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.”