On October 17, 1814, a three-story-high vat of beer exploded inside a London brewery and unleashed a tidal wave of porter that killed eight people in the neighboring tenements. Take a look back at one of history’s strangest disasters.
Late on the Monday afternoon of October 17, 1814, distraught Anne Saville mourned over the body of her 2-year-old son, John, who had died the previous day. In her cellar apartment in London’s St. Giles neighborhood, fellow Irishwomen offered comfort as they waked the small boy and awaited the arrival of their husbands and sons who toiled in grueling manual labor jobs around the city. Upstairs on the first floor of the cramped New Street tenement, Mary Banfield sat down for tea with her 4-year-old daughter, Hannah. Behind the Tavistock Arms public house on nearby Great Russell Street, 14-year-old servant Eleanor Cooper scoured pots at the outdoor water pump in the shadow of a 25-foot-high brick wall.
On the other side of the soaring barrier stood the extensive Bainbridge Street brewery of Messrs. Henry Meux and Co., which dominated the Irish enclave. Founded early in the reign of King George III and famous for its porter, the brewery produced more than 100,000 barrels of the dark-colored nectar each year.
Around 4:30 p.m., storehouse clerk George Crick inspected one of the three-story-tall wooden vats girdled with heavy iron hoops in which the black beer fermented. As he looked down from his perch, the clerk suddenly noticed that a 700-pound hoop had slipped off an enormous cask that stored a 10-month-old batch of porter. Crick, who had been with the company for 17 years and watched it grow to become the city’s fifth-largest producer of porter, knew that this happened two or three times a year and didn’t think much of it. Even though porter filled all but the final 4 inches of the 22-foot-high vat and the pressure from the fermentation process was building inside, Crick’s boss told him “that no harm whatever would ensue” from the broken hoop and that he should write a letter to another brewery employee who could fix it at a later date.
Soon after he penned the note around 5:30 p.m., Crick heard a massive explosion from inside the storeroom. The compromised vat, which held the equivalent of 1 million pints of beer, had burst into splinters. The blast broke off the valve of an adjoining cask that also contained thousands of barrels of beer and set off a chain reaction as the weight of the 570 tons of liquid smashed other hogsheads of porter.
The force of the explosion sent bricks raining over the tops of houses on Great Russell Street and collapsed the brick wall that towered over Eleanor Cooper, killing her instantly. A torrent of porter rushed through the narrow lanes of the surrounding neighborhood and swept away everything in its path. With no drainage on the city streets, the wave of black liquid had nowhere to go except straight into the neighboring homes. Residents scaled tables and furniture to save themselves from drowning as the beer inundated the houses. Decrepit hovels flanking the brewery crumbled under the deluge.
The worst damage occurred on New Street. The cascade swept away Hannah and Mary Banfield in the middle of their tea, and the little girl drowned in the tsunami of beer. The force of the tidal wave then caused the house to collapse on the mourners huddled in the cellar, killing Anne Saville and four others.
Soaked in poverty, the St. Giles neighborhood was now saturated in beer. Rescuers, their clothes drenched in hot malt liquor, waded through the waist-high flood of beer and picked through the tangle of bricks and wood with their hands in search of those trapped inside. They tried to silence the gawkers and frantic family members in order to hear the faint cries and groans emanating from the ruins. “The surrounding scene of desolation presents a most awful and terrific appearance, equal to that which fire or earthquake may be supposed to occasion,” reported London’s Morning Post.
Although on the surface the London Beer Flood may sound whimsical, similar to the molasses flood that struck Boston in 1919, the suffering was palpable. The Morning Post reported at the time that is was “one of the most melancholy accidents we ever remember.” While all inside the brewery survived, the London Beer Flood claimed the lives of eight women and children.
The five dead mourners who gathered at John Saville’s wake were waked themselves at the Ship public house down Bainbridge Street from the brewery. Anne Saville now joined her son in a coffin next to those of Elizabeth Smith, Catherine Butler, Mary Mulvey and her 3-year-old son, Thomas Murray. The shrouded coffins of Eleanor Cooper, Hannah Banfield and 3-year-old Sarah Bates were laid out in a nearby yard as a stream of Londoners paid their respects and clinked pennies and shillings onto a plate to pay for their funerals.
Only two days after the catastrophe, a jury convened to investigate the accident. After visiting the site of the tragedy, viewing the bodies of the victims and hearing testimony from Crick and others, the jury rendered its verdict that the incident had been an “Act of God” and that the victims had met their deaths “casually, accidentally and by misfortune.” Not only did the brewery escape paying damages to the destitute victims, it received a waiver from the British Parliament for excise taxes it had already paid on the thousands of barrels of beer it lost.