George Crick was standing on a platform in London’s Horse Shoe Brewery at around 5:30 in the afternoon on October 17, 1814 when disaster struck. Earlier in the day, Crick had noticed that one of the iron bands which encircled a 22-foot-tall wooden vat of fermenting porter had slipped. This was a common occurrence in the brewery, and one that had previously caused no harm, but just in case, Crick was holding a note to one of the brewery’s partners when the vat beside him burst.
The vat had been constructed by Henry Meux, one of the owners of Meux & Co., the proprietors of the brewery. It was modeled on one that had been constructed by Henry’s father, in one of the two largest breweries in the city. Standing more than 22 feet tall and capable of holding some 18,000 imperial barrels, the cyclopean vat was reinforced with massive hoops made from 81 metric tons of iron. In spite of this, the barrel gave way that October afternoon, releasing a devastating flood of alcohol.
The massive quantity of porter stored in the vat itself would have been enough to do some damage, but its sudden expulsion caused a chain reaction, knocking the stopcock from a neighboring vat and destroying several barrels of beer stored nearby. The resulting wave of booze measured 15 feet in height and represented some 154,000 to 388,000 gallons of porter, which destroyed the wall of the brewery and rushed into the adjoining street.
The back wall of the Horse Shoe Brewery was two-and-a-half bricks thick, yet the force of the flood of booze was enough to not only shatter the wall but send bricks flying through the air to land on the roofs of houses almost a mile away. Nor was the brewery’s rear wall the only casualty of the flood of liquor.
The 15-foot wave of beer swept out into the St Giles rookery behind the brewery, where it destroyed two houses and claimed at least eight lives, ranging in age from 65 to just three years old. Among these were five mourners at a wake that was being held for a two-year-old boy in one of the two destroyed houses, as well as a 14-year-old who was crushed beneath the falling wall of the brewery, to name just a few.
The eight-acre rookery was described as an impoverished slum and, as such, the devastation that the wave of liquor was capable of wreaking was considerable. With insufficient drainage, the low-lying neighborhood was flooded, with many cellars filling with porter as the tide of booze swept through. These cellars were often where locals lived, and some only survived by climbing atop furniture to avoid drowning in beer.
Subsequently, the aftermath of the event has been embellished by overeager tale-tellers, at least according to brewing historian Martyn Cornell, who called the flood “a real tsunami of black beer running through the streets.” Despite later claims of individuals scooping up beer from the streets, mass drunkenness, and even a subsequent death from alcohol poisoning, Cornell points out that the newspapers of the time recorded no such incidents, and painted the crowds who came to view the carnage as “well-behaved”—despite the fact that “the newspapers at the time wouldn’t have been friends of the immigrant Irish” who made up most of the rookery’s populace.
What the newspapers of the time did report on was the “scene of desolation” that the flood left behind, which was described as presenting “a most awful and terrific appearance, equal to that which fire or earthquake may be supposed to occasion.”
Though the accounts of drunken crowds guzzling up beer may have been fabricated after the fact, it does seem that the catastrophe proved irresistible to spectators, who came in the hundreds to view the ruined brewery and the destroyed vats. According to subsequent reporting in The Independent, watchmen at the brewery charged a penny or two-pence to see the damage, but the crowd “kept quiet so the cries of trapped victims could be heard”.
“Only much later did stories start being told about riots, people getting drunk and so on,” Martyn Cornell said, “these seem to have been prompted by what people thought ought to have happened, rather than what did happen.”
Two days after the flood, a coroner’s inquest was held to determine whether the brewery was at fault in the deaths of the eight people who lost their lives. This included taking jurors through the wrecked brewery, as well as viewing the scene of the flood and some of the bodies of the deceased. Among the witnesses called was George Crick, one of the few people who had been present when the massive vat burst. Ultimately, the coroner’s jury determined that the eight victims of the 1814 beer flood lost their lives “casually, accidentally, and by misfortune”—meaning that the owners of the brewery did not have to pay compensation to the families of the victims.
The loss of so much product—not to mention the damage to their premises—was still almost enough to put the brewery out of business. It was only through a petition to Parliament in which they recovered more than 7,000 pounds from His Majesty’s Excise that they were able to stave off bankruptcy. Indeed, the brewery was back into production in short order, only closing in 1921, when the owners moved their operation to Wandsworth in south London.
Not everyone was satisfied with the outcome of the coroner’s inquest, however. In a letter to the Morning Post, an individual identifying themselves only as a “friend of humanity” wrote that it was their “firm opinion” that the breweries and distilleries of London were “most dangerous establishments” and that such a tragedy had been inevitable. “I am only surprised,” the unknown “friend of humanity” wrote, “when I consider the immense body contained in these ponderous vats, that similar accidents do not more frequently occur.”