Around 200 years ago, the central London parish of St Giles was notorious for being one of the worst slums (known at the time as rookeries) in the city. Today it’s rather posh and upmarket; not far from the British Museum, just a stone’s throw from fashionable Covent Garden and home to a theatre or two, but in the early part of the 19th century it was an area of squalid housing. Several families (mostly Irish immigrants) were crowded into one building, often more than one family to a room or even a cellar.
The southern end of Tottenham Court Road touches the northern part of St Giles, and it was here, amongst the hovels and shanties, that the Meux and Company Horse Shoe Brewery stood, close to the corner of Great Russell Street and Tottenham Court Road. At the time of the calamity porter was one of the most popular choices among the London beer-drinking classes, and they liked it aged. Indeed, some porters could spend up to two years quietly maturing in massive oak vats, acquiring all kinds of interesting flavours before being blended with younger beer at the alehouse, according to the customer’s taste. Breweries competed with each other to see who could build the biggest vat, even holding opening ceremonies, one of which was reported to have included a dinner for 200 people inside the the vessel!
Late in the afternoon at the Horse Shoe on Monday October 17th 1814 an 800lb iron restraining hoop fell off one of the vats, which was full to the brim with 3,550 barrels (more than a million pints) of finest 10-month-old Meux’s Porter. A clerk made a note of the occurrence but thought no more of it until about an hour later when the wooden staves of the vat burst asunder. The resulting flood of beer, weighing close to 600 tons, plus wood and metal from the vat knocked out the wall of the brewery and gushed into the street, destroying more vessels which were holding about another 1200 barrels of beer.
The torrent flooded the cellars of surrounding houses, and even some street-level rooms up to ceiling height. It’s said that wave of beer was 15 feet high. Two adjacent houses were flattened and one wall of the nearby Tavistock Arms collapsed, trapping and killing a 14-year-old barmaid. In all, eight people died as a direct result of the accident, although there’s an urban myth that a ninth victim died some days later of alcohol poisoning following a heroic attempt to drink up the spate.
Because of the hour at which the disaster happened most of the dead were women and children, their husbands and fathers being still at work. Bearing in mind the overcrowding of the houses, the death toll would have been far higher had it happened later in the evening. One particularly sad consequence was the deaths of five mourners at a wake being held in a nearby cellar, including the mother of the deceased. Reports that people came rushing out of their homes carrying pots, buckets, saucepans, anything that might hold liquid have not been substantiated, but… come on, it’s free beer! Who wouldn’t?
It’s hard to imagine what the scene must have been like once the flood had subsided. I expect many of you have seen the pictures of the aftermath of a deluge, maybe even experienced it yourself. After all, Central Texas is known by some as the flash flood capital of the world, but try to envision the added stickiness of the liquid and the pervasive smell of stale beer that lingered for months afterwards.
Meux came out of it rather better than the victims and local population. They were taken to court but the judge decided, astonishingly, that it was an Act of God and therefore no-one was to blame. Having got away with it, Meux also petitioned Parliament for reimbursement of the duty they’d already paid on the beer, and Parliament duly passed an act which allowed the company to brew a similar volume of beer the following year, free of excise.
The damaged parts of the brewery were rebuilt and it remained in use until it was demolished in 1922. By then the taste for aged porter was on the wane and the Horse Shoe was surplus to requirements. Production was moved to a brewery in west London which the company had acquired a few years earlier, and in 1956 Meux merged with another brewery to form Friary Meux, which was in turn gobbled up by Allied Breweries, and Meux disappeared but for a brief ressurrection in the 1980s when there was a trend for putting old brewery names on pubs to disguise the fact that they were actually owned by a conglomerate. Today, the site of the old Horse Shoe Brewery is occupied by the Dominion Theatre.
Jim Hughes, Head Beer Nerd, Alamo South Lamar
“If I had all the money I’ve spent on drink… I’d spend it on drink.” ~ Sir Henry Rawlinson