A flood of beer sounds like it could be a dream come true for the millions of people who enjoy the alcoholic beverage. It also sounds like a dream is all it ever could be. But just such a thing really did happen, though it was not fun at all for those it affected.
In 1810 in the St. Giles area of London, the brewery Meux and Company had a 3-foot-high fermentation vat installed on the premises of the Horse Shoe Brewery on the busy Tottenham Court Road. This massive vat held over 3500 barrels of brown porter ale, a very popular drink.
Four years after its installation, on October 17, 1814, one of the brewery’s clerks, a man named George Crick, was conducting a routine inspection of the vats of the storehouse when he noticed something strange. One of the iron hoops that held Meux’s vat together had fallen off. He didn’t think this was an emergency, and his boss told him that it would be fixed later.
About an hour after he noticed the damaged vat, he heard the sound of an explosion. The vat had exploded, setting off a chain reaction that caused multiple vats in the storehouse to burst, spilling their contents.
But this wasn’t simply an unfortunate mess. The force of the blast was so strong that it caused the storehouse itself to explode, sending bricks from its walls hurtling down onto the street. Following this, a wave of porter rushed down the streets of the St. Giles neighborhood, knocking down some houses and flooding others.
Rescuers tried to wade through the flood of beer, which was now waist-high, but they could not save everyone. One woman was killed when she was hit by bricks in the initial explosion. A young child was swept away and drowned. And one of the collapsed houses killed five people who were inside when the wave of porter hit. Altogether, eight people died, all of them women and children.
Two days after the London Beer Flood, a jury determined that the catastrophe had been an “act of god.” Because of this verdict, the brewery did not have to pay any damages to the victims of their negligence. Their taxes on the lost beer were also waived, and they were awarded £7250 (about £400,000 in today’s money) by the government to help with their losses. Not one penny of this went to help the residents of St. Giles.
Though the direct victims of the flood were not compensated for their losses, the accident did cause a change in the brewery industry as wooden fermentation casks were phased out and replaced by concrete vats. The Horse Shoe Brewery itself was torn down in 1922.