London's history is so rich that barely a week goes by when I don't learn something new. For example, and it still staggers me given my interest in a) death, b) London's past and c) beer, it was only Wednesday this week I came across the London Beer Flood of 1814. Now I want to write books about it.
The story, so far, is this: in 1814 the boozers of London, of which there were many, were served by a host of breweries in and around the capital. One was the Meux and Company Brewery on Tottenham Court Road (the present Dominion Theatre occupies part of the site.) On October 17 that year a vast vat of ale, twenty feet high, containing 610,000 litres of nut brown porter (a million pints of beer!) ruptured and caused a pressure explosion. This caused other vats and barrels of beer nearby to erupt too, and the result was a tidal wave of beer which smashed through the brewery wall and destroyed and flooded several houses nearby. Back then, the parish of St Giles was a poor one, and many families lived hugger-mugger in slum tenements and basements. Eight (nine in some reports) people were drowned by the tsunami of booze, including a three-year-old child. It was daytime and many of the houses were empty. Had it happened at night, many more would have died.
A rescue operation began to save others who had been washed away or trapped. Yet this was London. Just as concerted was the attempt to get as rat-arsed as possible on free grog. People turned up with the pans, tankards, cups and all manner of receptacles to scoop up as much beer as they could. Others simply knelt down and started supping, all of which did little to help the cops find and save those affected. The rescued were taken to hospital, where a riot almost broke out when the inpatients smelled the beer fumes rising off those coming in and thought there was a hospital party going on to which they had not been invited. What the local residents didn't harvest or glug had to be pumped out of cellars and streets. The whole area stank of beer for months.
The brewery were hauled before the court to answer for the deaths that had been caused, but a judge and a jury ruled, unbelievably, that the accident was an Act of God. Bizarrely, the brewery managed to reclaim the duty they had paid on the spilt beer, which allowed therm to go on trading until they eventually closed in 1922.