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London Beer Flood 1814

On Monday, 17 October 1814, between five and six o’clock in the evening, a large vat in the Mr. Henry Meux and Co.’s brewhouse in Tottenham-court-road, St. Gile’s suddenly burst, sending several thousand barrels of porter beer into the neighbouring streets, destroying houses in New-street and killing several people.

The Rookery of St. Giles
The Rookery of St. Giles

About twenty yards of the brewery wall on the north side and part of the roof collapsed, exposing the remaining beer vats, some containing between 2000 and 3000 barrels of beer. The vats, as high as six storeys in height and 30 feet in diameter, were bound by about 60 iron hoops.

The surrounding neighbourhood was very poor, predominantly Irish, and many families lived in the basements of the houses. In one of the cellars in George-street, a wake was being held for a child that had died the previous Sunday and the whole party of mourners was buried in the ruins.

About twenty yards of the brewery wall on the north side and part of the roof collapsed, exposing the remaining beer vats, some containing between 2000 and 3000 barrels of beer. The vats, as high as six storeys in height and 30 feet in diameter, were bound by about 60 iron hoops.

Beer vats

The streets in the surrounding area were completely flooded with beer and were all but impassable and the lower basements in the area were completely flooded. By Tuesday, it was thought that eight people had died but rescue efforts continued amidst the offensive and overpowering fumes of the beer.

Efforts to clear the rubbish continued into Wednesday, and several persons had been dug out of the ruins alive. Workers digging in the ruins asked for silence so they could more easily hear those trapped beneath the rubble. The rear of several houses on Great Russell-street sustained considerable damage including the Tavistock Arms belonging to Mr. Hawse, a bookseller’s, Mr. Goodwin’s poulterer’s and two private houses.

Inquest

The Morning Post covered the inquest that was held in the Boardroom of St. Gile’s Workhouse for the eight victims confirmed dead in the awful catastrophe at Mr. Meux’s Brewery. The inquest took place on Thursday 20 October 1814.

Known Victims

  1. Elenor Cooper, 14 year, of age, servant to Mr. Richard Hawes, the Tavistock Arms, (Great Russell-street) who was scouring pots in the wash house.
  2. Mary Mulvey, a married woman, aged 30 years.
  3. Thomas Murry, aged 3 years, son to Mary Mulvey, by a former husband.
  4. Hannah Banfield, aged 4 years and 4 months, suffocated by the flood.
  5. Sarah Bates, aged 3 years and 5 months.
  6. Ann Saville, aged 60 years.
  7. Elizabeth Smith, a married woman, aged 27 years.
  8. Catherine Butler, a widow, aged 63 years.

Testimony of George Crick

George Crick, who being sworn, said he is storehouse clerk to Messrs. Henry Meux and Co. of the Horseshoe Brewhouse, in St. Giles’s; he has served them about 17 years, near six years of which were in the present brewhouse. On Monday afternoon one of the large iron hoops of the vat which burst fell off; witness was not alarmed ou that account, as he has frequently seen such occur without being attended by any serious consequence. He wrote lo Mr. Young, one of the partners in the firm, of what happened; he was also their vat-builder. Witness had the letter in his hand in order to send it to Mr. Young, about half-past five o’clock in the evening, which was about an hour after the hoop fell off. Witness was standing on the platform within three yards of the vat, when, without the smallest previous notice, it burst; when he heard the crash of the vat going off, he ran to the store house, where the vat was. He was above his knees in beer ; he was shocked at the sight that presented itself to his view; one side of the house upwards of 25 feet in height, with a considerable part of the roof, lay in ruins. The first object that took his attention was his own brother, who is superintendent under him : he saw one of the men pulling him from under one of the butts that lay on one side. He and one of the labourers are now in the Sliddlesex Hospital, in a dangerous way. The height of the vat was 22 feet: it was filled within about four inches of the top, and then contained 3555 barrels of entire, being beer that was ten months brewed; the four inches that were empty of the vat would hold between thirty and forty barrels more; the hoop which burst was about seven hundred weight, which was the least weight of any of 22 hoops on the vat, and seven large hoops, each of which weighed near a ton. When the vat burst, the force and pressure was so great, that it stove several hogsheads of porter, and also knocked out the cock of as nearly as large a vat as that which was in the cellar, or regions below. This vat contained 24oo barrels, all of which but about 800 barrels also ran about; they lost in all between 8 and 9000 barrels. The cock that fell, or was knocked out of the vat, ran about a barrel a minute. The vat that burst was built between eight and nine years, and was kept always nearly full ; the vat had an opening on the top about a yard square; it was about eight inches from the wall ; witness supposes that it was the rivets of the hoops that slipped, none of the hoops being broke, and the foundation where the vat stood not giving way: the wall which fell was in height about twenty-five feet and two bricks and a half thick. Witness and the men employed under him had too much business of their own to attend to, and never concerned themselves about what happened outside. The cellar and two deep wells which were in it, were full of beer, and all were employed to save what beer they could; Witness did not know at the time but some of their own men might have been killed. About an hour and a half after witness found the body of Ann Saville floating among the butts, and also part of a private still, both of which floated from some of the neighbouring houses, as he is certain neither were there before. She was quite dead, and her body was carried to the Horseshoe Public-house.

