October 17, 1814: How Much Beer is Too Much? (The London Beer Flood)

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A Brief History

On October 17, 1814, a bizarre incident occurred involving our favorite potable, the noble brewski.   Perhaps you have heard of drowning your sorrows in beer or some other alcoholic beverage?  Well, in London in 1814, a giant vat of beer failed, and 135,000 Imperial gallons of beer surged out, crashing into other huge vats and breaking those open as well.  A total of well over 300,000 gallons of beer flowed out of the brewery and into the street like a tidal wave, crushing or drowning at least 8 unsuspecting people in an event known to history as The London Beer Flood.  (Note: Imperial gallons are larger than US gallons, with the Imperial gallon about 4.5 liters and the US gallon about 3.8 liters.)

Digging Deeper

At the Meux and Company Brewery, on Tottenham Court Road, the first vat split open and caused a chain reaction of other large vats splitting open when the wall of amber liquid hit them in turn.  The flood of bubbly beer was no laughing matter, as 2 houses were flattened and at least 8 people died in the flood, either drowned or crushed.  A wall of a local pub was caved in, and people attending a wake were surprised by the rush of beer, with 5 of those mourners killed.  The other fatalities were a teen aged barmaid at the tavern that was stove in and a woman and girl that were having tea.  Of those known killed, 2 were only 3 years old and another was only 4 years old.  The oldest victim was 63 years old.

Toten Hall house in Tottenham Court Road.

Located in a poor neighborhood, the basements of many of the houses in the area were flooded and much property was damaged.  Subsequent lawsuits against the brewery were dismissed as the court decided the incident was “An Act of God” rather than negligence on the part of the brewery.  Not surprisingly, speculation was rampant that some sort of corruption was involved in the verdict of the court!  Local businesses and residents were not the only ones hurt financially, as the brewery had already paid duty (taxes) on the large quantity of beer that was lost.  In order to afford repairs to the brewery and continue operation, the brewers asked for and were granted a return on the duties paid on the lost beer.  The brewery was finally demolished in 1922 with a theater built on the site.

In 2012, a local bar called the Holborn Whippet started a tradition of celebrating the anniversary of the London Beer Flood by producing a special vat of Porter beer to commemorate the incident.

bottle of Fuller’s London Porter

Questions for Students (and others): Do you have a favorite beer (for those of appropriate age!)?  Have you previously heard of the London Beer Flood?  Are you aware of other bizarre flooding incidents?  Was the court correct in refusing to assign human fault to the tragedy?

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Alworth, Jeff. The Beer Bible. Workman Publishing Company, 2015.

Summer, Jack. DEATH By BANANA: And 250 Other Weird Ways To Die.  Monday Books, 2015.

The Sorry Lot. Dream Turned to Nightmare (The Great London Beer Flood of 1814). (From the album,  “Heaven’s Happy Hour”), The Sorry Lot, 2018.

The featured image in this article, a street scene in St. Giles the year before the flood, from a view published by Wilkinson, 1813, reprinted by Edward Walford, ‘Tottenham Court Road’, Old and New London: Volume 4 (1878), pp. 467-480, URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=45208 (Date accessed: 19 March 2008), is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.