On October 17, 1814, tragedy struck central London. A flood tore through the streets, knocking down buildings and sweeping people away. But the liquid causing the havoc wasn’t water… it was beer! Porter to be exact – a dark brown beer made in London and popular with the city’s porters, from whom it took its name.
I’m not really a beer drinker… chocolate is my poison. But if you do like a tasty brew, just remember that too much of it can be destructive – as it was in London about 200 years ago…
Trouble at the Brewery
One of London’s porter producers was Meux’s Brewery which stood at Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street (where the Dominion Theatre is today). Its upper level was lined with huge vats of aging porter.
About 4:30 in the afternoon on that fateful day, one of the iron rings on one of the enormous vats fell off. This didn’t seem very important to the supervisor on duty since it happened occasionally without any consequence. He wrote a note to the repairman to fix it when he came around next. He was still holding the note in his hand when the unthinkable happened.
The gigantic 22 foot tall barrel, containing 135,000 gallons of porter, literally exploded. The force ruptured several nearby barrels, releasing even more porter, and blew out the back of the building and part of the roof. 323,000 gallons of beer rushed into the narrow streets of the overcrowded slum area just behind the brewery.
Beer in the Streets
The area was called the St. Giles Rookery and it was crowded with poor, mostly Irish, immigrants who had probably seen a lot of beer in their lifetime. But on this day, the streets were flowing with it. It wasn’t a river of beer though, it was a beer tsunami! A 15 foot high wave of ale completely destroyed two neighboring houses, and damaged many others.
Because it happened in the afternoon, most of the men were at work, and it was the women and children who were swept away, battered and bruised. Basement apartments filled with beer and people clambered to the top of their tallest piece of furniture to keep from drowning. Some were even washed out of first-floor windows. Eight lives were lost and the area was in ruins.
Brewery Bounces Back
As for the brewery, the accident almost put them out of business. They lost all the income they would have made on the spilled beer as well as the taxes they had already paid on it. But Parliament kindly ruled to give them a tax credit to help the company stay afloat.
They were taken to court for all the damage their beer had caused, but the beer flood was ruled an “act of God.” The company wasn’t held responsible, and no compensation was owed to the victims.
Even though the brewery wasn’t taking responsibility, the British people pulled together to help. They came from far and near to attend the funerals, and as they filed past the coffins, they dropped coins into a dish to assist the devastated families.
It was a tragic situation and the London newspapers talked of the suffering of the people affected and of the compassion of those who helped them. But later, many (probably exaggerated) stories began to circulate.
Fill the Kettle
A few days after the events, The Bury and Norfolk Post published an account claiming that as soon as the beer started to flow, the (mostly Irish) inhabitants pulled out their pots, pans, kettles, and every available container to fill with the free brew.
Some said there was almost a riot in the hospital where the victims were treated. The beer smell was so strong that some patients thought others were getting beer with their afternoon tea – and they didn’t want to be left out.
There are tales of people lying in gutters to lap up the free-flowing brew and of those who died later of alcohol poisoning because they tried to drink up the flood. It seems there aren’t any reliable sources for these claims, so it’s difficult to tell what’s true.
However, it’s not so difficult to imagine that a thirsty man, bailing beer out of his basement, might take a little sip from time to time… I’m pretty sure I’d be licking my fingers if it were chocolate…
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