London, October 1814 – a time of peace. Britain was no longer at war with France, though the war with the United States of America continued. Nobody realised that in early 1815 Europe would be engulfed by turmoil when Napoleon Bonaparte escaped from Elba, which would culminate in the Battle of Waterloo.
The Horseshoe Brewery, which was named after the public house next door, lay between Tottenham Court Road, Bainbridge Street, New Street and Great Russell Street. This was almost the unmarked boundary between the upmarket West End of London and the notorious slums of St Giles.
The slum tenements of St Giles, London
This brewery was known for its porter, which had grown out of the custom of Londoners drinking a mix of two or three weak and strong beers. In the 1720s one brewer had produced a blend of three beers that was dark brown, almost black, in colour. This strong beer was so popular with market porters that it in turn became known as “porter”.
After brewing, porter was left to mature for a long time in huge wooden vats. These vats, made by the brewery coopers, were held together by heavy iron hoops fixed by rivets. When ready for sale in taverns, the porter was put into smaller wooden barrels. Brewers competed to build immense vats, and in 1795 one vat at the Meux family’s Griffin Brewery was said to hold 20,000 barrels of porter.
Looking across Tottenham Court Road to the Horseshoe Brewery, with the Horseshoe tavern on the far left and Bainbridge Street on the right
In 1814 Henry Meux was running the Horseshoe Brewery, where the main porter vat was more modest, holding some 3,500 barrels – just over one million pints. At 22 feet in height, it was like a 3-storey building, and stood only 8 inches from the outer brick wall of the brewery’s storehouse. In October of that year, the porter in this vat had been maturing for 10 months, but in the afternoon of Monday the 17th, the storehouse clerk, George Crick, noticed that one iron hoop had fallen off. It weighed about 7 hundredweight (356 kilograms), but he was not alarmed, as this tended to happen two or three times a year when rivets gave way. On this occasion, though, it led to a terrible catastrophe.
By 6 o’clock that evening, it was dark and dismal in the capital. Suddenly a chain reaction occurred, because all the hoops on the vat failed, which burst open, damaging the adjacent vat of almost the same size. It also destroyed the outer storehouse wall and part of the roof. The disaster did not stop there, because buildings round the brewery were demolished or damaged, basements and lower rooms were flooded, carts and horses were washed away, and eight people died.
The vats were at the east end of the brewery, and worst affected were buildings in Great Russell Street, George [now Dyott] Street and New Street. “So great was the force of the explosion,” the Morning Chronicle said, “that the bricks of the brewhouse were thrown over the tops of the houses of Russell-street”. At that moment, an American gentleman was heading towards Great Russell Street when he was engulfed by a tidal wave of beer. “A roar, as of falling buildings at a distance, and suffocating fumes, were in my ears and nostrils,” he wrote. “An immense vat, belonging to a brew-house situated in Banbury [actually Bainbridge] Street, Saint Giles, and containing four or five thousand barrels of strong beer, had suddenly burst and swept everything before it.”
Further details were given by The Times: “The back parts of the houses of M. Goodwin, poulterer, of M. Hawse, Tavistock Arms, and Nos. 24 and 25 in Great Russell Street, were nearly destroyed. The female servant of the Tavistock Arms was suffocated.” Mr Goodwin lived at number 21, next to the Tavistock Arms pub, and he “was sitting at tea with his family behind the shop, when a dreadful current carried them off through the shop and into the street, but fortunately without injury. The rear of the house was broken down and a vast quantity of brick carried into the shop.”
During the inquest two days later at St Giles’s workhouse, Richard Hawse of the Tavistock Arms gave evidence, which The Times recorded:
“Hawse was in his tap room, when he heard the crash. The back part of his house was beaten in, and everything in the cellar destroyed, and the cellar and tap room filled with beer, which was flowing across the street into the areas on the opposite side. The deceased, Eleanor Cooper, his servant, was in the yard washing pots at the time the accident happened. She was buried under the ruins, from whence she was dug out about 20 minutes past eight o’clock.”
