Exactly two hundred years ago today, over one million pints of beer flooded London’s Tottenham Court Road when the vats from a local porter brewery gave way.
The vats at The Horse Shoe Brewery on the corner of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street, now the site of the Dominion Theatre, were owned by Meux and Company, (which became Friary Meux in 1965) a successful supplier of porter style beer. There was a trend for larger and larger vats at this time and Meux & Co were proud of theirs, one of which was said in 1785 to be able to hold the equivalent of 4,500 barrels of beer.
However, on 17 October 1814, disaster struck: a vat containing 3,550 barrels of fermenting beer exploded. In so doing, it knocked the cocks out of another huge vat, brought down a wall and part of the roof which in turn smashed many hogsheads, each containing 420 pints of beer. In total some 1,080,000 pints of porter rushed out into the street in a wall of beer around 15 feet high, flattening two houses and badly damaging the nearby Tavistock Arms pub.
The area around St Giles parish where the accident took place was known as “Rookeries” due to the number of persons living in each house and their generally low standard of living and housing. Had the flood occurred in the night time, there would have been many more fatalities. Fortunately it took place in the daytime while most folk were at work; even so, some eight unfortunate souls were unable to escape in time from the rapidly flooding basements and cellars of the Rookeries.
Reports at the time claim that people in the nearby area were seen scooping up beer from the streets and in some cases, kneeling down to suck it up straight from the ground. It's hard to imagine such an extraordinary industrial accident occurring today, but if it did, would we behave any differently? Whatever the answer to that, this will probably be the best day for a long time to come to go to your local and have a pint, remembering the day that London was awash with beer.
For an interesting and more detailed account of this event, read Martyn Cornell's excellent blog here.