In October 1814, a huge vat of fermenting beer burst open, releasing as much at 1.5 million litres of beer in a flood that swept through the back wall of the brewery and into an area known as the St Giles rookery. Eight people were killed as the torrent of beer smashed houses and flooded basements.
The Horse Shoe Brewery was purchased by Sir Henry Meux, son of the owner of a rival brewery, in 1809. He almost immediately began construction on a fermenting vat on the same scale as the one at his father’s Meux Brewery, itself the largest in London. With a capacity of 18,000 barrels, by 1812 the Horse Shoe Brewery was producing more than 100,000 barrels of beer a month. At the time, dark, hoppy beers known as porters were the most popular in London, and the Horse Shoe Brewery exclusively produced this variety.
Behind the brewery was a small cul-de-sac named New Street, where the St Giles rookery was located. A rookery, named after the noisy, crowded colonies that rooks often form, was a slum area of an English city with overcrowded housing and typically high crime rates. The area was described as ‘perpetually decaying’ and ‘seemingly always on the verge of social and economic collapse’ by professor Richard Kirkland, a lecturer in Irish literature at King’s College London.
On the afternoon of 17th October 1814, a storehouse clerk at the brewery noticed that one of the 320kg (700lb) iron bands that held the wooden vat together had slipped out of place. At the time, the vat was filled almost to the top with 32 tonnes of fermenting porter. However, on telling a supervisor, the clerk was reassured that bands had slipped in the past and it would be repaired soon. An hour later, the vat burst open without warning.
The rush of liquid burst open a neighbouring vat and several large barrels of finished porter, before smashing through the back wall of the brewery. A wave of beer measuring up to 4.5 metres (15 ft) high swept down New Street and into the St Giles rookery. Two houses were destroyed, while several others were damaged. In one of the destroyed homes, four-year-old Hannah Bamfield was swept out into the street alongside her mother. While the mother survived, Hannah was killed. In the other, a wake was being held by an Irish family following the death of a two-year-old boy. Five members of the family and other mourners were killed.
14-year-old Eleanor Cooper was killed after being buried by the collapsed rear wall of the brewery, while the eighth fatality was another child, Sarah Bates, who was found dead in a damaged house. The brewery workers all survived, although three had to be rescued from beneath the rubble.
There is some dispute regarding events following the flood. Some stories emerged of people flocking to the area to collect and drink the spilled beer, resulting in significant disorder. However, newspapers at the time reported that the crowd was generally well-behaved.
A coroner’s inquest described the deaths as happening ‘casually, accidentally and by misfortune’, Ultimately, a verdict of an act of God was recorded, and the brewery owners were not forced to pay compensation. The brewery resumed production, but closed in 1821 after moving production to neighbouring Wandsworth. The Dominion Theatre now stands on the site.
The incident is often compared to the great molasses flood, which happened in Boston over 100 years later. A similar case of a large vat rupturing, in this case a storage vat for molasses, saw a flood of thick, sticky molasses destroy homes, businesses and even sections of the Boston elevated railway. 21 people were killed, with a further 150 injured.