Two hundred years ago today, a freak accident occurred which sent a flood of beer into the poor London neighborhood of St. Giles. This was not just any beer. It was porter, at the time, the beer which was most popular with London’s working classes. This unexpected flood demolished all or part of four buildings, killed at least eight people and injured many more. Some believed this disaster could have been avoided, while others believe it was a case of negligence on the part of the owners of the brewery. Reports of the event on the day record that bystanders acted with extraordinary decency and consideration, while the reports which came later stigmatized the crowd as unruly, insensitive ruffians.
The great Regency porter flood . . .
The beer flood originated at the Horse Shoe Brewery at the corner of Tottenham Court Road and Great Russell Street. The brewery had been founded by a Mr. Blackburn and was famous for its "black beer," a common name for porter. About 1809, the small Horse Shoe Brewery was bought out by Henry Meux, an established brewer who had been acquiring small breweries around London. Initially, Meux made few changes at his new brewery, which continued to brew porter, the dark rich beer which was so popular with the working class men of the metropolis.
Porter is a specific style of beer which was developed in London in the early eighteenth century. It began to be brewed about the time the first King George acceded to the throne of Britain. It was a more heavily hopped, stronger beer than the heavy sweet style of brown beer which had been brewed in London during the second half of the seventeenth century. This new, strong, well-hopped beer was also aged for a much longer period of time than had been the now old-fashioned sweet brown beer. One beer pundit of the mid-eighteenth century stated that porter had been developed to counter the popularity of the highly-hopped pale beers. This pale style of beer had been brought to the metropolis from the country by the gentry and aristocracy who had developed a taste for it. Many of them brewed it on their estates, and wanted to enjoy the same style of beer when they traveled to London, something they did more often as roads improved in the new century.
Unlike the paler country beers, porter was made with a brown malt that was dried under intense heat in a wood-fired kiln. This process gave the finished malt a roasted or smoky taste. Though this high-fired malt initially imparted both its color and its smoky flavor to any beer brewed from it, that unwanted taste would dissipate in beers which were aged for several months to a year. However, the dark brown color of the brew remained. Brown malt was less expensive to produce than pale malt, making it more economical to use. At a time when cool ambient air temperature was necessary to the fermentation of many beers, the brown malt used in porter offered a great advantage to brewers. It could be fermented at much higher temperatures, making it possible to brew porter for many more weeks into the warmer weather than was possible with other beers. And fermenting would reliably take place in brewing vessels of much greater capacity that was possible with many other styles of beer. Thus, porter was extremely economical to produce. It could therefore also be sold at lower prices compared to other types of beer.
The low prices of porter appealed to the working men of London, particularly the many porters who worked the streets and docks of the metropolis. These men moved vast quantities of goods across the city by sheer muscle power every day, which resulted in a high expenditure of calories as they worked. This new beer was not only inexpensive, it was full-bodied and high in calories. Just what hard-working men needed to maintain their energy and strength through long hours of heavy lifting. Porters were to be seen all over London, pausing next to their loads in front of a pub, calling for a pot of this new beer. Due to its great popularity with the porters of London, this new beer soon took their name. By the early decades of the eighteenth century this affordable, high-calorie beer came to be known as porter.
The demand for porter steadily increased through the eighteenth century and in to the early nineteenth. Its popularity spread beyond London, even Britain, to its many colonies around the world. Because of the way porter was brewed, those who produced it made only that style of beer. Due to the volume of sales, a number of porter brewers made so much money they were able to purchase large estates and live like gentlemen. Many also continually upgraded their breweries to enable them to produce ever more porter. The most usual upgrade was increasingly larger vats in which the porter could be aged. In 1810, a year after he purchased the Horse Shoe Brewery, Henry Meux had a new fermentation vat constructed on the premises. It was twenty-two feet high, equivalent to a three-storey building and sixty feet in diameter. It could hold over 3,500 barrels or over 323,000 imperial gallons of porter and was believed to be the largest fermentation vat in the city. The great vat was made of huge wooden staves which were confined by twenty-nine iron rings. Henry Meux was so proud of his new porter vat that he hosted a dinner for 200 people inside it before he put it into production.