Testimony of Richard Hawes

Richard Hawes being sworn, said he lives at No. 22, Great Russell-street, Bloomsbury, the Tavistock Arms Public-house. About half-past five o’clock on Monday evening, witness was in his tap-room, when he heard the crash ; the back part of his house was beaten in, and every thing in bis cellar destroyed; the cellar and tap room filled with beer, so that it was pouring across the street into the areas on the opposite side; the deceased Elenor 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 2- minutes past eight o’clock ; she was found standing by the water butt; Surgeon Ogle attended to render medical assistance, but she was quite dead.

Testimony of John Cummins

John Cummins being sworn, said he is by trade a bricklayer, and lives at No. 14, Prall’s-place, Camden Town, being the owner of some houses in New-street, where the principal part of the persons who were lost resided; he attended on the spot to render all the assistance in his power to the sufferers. Eliz. 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, 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 Monday evening; Hannah Banfield, a girl about four years and a half old, with her mother and another child were at tea in the first floor, the two former were washed by the flood into the ruins; the body of Hannah Banfield was found dead in the ruins, about half-past six. The mother was carried to tlre Middlesex Hospital, where she lies in a dangerous state, and the last-mentioned child was found nearly suffocated on a bed in the room.

The Verdict

Died by Casualty, accidentally, and by misfortune.

Other Victims of the Meux Brewery Curse

The beer flood of 1814 was not the only incident that happened at Meux’s Horse Shoe Brewery off Tottenham Court road. Over the years, a number of deaths were reported in the news as having happened in or near the brewery. One has to wonder if the property was cursed.

