Today marks the 197th anniversary of one of the strangest and most surreal disasters ever to hit London. It all started on October 17th 1814 in the premises of Meux and Company Brewery on Tottenham Court Road…
These days we see that part of central London as being an area of very expensive real estate, but in the early 19th century it was almost exactly the opposite. Tottenham Court Road was then part of the notorious St Giles ‘rookery’, which was probably the worst of all the slums in London (Hogarth’s satirical and moralising print Gin Lane was set in 18th century St Giles).
Almost fifty years after the beer flood, when the worst of the rookery had been demolished in slum clearances, the writer and reformer Henry Mayhew could still describe St Giles in scathing terms in A Visit to the Rookery of St Giles and its Neighbourhood (1860):
The parish of St. Giles, with its nests of close and narrow alleys and courts inhabited by the lowest class of Irish costermongers, has passed into a byword as the synonym of filth and squalor. And although New Oxford Street has been carried straight through the middle of the worst part of its slums—”the Rookery”—yet, especially on the south side, there still are streets which demand to be swept away in the interest of health and cleanliness…
In 1814, the area was even worse than this; lawless and poverty-stricken, it was massively overcrowded and had little or no sanitation for the many inhabitants who lived cheek by jowl in the old and poorly built houses of the rookery.
The Meux Brewery had been on its site at Tottenham Court Road for a number of years, and was famous for its huge vats used for brewing various beers – the biggest of which strained under the weight of a mind-boggling amount of over half a million litres of beer or porter.
On the evening of 17th October 1814, the iron hoops which held this vat together finally gave up under the strain and it burst, creating a chain reaction in the brewery’s other vats. They burst open too, and almost one and half million litres of beer swept out into the streets in a huge alcoholic tsunami, sweeping all before it.
A report from The Times vividly describes the effect of the beer flood on some of the poorly housed local inhabitants:
The fluid, in its course, swept every thing before it. Two houses in New-street, adjoining the brewhouse, were totally demolished. The inhabitants, who were of the poorer class, were all at home. In the first floor of one of them, a mother and daughter were at tea: the mother was killed on the spot: the daughter was swept away by the current through a partition, and dashed to pieces.
The tide of beer swept through houses and the local pub, the Tavistock Arms, trapping a teenage barmaid under the rubble it left behind. She was one of nine fatalities that evening – the youngest being only three and the oldest in her sixties. Some drowned, often as inhabited cellars filled with beer, some, like Eleanor Cooper the barmaid, were killed by falling rubble or swept away as the force of the flood battered away at the old and crumbling properties of St Giles.
One victim, however, died as a result of alcohol poisoning – presumably thinking they could help the situation by drinking as much the flood as they could! Some sources describe locals rushing outside with bottles, pots, pans and any other container they could find to fill them with as much beer as possible (tell me you wouldn’t have done the same thing if you had been a poor Londoner at the time!).
Once all the beer had finally drained away, the brewery was taken to court over the disaster – then, as now, people naturally wanted someone to blame. However, the judge and jury eventually decided that the flood had been an ‘Act of God’ and that no human agent was responsible for it.
The brewery itself carried on, despite losing a lot of beer (and – obviously – money) in the flood, until the building was demolished in the early decades of the twentieth century. Today, much of the area is mostly a building site for the controversial Crossrail project – if you were to visit, you’d really never know that this was the site of such a strange and tragic moment in London’s history…