Standing at the corner of Great Russell Street and Tottenham Court Road, Meux and Company’s Horse Shoe Brewery was located amongst the tenements of the densely populated St Giles Rookery slum – an area of poverty and vice inhabited by the destitute, prostitutes and criminals – and dominated the surrounding Irish enclave. It had been founded in the early reign of King George III and was famous for its porter, producing more than 100,000 barrels of the dark nectar each year.
In 1810 the brewery had had a 22 foot high wooden fermentation tank installed on the premises. Holding the equivalent of over 3,500 barrels of porter ale, it was held together by massive iron rings. At around 4:30pm on 17 October 1814, storehouse clerk George Crick inspected the tank and noticed that one of the 700-pound iron hoops had slipped off the cask, but, as this occurred two or three times a year, it did not seem unusual and he thought nothing of it. Despite the tank being full and pressure from the fermentation building inside, Crick’s boss told him that no harm would ensue from the broken ring and instructed him to write a letter to another brewery employee requesting it to be fixed at a later date.
Soon after, at around 5:30pm, Crick heard a massive explosion from inside the storeroom. The tank had ruptured, releasing the hot fermenting ale with such force that the vat burst into splinters and the back wall of the brewery collapsed. The blast also set off a chain reaction, breaking off the valve of an adjoining cask and breaking open more vats, adding their contents to the flood which had now burst out onto the street.
More than 320,000 gallons of beer were released into the area. A torrent of porter rushed through the narrow lanes and swept away everything in its path, swamping everyone and everything with alcohol. The flood reached George Street and New Street in minutes, and with no drainage on the city streets, it inundated the basements of tenement houses and caused them to collapse. Residents scaled tables and furniture to try and save themselves from drowning or being swept away. In one of the houses, Mary Banfield and her four-year-old daughter Hannah had just sat down to tea when the flood hit; both were killed. In another, an Irish wake was being held for a two-year-old boy who had died the previous day. The mother, Anne Saville, and four mourners were killed. The resulting tidal wave also took out the wall of the Tavistock Arms pub, trapping and instantly killing teenage servant Eleanor Cooper, who had been washing out pots at an outdoor water pump behind the wall. In all, eight women and children perished in the disaster. All inside the brewery survived, although several were badly injured - three workers were rescued from the waist-high liquid and another was later pulled alive from the rubble.
According to some reports, all this ‘free’ beer led to hundreds of people scooping up the liquid in whatever containers they could lay their hands on or resorting to just drinking it there and then (there are unconfirmed reports of the death of a ninth victim some days later from alcoholic poisoning), although this is disputed. However, watchmen did charge people a penny or two to see the ruins of the vats and visitors came in their hundreds to witness the macabre spectacle. A stream of Londoners paid their respects and donated pennies and shillings to pay for the victims’ funerals.
The brewery was eventually taken to court over the accident, but the disaster was ruled to be an Act of God, leaving no one responsible. Not only did the brewery not have to pay compensation to the victims, but they were able to reclaim the excise duty already paid on the beer – the flood cost Meux and Co. around £23,000 (approximately £1.25 million in today’s money) but the waiver they received from the British Parliament, along with an additional £7,250 (£400,000 today) as compensation for the barrels of lost beer, saved them from bankruptcy.
As result of the disaster, wooden fermentation tanks were gradually phased out to be replaced by lined concrete vats. Although the Horse Shoe Brewery soon went back into production the stench of beer in the area persisted for months afterwards. The brewery finally closed in 1921 and was demolished in 1922 – The Dominion Theatre now sits partly on the site. The terrible events that unfolded in St Giles over 200 years ago are largely forgotten, although a local pub – The Holborn Whippet – has started to mark the event by brewing a special anniversary ale each year.