 thoughts on “Remembering the victims of the Great London Beer Flood, 200 years ago today

  1. Pingback: Remembering the victims of the Great London Beer Flood, 200 years ago today

  2. Very interesting certainly in a number of aspects. It makes me think the barrel-aged porter of today, often bourbonized so to speak, is not the same as year old entire of circa-1800. I must confess to not liking most bourbon barrel-aged porter or stout I’ve had. Usually, a characteristic note of decay (oxidation) is detectable, which puts me off. Generally these are not lactic or sour and I don’t mind a touch of that especially when fashioning my own blends, but the tell-tale oxidative notes are unpleasant, IMO. I wonder of if the huge vats really did avoid this fate. Point taken on the big vats offering smaller surface area in relation to the volume vs. the typical small barrel used for aging today (not more than 50 U.S. gallons or so), and of course that beer was very hopped, but still, I wonder…

    This part of historical recreation has never been essayed.

    Hey Brew Dog, there’s a project, build a huge tun a la Meux and leave strong-hopped porter in it for 10-12 months. You’d get a lot of PR out of it and perhaps some great beer to bottle on its tod or blend with young brew. Hire Martyn to assist you.

    Gary

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  3. Pingback: Den stora ölöversvämningen i London 200 år |

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  5. I have come across this story before and the comparison with the larger vats is truly incredible. One of the largest porter vats was once used to house a banquet for 200 people! Each of the metal hoops weighed THREE TONS! I’m not sure where the source of that story is – probably one of my collection of books. I’ve often wondered how people entered the vat – by ladders? For a banquet? Not sure about that. Also what about the smell – I assume it was empty and previously used. But perhaps it was a new vat being ‘christened’

    Incidentally some of my ancestors lived in St Giles at that time. They appear to have been unscathed. The family’s name? Cornell!

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    • That’s interesting about the Soho Cornells, Peter: my own Cornell ancestors were living in Cherry Hinton, Cambridgeshire at the time – they never moved to London unrtil the end of the 19th century. Not, properly speaking that they were Cornells, really: the name of my Cambridgeshire ancestors was originally spelled “Cornewell”.

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      • My Cornells moved from Hengrave in Suffolk – 25 miles east of Cherry Hinton in the 1790s to St Marylebone. The spelling is irrelevant – in a time of illiteracy it was up to the pastor to decide how to write what he heard. The spelling of a family’s name could change as the pastor changed! I too have Cornwalls and Cornwells in my tree.

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    • Peter, I too have read accounts of that dinner, although in which book or books I’m unsure. One thing I do recall, however, is that the dinner was indeed held to christen the vat, so there would have been no great beer smell within.

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  6. I’ve read Martyn’s account of this tragedy before, but I would have had no idea today is the 200th anniversary. Oddly enough I’ve just taken delivery of a case of Fuller’s London Porter, from the brewery’s online shop, so I will indeed raise a glass at 5.30. I wonder what compensation, if any, the families received 200 years ago. They probably got charged for the beer they drowned in. .Hard Times indeed.

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  7. Fantastic write-up, Martyn!

    In a total porter coincidence I just came across and wrote about quite an unusual Porter recipe made by the Amsdell Brewing & Malting Company here in Albany at the turn of the 20th century—“Quick” malt, licorice root, grains of paradise, capsaicin, and salt. Oh, and copious amounts of old ale—65 barrels in all—tallying up to 21% of the total volume.

    Here’s the link if you’d like to read about it.

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  9. “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.”
    Now that’s a fascinating thought and quite a project for someone, perhaps, in trying to identify some of these bar-tops.

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  10. Pingback: Morire per uno tsunami di birra: i 200 anni del London Beer Flood | Cronache di Birra

  11. Pingback: Ølbølgen som tok liv | Godt i glasset

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