Yr. Humble Chronicler has been on a diet now for two weeks. I have successfully subdued the urges for chocolate, crisps and human flesh, but alcohol is another matter entirely. I could murder a pint of Guinness. Or a glass of wine. Or a washed-out-bleach-bottle of prison hooch, for that matter.
I am told that water is a wonderful thing – no calories, no harmful additives and it’s free. My response has thus far been “Yes, but when did you last hear of someone drowning in beer?” I now have to eat my words.
I am speaking of an event that took place in 1814 in St Giles, pictured right. St Giles was, for centuries, a poor district, regarded as something of a no-go area by law enforcement. A major employer in the area was the Horse Shoe Brewery, owned by Sir Henry Meux.
On the roof of this brewery were several huge storage tanks. The largest of all, holding 135,000 gallons, was the porter tank. Porter is a drink historically associated with London, its name being derived from the fact that it was much favoured by porters working on the river - a short walk from the Horse Shoe Brewery, in fact.
On October 17, an event occurred that The Times described in its subsequent report as “one of the most melancholy accidents we ever remember.” The porter tank, despite twenty-nine metal hoops reinforcing it, unexpectedly burst. The impact of the explosion destroyed the other storage tanks, resulting in a veritable torrent of over 323,000 gallons of beer pouring down on to the streets below.
The flood completely destroyed two houses in New Street as well as knocking down the back walls of the Tavistock Arms, a poulterer’s shop and two houses in Great Russell Street.
Quite apart from the initial impact damage, the incident was worsened by two factors – the fact that the ground in that area is flat, and the fact that St Giles was a slum. Many poor families lived in basements, and so the beer, with nowhere else to go, flooded their homes. Many lost everything they owned. Despite the best efforts of rescuers from the brewery and elsewhere in the neighbourhood, eight were drowned and many more injured (including an unfortunate maidservant trapped under the wall of the Tavistock Arms). The last victim died the following day from alcohol poisoning.
A somewhat unexpected consequence was a rumpus at the nearby Middlesex Hospital, where the injured were treated – patients unaware of the disaster were convinced that those coming in had been supplied with free beer and, judging by the smell, there was plenty to go around.
Once the initial disaster was over, a number of people decided to take advantage of the free beer. I can’t imagine the mixed flavours of ale and porter mixed with brick dust, mud, horse manure, drowned people and whatever else was on the streets that day made for a satisfying brew, but then some people will drink anything. The area apparently retained a beery smell for some weeks afterwards.
Relatives of the deceased attempted to recoup some of their losses by charging people to see their drowned loved ones. This caused a somewhat unexpected addendum to the disaster, when the floor of an overcrowded house collapsed, dropping the gawkers into a still-flooded cellar.
The whole incident was ruled to be an Act of God, with nobody found at fault (I reiterate – 29 steel hoops reinforcing the tank). The Horse Shoe Brewery was in serious danger of bankruptcy, but fortunately for them was refunded the duty they had paid on the stored beer by court order.
The brewery was rebuilt and stayed there until 1922. It is now the site of the Dominion Theatre. We will rock you, indeed.