Eleanor was only 14 years old. In New Street, two houses adjoining the brewery were demolished, and the Gentleman’s Magazine noted that in the first floor of one of them, “a mother and daughter were at tea. The mother was washed out of the window, and the daughter was swept away by the current through a partition, and dashed to pieces.” The girl was Hannah Bamfield (or Banfield), aged 4 years and 4 months.
After the initial deluge, beer continued to pour out until between 8,000 and 9,000 barrels (more than 2 million pints) had been lost. Crowds of men, women and children desperately looked for relatives and friends. It must have resembled an earthquake, and The Times mentioned similar techniques being employed:
“One of the interesting circumstances attending the melancholy event was observable in the anxiety expressed by several gentlemen who were drawn to the spot to prevent any noise among the crowd, that the persons who were employed in clearing away the rubbish might, in pursuing their work, direct their ears to the ground, in order to discover any of their victims calling for assistance.”
John Cummins, a bricklayer from Camden Town, owned several houses in New Street and spent all day Tuesday looking for survivors. One person was dug out of the rubble alive, but otherwise only dead bodies were recovered. The Morning Chronicle reported:
“Elizabeth Smith, a bricklayer’s wife, was the first body they found, about twelve o’clock, in the ruins of a first floor; Sarah Bates, a child, was discovered in about an hour after, in the ruins of No. 3 [probably 5], New Street; Catherine Butler, a widow, Mary Mulvey and her son, Thomas Murry, a boy three years of age, were found about four o’clock on Tuesday evening.”
Mrs Smith was 27 years old and Sarah Bates 3 years and 5 months. Mrs Butler was described in different sources as 58, 63 or 65 years old, “a poor Irish woman”, and Mrs Mary Mulvey (or Mulsey), who seems to have been her daughter, as 30 or 32 years old. Thomas Murry was Mary’s son by a previous marriage, though in the burial records he is called John Murray, “age about 4”.
Next, Hannah Banfield’s body was found in the New Street ruins. Her mother survived and was taken to the nearby Middlesex Hospital, along with several other severely bruised victims, including George Crick’s brother. The eighth victim was Ann Saville (or Anne Sivell), described variously as aged 30, 53 or 60. She also lived in New Street, but her body was discovered by Crick in the brewery wreckage and was carried to the Horseshoe pub.
The Middlesex Hospital
At the inquest, the jury returned a verdict of “Died by Casualty, Accidentally, and by Misfortune”. Several of the dead were buried in the churchyard of St Giles. A public subscription was set up for the victims and their families, and after a month the donations totalled almost £1,000. The accident put a curb on the building of huge vats, and breweries were jolted into inspecting and replacing their equipment, for fear of similar disasters.
Over the years, the idea of a beer flood has captured people’s imagination, with stories being embellished. One victim supposedly died of alcohol poisoning after trying to drink as much as possible, but there is no evidence that this happened (though it sounds plausible). Later stories about people rushing out with containers to salvage the beer, or to drink what they could, have an element of truth.
The affected area was close to the British Museum, so if you are trying to look for the location, then bear in mind that decades later, the street layout near the brewery was altered, first with the construction of New Oxford Street in 1847, and then Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue, sweeping away much of the slums. The churchyard of St Giles has also been cleared of most of its tombstones. The brewery was demolished in 1922, and the Dominion Theatre built on part of the site fronting Tottenham Court Road. The rest of the brewery is now taken up by a hotel and the TUC Congress Centre. Next door to the theatre was the rebuilt Horseshoe Hotel and Restaurant, but this was demolished in 2007 for an office block.
St Giles just before the clearances
An earlier version of this article was first published as: Roy & Lesley Adkins “Awash with ale” Family History Monthly 193 (March 2011), pp.46–7.
You might like to read
Roy & Lesley Adkins 2006 The War for All the Oceans (on the wars at sea during this era)
Roy & Lesley Adkins 2013 Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England (on everyday life at this time, including beer!)
Simon Fowler 2009 (2nd ed) Researching Brewery and Publican Ancestors