Continuing our series of little-remembered tragedies in the capital. The latest instalment is perhaps more well known than most of the others we’ve covered. We include it here at the request of several readers.
‘Drowning in a tsunami of beer’ sounds like a suggestion from one of those flippant pub conversations about supposedly good ways to die. Yet this very scenario claimed the lives of at least eight Londoners back in 1814.
The location will be familiar to many readers: the Dominion Theatre at the crossroads of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street — which recently evicted its giant statue of Freddie Mercury. The theatre is built on a site that was previously the Horse Shoe brewery that was run by Meux and Co. On 17 October 1814, an iron hoop, one of several holding together a seven-metre tall vat of beer, gave way. The huge tank burst, upending another nearby vessel and the equivalent of 2.5 million pints, mostly London porter, rushed out of the building, with fatal consequences.
The wave of booze smashed through one of the brewery walls, killing a teenage servant in the adjoining Tavistock Arms pub. From here, the brown tide spilled out onto Great Russell Street and the surrounding rookeries of St Giles, filling basements and destroying homes. The remaining victims were all killed on New Street, a small but densely packed alley at the back of the brewery. They ranged in age from 3 to 63. In one case, a mother and daughter were taking tea. ‘The mother was washed out of the window,’ noted the Scots Magazine, ‘and the daughter was swept away by the current through a partition and dashed to pieces.’
The Morning Post described the disaster scene as an ‘immense mass of ruins…the surrounding scene of desolation presents a most awful and terrific appearance, equal to that which fire or earthquake may be supposed to occasion’. The inundation of one of London’s poorest areas with near-limitless quantities of alcohol no doubt had other effects. Secondary accounts talk of locals lapping up the free beer with gusto, and one man is said to have died of alcohol poisoning — though no evidence for this can be found in the newspapers of the time, nor the coroner’s report of the incident.
At the subsequent investigation, the jury verdict was that the unfortunate neighbours had met their deaths ‘casually, accidentally and by misfortune’. In short, this was deemed an act of God for which nobody was to blame. Meux brewery suffered great financial loss from the tragedy. An estimated £23,000 of beer had gone to waste. However, the company successfully claimed back the £7,000 excise duty on the lost beer, which had already been paid.
The brewery continued for over a century. It eventually closed in 1921 to make way for the Dominion theatre.