Remembering the victims of the Great London Beer Flood, 200 years ago today

Wherever you are at 5.30pm this evening, please stop a moment and raise a thought – a glass, too, if you have one, preferably of porter – to Hannah Banfield, aged four years and four months; Eleanor Cooper, 14, a pub servant; Elizabeth Smith, 27, the wife of a bricklayer; Mary Mulvey, 30, and her son by a previous marriage, Thomas Murry (sic), aged three; Sarah Bates, aged three years and five months; Ann Saville, 60; and Catharine Butler, a widow aged 65. All eight died 200 years ago today, victims of the Great London Beer Flood, when a huge vat filled with maturing porter fell apart at Henry Meux’s Horse Shoe brewery at the bottom of Tottenham Court Road, and more than 570 tons of beer crashed through the brewery’s back wall and out into the slums behind in a vast wave at least 15 feet high, flooding streets and cellars and smashing into buildings, in at least one case knocking people from a first-floor room. It could have been worse: the vat that broke was actually one of the smallest of 70 or so at the brewery, and contained just under 3,600 barrels of beer, while the largest vat at the brewery held 18,000 barrels. In addition, if the vat had burst an hour or so later, the men of the district would have been home from work, and the buildings behind the brewery, all in multiple occupancy, with one family to a room, would have been much fuller when the tsunami of porter hit them.

From a Dr Who cartoon novel in 2012: was the Great Beer Flood caused by time-travellers? (No, obviously not …)

From a Dr Who cartoon novel in 2012: was the Great Beer Flood caused by time-travellers? (No, obviously not …)

Here’s about the only eye witness report of what it’s like to be hit in the back by a giant wave of beer, written by an anonymous American who had been unlucky in taking a short-cut down New Street, behind the brewery, when the vat burst: Continue reading

So what REALLY happened on October 17 1814?

Meux’s Horse Shoe brewery, Tottenham Court Road in 1830

I can stake a tenuous family link to the Great London Beer Flood disaster of 1814, which took place exactly 196 years ago today. My great-great-great-great grandfather on my mother’s side, Maurice Donno, was living in Soho, a minute or three’s walk from the Horse Shoe Brewery off Tottenham Court Road, when a huge vat of maturing porter at the brewery collapsed violently and flooded the surrounding tenements, killing eight people. Most, if not all, of those who died were poor Irish immigrants to London, part of a mass of people living in the slums around St Giles’s Church, the infamous St Giles “rookeries” (later to be cleaned away by the building of New Oxford Street in 1847). Maurice Donno was very probably Irish, his surname most likely a variation of Donough or something similar (which would make his first name a common Anglicisation of the Irish Muirgheas). Perhaps he knew some of those who died, or were injured, in the Great Beer Flood, or knew people who knew them. It seems very likely he would have gone across the road at some point after the tragedy, to join the hundreds who came to see the destruction wreaked by that dreadful black tsunami of beer.

What has prompted me to write about the Great Meux Brewery Beer Flood, is not the anniversary, however, It’s because I have finally been called out over some dodgy maths in the book Beer: The Story of the Pint, which I wrote in 2003.

I said in BTSOTP, correctly, that the vat of porter which burst suddenly on Monday October 17, 1814 at Henry Meux’s Horse Shoe Brewery contained 3,550 barrels of beer. I said, correctly, that this amounted to more than a million pints. Then for some mad brain-burp reason I said the beer in the vat weighed “around 38 tons” – almost precisely 15 times less than the correct answer, which was actually more than 571 tons.

Thank you, Eugene Tolstov, for pointing to my mistake, and for not laughing too much at my inability to multiply 3,555 by 36 by 10 and divide by 2,240. But at least my narrative on probably the worst industrial accident involving a British brewery was more accurate than many. The late Alan Eames, for example, in The Secret Life of Beer, claimed that the vat burst “with a boom heard five miles away” – not mentioned in any of the many sources from the time that I’ve read – while “eyewitnesses told of besotted mobs flinging themselves into gutters full of beer, hampering rescue efforts” – no, newspaper reports of the rescue don’t support this at all – and “many were killed suffocated in the crush of hundreds trying to get a free beer” – again, the contemporary reports don’t say this – while “the death toll eventually reached 20, including some deaths from alcohol coma” – no, the newspaper reports from the time make it clear that only eight people died, all women and children, and all killed by the initial huge wave of beer and the destruction it caused to the buildings in the tenements behind the brewery. Continue reading