On this day in 1814 London’s Tottenham Court Road was flooded with over one million litres of beer when the vats from a local porter brewery gave way.
The type of vat employed at London breweries in the 18th/19th centuries
The vats belonged to the Meux and Company Brewery, a major supplier of porter-style beers in the area, at its Horse Shoe Brewery on the corner of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street.
Throughout the 18th century there had been a growing trend for larger and larger vats of beer.
In 1785 Meux & Co proudly proclaimed that one of their barrels alone could hold “four thousand five hundred barrels of wholesome liquor”.
Until the end of the century the barrels kept increasing in size.
This aggrandising trend ended in tragedy on 17 October 1814 when a vat containing 3,550 barrels of fermenting beer, literally bulging at the seams, ruptured – probably due to corroded hoops.
The explosion is said to have caused a domino effect, knocking the cocks out of another huge vat and smashing many hogsheads – not least because the rupture brought down the back wall and part of the roof.
In total some 323,000 gallons (1.4m litres) of porter rushed out into the street in a tidal wave weighing several hundred tons and around 15 feet high, destroying two homes and badly damaging the nearby Tavistock Arms pub.
The area around St Giles parish where the accident took pace was a poor area at the time and which were known as “Rookeries” due to the number of persons living in each house and the generally low standard of living and housing they enjoyed.
Many also lived in cellars and it was there that the most fatalities occurred, trapped and drowned in the rapidly filling basements.
Thankfully deaths were few – at that time of the day most people were out at work – seven to eight died, all women and children and including a teenage girl who worked at the Tavistock Arms.
The brewery in around 1830
Incredibly, no one in the brewery was killed by the accident although several were badly injured.
The brewery was taken to court but the judge and jury ruled it an Act of God and no one was prosecuted. Parliament fined the company over £20,000 but Meux & Co successfully petitioned to be let off paying £7,250 in excise duty which saved it from bankruptcy.
The brewery was demolished in 1922 and is now occupied by the Dominion Theatre.
Meux & Co, through moves and mergers, became Friary Meux in 1956 but went into liquidation in 1961 and was acquired by Allied Breweries.
Brewing ceased altogether in 1969 and in 1997 Allied sold its brewing interests to Carlsberg-Tetley.
A fuller account of the accident can be read here