Sep 23, 2013
October 17th, 1814 was a grey, dreary Autumn morning much like any other in St. Giles Parish in Central London. St. Giles Parish was a poor and generally residential neighbourhood with the obligatory pub. Anarchic and poverty-stricken, it was particularly overcrowded and had little sanitation for the many people who lived side-by-side in the old and poorly built houses.
The parish was also the home to the Meux & Co. Brewery. Among other equipment that one might find at a brewery, Meux & Co. contained several large, wooden vats around 20 feet high, containing roughly 135,000 gallons of beer.
So like I said, it was a quiet, grey Autumn day, that day in October. The beer in those vats had been fermenting for nearly a year. The vats had been there much, much longer, however. About 53 years if my math is right. This being 1814 and well before the days of modern stainless steel vats, the wooden containers were rotting and the 30-some metal bands around each had fatigued and deteriorated over the years.
On October 17th, an explosive sound was heard as far as five miles away as one iron band after another snapped, causing one of the vats of beer to rupture. The sudden and violent release of 3,500 barrels of ale caused the other vats in the building to burst as well, and soon 323,000 gallons of beer smashed through the thick brick and mortar walls of the brewery and into St. Giles.
A tsunami of beer slammed against area homes, flooding basements and causing structural damage. Two houses were demolished. In one home, the sweet, tasty, deadly brew broke in and drowned a mother and her three-year old son. At the local Public House, the Tavistock Arms, it crashed through a stone wall and buried a teenage barmaid named Eleanor Cooper for three hours.
The Times reported:
The fluid, in its course, swept every thing before it. Two houses in New-street, adjoining the brewhouse, 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 killed on the spot: the daughter was swept away by the current through a partition, and dashed to pieces.
As the torrent subsided into a standing pool of beer, the residents of St. Giles waded knee-deep to scoop the liquid gold into whatever containers they could had: pots, bowls, even lapping it up in their hands. When word got out, the rest of London clamored to St. Giles to get their hands (and mouths) on the free booze. It took hours before many of the freeloaders came to their senses and began to help those trapped under the rubble crying for help.
Those who were rescued were taken to a nearby hospital. The other patients smelled the alcohol and, believing that they were being left out of a major party, nearly rioted before the hospital staff could convince them what had actually happened.
At the end of the day, eight people died from drowning, and one brave, stupid, thirsty soul died from alcohol poisoning while attempting to quell the deluge by drinking all he could. Family members of the deceased displayed the corpses in their homes in exhibition for a fee. So many people crowded into one house that the floor collapsed and they fell into the basement, still full of beer. The family moved the exhibition to another house, but was shut down by the police with great alacrity.
For weeks afterward, St. Giles reeked of stale beer. Meux & Co. was brought to court, but in the end, they weren’t blamed for the torrent and the accident was ruled to be an Act of God. The brewery continued to operate despite losing a lot of beer (and money!) in the flood, until the building was demolished in the early decades of the 20th century. Today the area is mostly a building site for the Crossrail project
If you visit St. Giles today, you’d never know that this was the site of such a bizarre & terrible moment in London’s history.
Resources for Social Studies Students & Teachers