HORRIBLE DEATH.-On Friday week George Smith, a chimney-sweeper, was hired to sweep the steam-engine flues at Sir H. Meux’s brewhouse, Tottenham court road. It appears that the boy was often employed there, and that he had finished his work, when he was attracted by the motion of the steam-engine. It is also in evidence that he ventured to touch a rapidly revolving wheel, when he was of course instantly drawn in and torn limb from limb, his head falling one way and his arms another. Those who know the spot will bear testimony to the precaution taken to prevent any one from walking heedlessly into the machinery, but the blame rests on those who admitted a lad between seventeen and eighteen years of age into the premises, in violation of the act of 3rd and 4th of Victoria, chapter 85.The Examiner - Saturday 04 May 1844
On Saturday morning week man named Harvey Thompson, engaged loading a cart of grains at Sir Henry Meux’s brewery, Tottenham-court-road, whilst levelling the grains on the top of the cart, was suddenly seized with a fit of epilepsy. The workmen above, unaware of the circumstance, continued to shovel out the grains till the man was completely covered. A passerby, having witnessed his struggles, raised an alarm, and the poor fellow was rescued, but life was extinct. Worcestershire Chronicle - Wednesday 24 October 1849
LAMENTABLE ACCIDENT. A brewer’s drayman in the employ of Meux & Co., Tottenham Court-road, was brought to Westminster Hospital, on Sunday night, having received a dreadful bruise on the leg. He was riding on the dray with his legs hanging’down as is usual with draymen, when another vehicle came in contact with the dray, and crushed the poor man’s leg. He has recovered from the accident, though it was found necessary to amputate the leg in the hospital. The careless perpetrator of the deed made his escape, so that up to the present time nothing further of him is known. The unfortunate man’s name was John Caleb, and the accident occurred near Westminster Bridge.West Middlesex Advertiser and Family Journal - Saturday 17 March 1860
FATAL ACCIDENT. On Wednesday Mr. G-. S. Brent, deputy coroner for West Middlesex, instituted an inquiry at the Middlesex Hospital the death of Henry Dutfield, aged 36, carman. appeared that the deceased was unloading quantity of sacks of malt at the brewery of Messrs. Meux, Tottenham-court-road, when several of the sacks suddenly became detached from the chains in the course of being hoisted into the brewery from the waggon, and fell upon him, crushing him in so frightful manner as to break most of his ribs. He was removed to Middlesex Hospital, where he expired in great suffering. A verdict of “Accidental death” was recorded.North London News - Saturday 16 March 1861
FALL OF A CHIMNEY. A tall chimney stack, which was being erected Meters. Meux’s Brewery, Tottenham court road London, fell shortly before noon on Tuesday, whilst whole number of men were at work upon it. The injured men were dug out as speedily as possible and taken to the hospital. It was supposed that Monday night’s rain had soddened the new brickwork.Tamworth Herald - Saturday 14 April 1877
FATAL BEER FUMES A verdict of Death by misadventure at Holborn inquest on Friday, Robert Dickenson, aged 51, a brewer’s tunsman, living in Islington, who was suffocated by fumes carbonic acid gas at the bottom of a vat at Meux’s Brewery, Tottenham Court-road. For the last fortnight he had complained pains in the head, which he attributed fumes the vats. On Tuesday he entered empty vat, which was capable of holding barrels of beer, to remove the plug. Suddenly he began to shiver, and sank on his knees. Another workman at once entered the vat, but could not move Dickenson, who weighed 18 stone. He himself was affected by the fumes, and was ordered out. When Dickenson was got out with ropes he was dead. The foreman explained that afterwards it was found that a valve in the vat had been left open, and fresh beer was coming into it when Dickenson entered the vat. That ought not to have been so. It was stated that at the bottom of the vat was a quantity of sediment, and that the fresh beer was in active state of fermentation, throwing off carbonic acid fumes which suffocated Dickenson at a time when he was suffering from heart disease.Wells Journal - Friday 08 October 1915

Brewery to be Sold

Freehold of nearly 2-1/2 acres land in the heart of London, site of what was formerly Meux’s Brewery, Tottenham Court-road, is to be sold. Late Lord Tweedmouth (so long M.P. for Berwickshire as Hon. E. Marjoribanks) and his father, 1st Lord (so long M.P. for Berwick-upon-Tweed, and afterwards Sir Dudley Coutts Marjoribanks) were chief holders of this Brewery. Adjoining properties included in the sale are shops in New Oxford-street, a kinema theatre, Horseshoe Hotel, 2 hotels in Great Russel-street, a warehouse, shops and houses in Dyottlstreet, and houses in Bainbridge-street. Present income of the property is stated to be over .£ll,000 a year. In 1918 the site was sold by private treaty to Mr Joel for £400,000. At the time Mr Joel was credited with the idea of eventually erecting on the site a block of commercial buildings or a palatial theatre and kinema. The Brewery, which existed on the site for 100 years, was formerly a landmark in West End of London, standing as it did the junction of 2 of the most crowded thoroughfares in the world. Its site per square foot is one the most valuable in the country. Some Berwick men have served in Meux’s Brewery. County-Ald. Thos. Darling, J.P., Berwick, was at one time with the Firm. A Borderer who probably had largest service among Tweedsiders in Meux’s was Mr Menzies Wilson, brother of the late Mr Hy. Wilson, Berwick Harbour Master, and he held proprietorial interest in Meux’s. The days of Berwick men in Meux’s Brewery reminds us of a Berwick Family in Loudon in those times, whose Home was always the recognised meeting place and regular rallying-ground of a number cf Berwickers employed in London Town. Berwickers and Borderers it became “A Home from Home.”Berwickshire News and General Advertiser - Tuesday 09 January 1923

  1. You missed an early tragedy, the death of the owner of the brewery, John Stephenson, in 1794, who fell into one of the brewery coolers, large, shallow vessels at the top of the building, Around 10am on the morning of Thursday, November 13, 1794, one of the brewery workers spotted a hat swimming on top of the beer in one of the coolers. It was Stephenson’s. Just a short time before he had been in the brewery “accompting house”. Unnoticed, he had gone up to where the coolers were, fallen in and drowned.

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