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 So what REALLY happened on October 17 1814?