A street scene in St. Giles the year before the flood.
A street scene in St. Giles the year before the flood.
'Tottenham Court Road'; Old and New London: Volume 4 (1878), pp. 467-480 - Source
License: Public Domain

London Beer Flood

The London Beer Flood occurred on October 17, 1814 in the parish of St. Giles, London, England. At the Meux and Company Brewery on Tottenham Court Road, a huge vat containing over 135,000 imperial gallons (610,000 L) of beer ruptured, causing other vats in the same building to succumb in a domino effect. As a result, more than 323,000 imperial gallons (1,470,000 L) of beer burst out and gushed into the streets. The wave of beer destroyed two homes and crumbled the wall of the Tavistock Arms Pub, trapping teenaged employee Eleanor Cooper under the rubble.

The brewery was located among the poor houses and tenements of the St Giles Rookery, where whole families lived in basement rooms that quickly filled with beer. Eight people drowned in the flood, and one person died from alcohol poisoning the next day.

The brewery was eventually taken to court over the accident, but the disaster was ruled to be an Act of God by the judge and jury, leaving no one responsible. The company found it difficult to cope with the financial implications of the disaster, with a significant loss of sales made worse because they had already paid duty on the beer. They made a successful application to Parliament reclaiming the duty which allowed them to continue trading.

A terrible catastrophe occurred in 1814, caused by the bursting of this huge vat owing to the insecurity and defective state of some of its hoops. The brewery was then surrounded by a multitude of small tenements which were crowded with tenants of the poorer classes. Many of these houses were flooded by porter, and some of them collapsed with fatal results; no less than eight persons died from drowning, injury, poisoning by the porter fumes, or drunkenness. The loss to the firm was also most serious, and threatened their existence; but an application to Parliament procured for them the return by the excise commissioners of the duty paid upon the lost liquor.

In central London stood the Meux and Company Brewery. The beer building contained a large wooden vat twenty foot high. And the vat contained 3,555 barrels of strong beer. The ale had been there for ten months, but the vat was there a lot longer and it was showing signs of fatigue. On October 16, one of the twenty-nine metal hoops wrapped around it snapped; then another, then... An explosive sound was heard that carried as far as five miles away.

The beer exploded in all directions, breaking open other vats. The pressure of 8,500 of barrels of ale smashed through a twenty-five foot high brick wall and escaped outside into St. Giles; a crowded slum area where whole families lived in single rooms, cellars or attics.

The Meux and Co. Brewery on Tottenham Court Road had one of the largest beer vats in the city, held together by metal hoops. Smaller vats were also housed in the same building. The vat was showing signs of age: the metal hoops snapped and beer exploded into the building, causing the other beer vats to rupture. Approximately 8,500 barrels of beer smashed through the brick wall and rushed into the surrounding streets of St. Giles. Eight people died.