For nearly four years, hundreds of thousands of gallons of porter was aged in Henry Meux’s enormous vat at the Horse Shoe Brewery. But on Monday, 17 October 1814, at about half past four o’clock in the afternoon, the bottommost of the iron rings which secured the vat fell off. Though the vat was nearly full to the brim with porter which had been aging for about ten months, no one at the brewery was overly concerned. This lower ring had fallen from the vat on a number of previous occassions. George Crick, the storehouse clerk on duty at the time, wrote a note to one of the brewery partners to have someone come and replace the ring. However, at about half past five, as he was about to deliver the note, he heard a loud noise, the sound of the vat bursting. He ran into the storehouse to see some of the staves from the collapsed vat knocking holes in other vats and barrels of porter, thus releasing a deluge of porter. Crick and others were up to their waists in the dark brown beer trying to rescue co-workers who had been overwhelmed by the flood.
Within moments, a massive wave of beer, estimated to have been about fifteen feet high, roared out of the brewery and into the surrounding streets of St. Giles. Due to the time of day, most working men had not yet returned home, so nearly all of the casualties were women and children. Those living in basement rooms were the most vulnerable since they had no escape as the beer flood poured in. Those who could climbed up on large pieces of furniture while waiting for the flood to subside. The greatest loss of life took place in a basement room where a number of people had gathered for the wake of John Saville, a two-year old boy who had died the previous day. Those lost included the little boy’s grieving mother, Ann, and four other mourners. Elsewhere, Hannah Banfield, a four-year old girl taking tea with her mother was swept from the room and lost. At the nearby Tavistock Arms, the flood swept through the pub, collapsing a wall on Eleanor Cooper, a fourteen-year old servant girl. Young Eleanor was dug out of the rubble not long after, still standing, but sadly, already dead. Two buildings near the brewery were fully demolished by the flooding beer while two others were severely damaged.
In descriptions of the event written weeks later, it was claimed that many people came to the site of the flood to fill mugs and pitchers with the beer flowing down the streets. However, there is no evidence such a thing actually happened. In fact, though many people did come to the flood zone, they did so to help with the rescue of those who had been trapped and/or injured. There were may instances in which the rescuers performed heroic feats to save complete strangers. Those who were not physically able to help kept very quiet to aid the rescuers in hearing the cries of anyone who might be trapped. The best of the residents of the St. Giles neighborhood was shown this day, not the worst.
In the days that followed, many spectators came to see the scene of the disaster. The watchman at the Horse Shoe Brewery charged visitors to see the wreckage of the vat. The coffins of the deceased were lined up in the yard of the Ship pub in Bainbridge Street. Most of those who passed by the line of coffins dropped small donations into a plate nearby to help cover the cost of their funerals. The churchwardens of the two parishes which were most severely affected by the disaster, St. Giles’s and St. George in Bloomsbury, set up a fund for the relief of the poorest victims who had lost most of their possessions. Within a month more than £800 had been contributed.
The owners of the Horse Shoe Brewery were taken to court. However, neither the brewery nor the Meux Company were held to be responsible for the disaster. The authorities deemed it to have been an Act of God. After a coroner’s inquest, the unanimous verdict was that all eight of the victims " . . . died by casualty, accidentally and by misfortune." For many weeks after the flood, the aroma of porter could still be detected in the streets of St. Giles surrounding the Horse Shoe Brewery. The Meux Company estimated that at least 7,600 barrels of porter were lost, which totaled about £23,000. The firm petitioned Parliament for the return of the duty it had paid on the lost beer and the hops and malt used to make it, which they estimated at about £7,250. In lieu of the tax refund, Parliament passed an Act by which the Meux firm was allowed to brew the same amount of porter that was lost, duty free, thus saving the government the cash while helping the brewery to recover from its tremendous loss.
Two hundred years ago, today, the terrible disaster of the porter flood inundated the poor neighborhood of St. Giles. Despite the loss of life, it would have been much worse had it happened even an hour or so later, when many more residents would have been in their homes after a hard day’s work. Sadly, most of the casualties were women and young children, but the residents of St. Giles quickly went to the rescue of their neighbors, showing themselves to be courageous and compassionate members of their community. The Horse Shoe Brewery remained in business for another century, closing in 1921. It has since been demolished and the Dominion Theatre now stands on what was once part of the site.