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The Amber Tide

Article #18 • Written by Alan Bellows

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In the late 1700s, the Industrial Revolution brought about considerable advances in agriculture, manufacturing, and transportation throughout Europe. Steam-powered contraptions paved the way for large-scale production and large-scale disasters in many industries, and the business of beer-making was no exception. The availability of new technologies, coupled with the spirit of competition, led to a brisk battle of oneupsmanship among Britain's beer barons. Over a span of a few decades, many of them upgraded from humble kegs to massive vats, and Londoners were all too happy to imbibe the abundant brew.

London's Meux's Horse Shoe Brewery on Tottenham Court Road was home to a colossal brewing vat, one of the largest London had ever seen. It was twenty-two feet tall and sixty feet wide, so voluminous that its owners supposedly celebrated its completion by hosting 200 dinner guests within the titanic beer tank. Afterward it was promptly put into service fermenting 135,000 gallons of beer alongside the brewery's collection of not-quite-as-massive vats. Little did its owners know, however, that this new ale reservoir had been constructed with a regrettable imperfection.

Sometime during the day on 17 October 1814, one of the twenty-nine metal belts which supported the tank separated, presumably due to a defect. The other twenty-eight support straps lacked the strength to maintain the tank's integrity on their own, so they each snapped in quick succession. The monstrous vessel finally ruptured, loosing over a million pounds of beer. The liberated liquid crashed into the brewery's other vats and dashed them to pieces, adding their contents to the surge of frothy brew. The building's brickwork walls gave way, and Meux's Horse Shoe Brewery vomited over 323,000 gallons upon the unsuspecting city.

Directly in the path of this flash flood of beer was the an area known as St. Giles, a densely populated low-income parish of London. The massive amber river caused pandemonium in the streets, knocking some buildings from their foundations and totally demolishing others. Men, women, and children were buried in the rubble of ruined structures. Surprised Londoners were whisked off their feet by the fast-moving wall of beer, many of them becoming injured when they were dashed upon walls. Beer barged into buildings through doors and windows, drowning several people in their own homes and flooding basements.

One eyewitness later told his tale to the New York newspaper The Knickerbocker:

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, 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.

As the foamy wave finally settled, the uninjured bystanders gathered their wits and sprang into action. With cups, pots, cans, and kettles, the people of London rushed to the scene to save as much of the beer as possible. Those unable to find proper containers used their cupped hands to lap up the tepid pools of dirty beer, or simply drank it directly off the road. The streets became so clogged with enthusiastic beer connoisseurs that organized rescue efforts were severely hampered.

After several hours, the stranded were plucked from the rubble and the beer-soaked victims were taken to the hospital. Apocryphal reports said that the unmistakable smell of ale permeated the building, convincing some of the other patients that they were missing out on a beer party elsewhere in the hospital, and that the surlier patients participated in a violent protest of this unfair treatment, leading to a few additional injuries.

In all, eight people were killed by the drink that day--Ann Saville, Eleanor Cooper, Hannah Bamfield, Catherine Butler, Elizabeth Smith, Mary Mulvey, Thomas Mulvey, and Sean Duggins--due to "drowning, injury, poisoning by the porter fumes, or drunkenness." Their coffins were lined up in a yard, where passers-by could leave coins to help pay for the funerals.

It took weeks for the smell of beer to completely fade from St. Giles. Meux's Horse Shoe Brewery was eventually brought to court over the devastating calamity, but the judge and jury ultimately blamed no one. The tsunami of beer, they concluded, was simply an "Act of God."

Article written by Alan Bellows, published on 28 September 2005. Alan is the founder/designer/head writer/managing editor of Damn Interesting.

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18 Comments
siouxfan
Posted 23 October 2005 at 12:33 pm

I guess this could happen, is this based on fact or hearsay?


buckyboy314
Posted 05 March 2006 at 08:04 pm

I would definitely call 300 000 gallons of free beer an Act of God too.


Stead311
Posted 08 August 2006 at 06:50 am

buckyboy314 said: "I would definitely call 300 000 gallons of free beer an Act of God too."

a merciful god - full of love and joy.


Mez
Posted 29 September 2006 at 07:37 am

The ninth died of alcohol poisoning.

As tragic as the deaths are it's hard not be bemused by this. I'm imagining someone who subscribes to buckyboy314 and Stead311's view going "Yippee!" and just lying in the street lapping the beer up and not moving from there until they pass out and don't wake up.


mickie81
Posted 15 February 2007 at 03:09 am

what a way to go.


gabba
Posted 30 May 2007 at 03:34 am

i'll give my left nut to drown in beer!


Merciless
Posted 04 June 2007 at 02:28 pm

All I can say is "PARTY FOUL!" I bet nobody even threw beads and such. To bad it wasn't around a "college town." It would have been business as usual.


Stijn Hommes
Posted 18 September 2007 at 04:43 am

siouxfan said: "I guess this could happen, is this based on fact or hearsay?"

Alan cited Snopes.com, who in turn cite 2 sources of their own. I'm pretty confident Snopes looked at this in detail before declaring it true.


Former-Marine
Posted 11 October 2007 at 10:15 pm

Oorah! "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy" [Benjamin Franklin]


Cloudshadow
Posted 04 March 2008 at 10:53 pm

1 guy died from alcohol poisoning? He tried to drink his way out of the flood?


Since804
Posted 30 June 2008 at 02:11 am

Nine people were killed by the drink that day, all but one due to drowning. The ninth died of alcohol poisoning....

I hate to laugh at death but this set up was too perfect


DanThinksDances&femaleGspot
Posted 25 July 2008 at 06:53 pm

Enter your reply text here. OK

Snopes.com is reliable. And you guys prefer Wiki???????

It occurs, but why do people have to drown. Why can't they just swim. Common sence answer but I don't like it. I would calmy fight like an Isreali commando to reach safety.


Dropbear
Posted 17 September 2008 at 10:27 pm

It was 1814, Dan. Nobody swam. But would you all actually drink warm street beer with the body of a neighbor floating in it? Doesn't it strike anyone as a little gross? .... No?....


BenKinsey
Posted 23 September 2008 at 02:18 pm

At the funeral the preist said...he drank like a fish...


Rose
Posted 16 October 2008 at 09:34 am

There's nothing mentioned in the inquest report about someone drinking themselves to death, but it only mentions eight dead, and he may have taken longer to do himself in. You can read the original reports from The Times of 1814 at http://www.timesonline.co.uk/archiveblog


Locifer
Posted 19 February 2009 at 07:54 pm

DanThinksDances&femaleGspot said: "Enter your reply text here. OK

Snopes.com is reliable. And you guys prefer Wiki???????

It occurs, but why do people have to drown. Why can't they just swim. Common sence answer but I don't like it. I would calmy fight like an Isreali commando to reach safety."

Such huge amount of liquid has a lot of speed(probably chaneled trough the street),swimming just wouldnt cut it,the force would smack you in to a wall,or the debris would finish you off...try swimming against a tsunami,not a easy task...


dragondm6
Posted 03 September 2009 at 02:09 pm

You can always depend on Snopes.com to tell the difference between fact and fiction.
A direct quote from Benjamin Franklin: "Beer is proof that God loves us, and wants us to be happy."


TheStink
Posted 05 October 2011 at 11:04 pm

Hmm.. I can think of worse ways to die I suppose..

Dropbear said: "It was 1814, Dan. Nobody swam. But would you all actually drink warm street beer with the body of a neighbor floating in it? Doesn’t it strike anyone as a little gross? …. No?…."

Dropbear: the alcohol would've killed all the germs anyway :P


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