An unfortunate incident involving beer – aged porter to be precise – occurred in London back in 1814.

The central London parish of St Giles was, as slums go, one of the slummiest.  Although it has since been rather gentrified with theaters, Covent Garden and the British Museum nearby, it was then mostly squalid housing where immigrants crowded into its ramshackle buildings, often more thanbeer one family to a room. Near one end of the parish stood the massive Meux and Company Horse Shoe Brewery, its giant vats filled with thousands of gallons of aging porter.

One particular vat which held over 135,000 gallons had seen better days. Like the shanties surrounding the brewery, it suffered from age, and on October 17 it succumbed, bursting and letting loose enough precious liquid to give all of St. Giles and then some a pretty good buzz, although the fury with which it was released made tippling difficult. Like giant shaken cans of beer, nearby vats ruptured and joined the game of dominoes.

Within minutes the brick structure that was the Meux and Company Horse Shoe Brewery was breached, and the deluge roared down Tottenham Court Road, flinging aside or burying in debris anyone or anything in its path.

Homes caved in. A busy pub crumbled, burying a buxom barmaid and her ogling patrons for several hours.  All in all, nine people were killed by drink that day. Those who didn’t lose their lives lost everything they owned to evil alcohol. Soon after the suds subsided, survivors rushed in to save what they could of the precious brew, collecting one or more for the road in pots and cans.

St. Giles smelled like the morning after a particular robust party for weeks. The brewery was later taken to court over the accident, but they pleaded an “Act of God,” and the judge and jury bought it, leaving them blameless. The brewery even received reparations from the government.  God, it would seem, has a soft spot for brewers.



7 thoughts on “October 17, 1814: This Round’s on Me

  1. Stumbled across the Great Beer Flood story while researching my dissertation (in a somewhat unrelated subject). It was in a fascinating journal article all about the history of London beer-drinking. In the late 18th/early 19th century everybody drank Porter (a dark substance, not all that dissimilar to Guinness), which had become popular since it could be brewed in enormous vats, and so make a healthy profit for the brewers. Over time the breweries went crazy for bigger and bigger vats, to the point where they got very competitive, and fuelled the myth that the bigger the vat, the better the porter tasted. Until, one day, one of these huge vats collapsed and caused the great beer flood. Curiously, after that disaster in 1814, Porter quickly fell out of favour, and today very few pubs serve it.

    1. When you’re drowning in something, I guess you lose your taste for it. Thanks for the comment and the additional background. And do stick around for the great molasses flood in the U.S., coming soon to an almanac near you.

  2. “God, it would seem, has a soft spot for brewers”…

    I am thinking “Morgan” at this point. Blessed with a good wife, a good family and some fine friends… what more does one need?

    Besides beer, of course.

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