On April 1, 1785, the Times of London reported: “There is a cask now building at Messrs. Meux & Co.’s brewery…the size of which exceeds all credibility, being designed to hold 20,000 barrels of porter; the whole expense attending the same will be upwards of £10,000”.
The Meux’s Brewery Co Ltd, established in 1764, was a London brewery owned by Sir Henry Meux. What the Times article was describing was a 22′ high monstrosity, held together by 29 iron hoops.
When completed, this would be one of several such vats, each designed to hold 3,500 barrels of brown porter ale.
The brewery was located in the crowded slum of St. Giles, where many homes contained several people to the room.
On October 17, 1814, storehouse clerk George Crick noticed one of those 700-pound iron hoops had slipped off a cask. This happened two or three times a year, and Crick thought little of it, writing a note to another employee, to fix the problem.
It was a bad decision.
The explosive release of all that hot, fermenting liquid could be heard five miles away, causing a chain reaction as the other vats went down like exploding dominoes.
323,000 imperial gallons of beer, equivalent to two-thirds of an Olympic swimming pool, smashed through the brewery’s 25-foot high brick walls and gushed into the streets, homes and businesses of St. Giles. The torrent smashed two houses and the nearby Tavistock Arms pub on Great Russell Street, where 14-year-old barmaid Eleanor Cooper was buried under the rubble.
One brewery worker was able to save his brother from drowning in the flood, but others weren’t so lucky.
Mary Mulvey and her 3-year-old son Thomas were drowned, while Hannah Banfield and Sarah Bates, ages 4 and 3, were swept away in the flood. Both died of their injuries. Nine people lost their lives altogether, including one man who died of alcohol poisoning, apparently leading a heroic one-man effort to drink the entire flood.
As the torrent subsided, hundreds of people came outside carrying pots, pans, and kettles – whatever they had on hand to scoop up some of it. Some just bent low and lapped at it like dogs, as all that dirty, warm beer washed through the streets. Meanwhile, several injured were taken to the nearby Middlesex Hospital, where a near-riot broke out as other patients demanded to know why they weren’t getting some of it, too.
In the days that followed, the crushing poverty of the slum led some to exhibit the corpses of their family members, charging a fee for anyone who wanted to come in and see. In one house, too many people crowded in and the floor collapsed, plunging them all into a cellar full of beer.
The stink lasted for months, as the Meux Brewery Company was taken to court over the accident. Judge and jury ruled the flood to be an ‘Act of God’. The deaths were just a ‘casualty’, leaving no one responsible. Meux & Co. survived, though the financial loss was made worse by the fact that they had already paid tax on the beer. The company successfully applied to Parliament for a refund, and continued to brew beer on the same site.
The brewery was closed in 1921 and demolished the following year. Since 2012, a London tavern called the “Holborn Whippet” (www.holbornwhippet.com) marks the event with its own vat of porter, specially brewed for this day. Cheers.