I am now at the point in my current manuscript where me hero and heroine have been marooned alone together, trapped in a cellar as a result of the Great London Beer Flood. When I first read about the 1814 beer flood I thought it was a joke. I'd seen a snippet about it in a newspaper but I had never come across it in any reference books or other fictional books set at the time. Once I started to investigate, though, I discovered that it had been a real event and of course I felt it was too good an idea not
to put in a book!
The London Beer Flood occurred on Monday 17th October 1814. Meux's Brewery Co Ltd, established in 1764, was a London brewery owned by Sir Henry Meux. Meux, like many modern brewers, bought out smaller breweries - one such being the Horse Shoe Brewery (founded by a Mr Blackburn, and famous for its 'black beer'), located on the junction of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street. On the roof of the Horse Shoe stood several large vats of beer. The largest was the vat of porter - a 22-foot-high monstrosity that held 511,920 litres of beer, in turn held together by a total of 29 large iron hoops. For some idea of its vast size, The Times report of 1 April, 1785 read:
"There is a cask now building at Messrs. Meux & Co.'s brewery...the size of which exceeds all credibility, being designed to hold 20,000 barrels of porter; the whole expense attending the same will be upwards of £10,000."
By October 1814 one particular batch of beer had been fermenting for months and the metal and wood of the huge vat was beginning to show the strain of holding back the thousands of litres. Suddenly, at about 6.00pm, one of the heavy metal hoops snapped and the contents of the porter vat exploded, causing a chain reaction with the surrounding vats. The resulting noise was apparently heard as far away as five miles.
A total of 1,224,000 litres of beer under pressure smashed through the twenty-five foot high
brick wall of the building, and gushed out into the surrounding area - the slum of St Giles. Many people lived in crowded conditions there and some were caught completely unaware by a tsunami of beer. The torrent flooded through houses, demolishing two in its wake. At the Tavistock Arms pub in Great Russell Street the 14-year-old barmaid Eleanor Cooper was buried under the rubble. The Times reported on 19 October of the flood:
"The bursting of the brew-house walls, and the fall of heavy timber, materially contributed to aggravate the mischief, by forcing the roofs and walls of the adjoining houses."
Fearful that all the beer should go to waste, hundreds of people ran outside carrying pots, pans, and kettles to scoop it up. Some apparently simply knelt down to lap at the liquid washing through the streets. Meanwhile back at the brewery, one man managed to save his brother from going under the vast wave, but as the tide receded the true damage was revealed. The beer flood left nine people dead. Some had drowned (like Mary Mulvey and her 3-year-old son Thomas), others were swept away in the flood and died of the injuries they sustained (two young children: Hannah Banfield, 4, and Sarah Bates, 3), and the final victim succumbed some days later to alcohol poisoning. He had heroically attempted to stem the tide by drinking as much beer as he humanly could.
Some relatives of the drowned took to exhibiting their families' corpses in their homes and charging a fee for viewing. In one house too many people crowded in and the floor gave out, plunging them all into a cellar that was still half full of beer. This morbid exhibition moved locations, attracting more custom, and eventually the police closed it down. The stench of the beer apparently lasted for months and after the initial excitement many found both their homes and livelihoods swept away with the flood. The Meux Brewery Company was taken to court over the accident, but the judge ruled that although devastating, the flood was an 'Act of God' and the deaths were simply by 'casualty'.
An extraordinary true story, and one I simply could not resist!