It’ll all end in beers!

Today is the anniversary of London’s Great Beer Flood of 1814 when a colossal vat of beer burst in the West End. To commemorate the soggy occasion, here’s some background on the event itself from Keith Barker-Martin…

For a decade, the Dominion Theatre on Tottenham Court Road has been home to hit musical We Will Rock You. But one fateful day two centuries ago, it was queer beer not camp Queen numbers that brought the house down. Let me explain, as I recount ‘The Curious Case of The Fat-bottomed Wyfe Upstairs’.

In 1814, with pugilistic pest Napoléon seemingly safely in exile, George III’s subjects at least had some good news to toast. For the merchant classes in their St James’s mansions, a carafe of the deposed emperor’s best French claret; for paupers (i.e. most Londoners) in their Holborn hovels, a tankard of porter – the hoi polloi’s strong, dark, cheap ale of choice on which to get legless.

You see, in Georgian times, public health was not exactly in the pink. So, for the huddled unfortunates of nefarious ghettos in St Giles-in-the-Fields, it was far safer to drink gin or porter sold by reputable brewers than water drawn from public pumps and tainted with cholera.

Slaking St Giles’s thirst was Meux & Company’s brewery. In 1807, Sir Henry Meux had bought out the Horseshoe Brewery that stood on the site of what is now the Dominion Theatre. As was then the custom, beer was regularly stored in barrels housed within oversized wooden vessels built on brewery roofs. Indeed, rival brewers competed to construct the grandest container.

Among several weighing heavily on Meux’s flat roof that day was a wooden slatted giant held together by some 30 iron hoops. The Times described the behemoth thus: ‘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.’ Wags nicknamed it ‘the fat-bottomed wyfe upstairs’.

Drowning in drink

On Monday 17 October 1814 and quite without warning, a restraining strap snapped off the groaning vat, occasioning a calamitous chain reaction. The resulting explosions were heard up to five miles away as a gurgling, gushing torrent of fermenting porter cascaded down through the brewery’s many rickety floors, knocking down a retaining wall and causing numerous other vats to burst open too.

Around a million and a half litres of porter swamped the vicinity, trailing rubble, timbers and flotsam in its wake. At 15 feet high, the treacly tsunami demolished two adjacent houses, drowning a mother and daughter at tea. Holding a wake in a cellar below, mourners including, ironically, the mother of the deceased, also perished. Under such a force, the wall of the nearby Tavistock Arms collapsed, crushing to death a 14-year-old barmaid amid scenes of panic and devastation.

Anecdote has it that some locals turned tragedy to triumph. Saucepans, pails, kettles, upturned tricorne hats: no vessel was overlooked as a receptacle for unexpected liquid assets. It’s said some became so inebriated as to, themselves, almost expire – a beer near-death experience, then?

In total, at least eight souls, including two infants, lost their lives. Meux faced court proceedings but the judge found that the victims had died as a result of an act of God. The brewery (demolished in 1922) continued to trade in various incarnations until the Friary Meux brand was absorbed by Carlsberg in 1997 – nearly 200 years later.

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