Death by Beer
What's your favourite tipple? A sparkling glass of bubbly, a glass of full-bodied red, a shot of peaty Perthshire Scotch, a lewdly named cocktail with an abundance of fancy fruit, colourful umbrellas and fizzing sparklers, that it would make a Soho drag-act blush, or... would you prefer a beer?
I mean, with the bank holiday weekend quickly approaching, you're probably looking for something seriously fun, quirky, curious, original and different to do in London or Soho, and rightly you'll deserve to treat yourself to a few light libations to quench your well-earned thirst after a hard week at work, am I right? And what's better than a nice pint of beer? Mmm.
How about FREE BEER!!!???
And not just one free beer, or two, or even ten, but a free unlimited supply of London's finest, fullest, lightly frothed and most famous beer, enough to last you a lifetime. How about that? Would that quell your thirst? Well, in 1814, your dream came true.
On the 17th October 1814, a colossal beer vat at The Horse Shoe Brewery situated on Tottenham Court Road, ruptured, spilling 135,000 gallons of locally brewed Porter Ale, after the metal hoops holding the barrel together snapped. The sheer weight and force of 610,000 litres of frothing and fizzing fine ale rushing through the vaults, was so overwhelming, that it toppled another 8 to 9000 barrels of Porter, and formed a fifteen foot tidal wave - totalling 323,000 gallons (1,470,000 litres) - of beer, which burst into the city streets.
But, this free supply of booze wasn't a cause for celebration or merriment. There wasn't singing and dancing in the streets as a tsunami of creamy dark ale surged out of the brewery, down Tottenham Court Road and into the awaiting mouths of anyone who happened to be yawning, talking or conveniently a tad thirsty (having always held their trap open, in case any such ludicrous situation should unfold - because you never know?). No.
Unfortunately, the area surrounding the Horse Shoe Brewery, known as St Giles' Rookery - an area of poverty and boozing that inspired Hogarth’s Gin Lane - was packed full of alms houses and tenements for the poor, sick and destitute. And as the Great Beer Flood exploded, a large proportion of those 1.4 million litres of still sticky ale, completely decimated two houses, crushed the wall of the Tavistock Arms Pub, trapping fifteen year old worker Eleanor Cooper amidst the rubble, and flooded the basements on George Street and New Street, where many families were living, killing a mother and daughter who were taking afternoon tea, sweeping both away, and surging through a back room of mourners who had gathered for a funeral wake.
Many family members crawled onto the tops of floating furniture in a bid to survive, but some were not so lucky. Of those who perished were: Ann Saville (aged 53), Eleanor Cooper (15), Catherine Butler (63), Elizabeth Smith (27), Mary Mulvey (30), Sean Duggins (29), Hannah Bamfield (4), and Thomas Mulvey (3), having either drowned or died from their injuries.
And although watchmen at the Brewery made a pretty penny or two by allowing the morbid hawkers who came in their hundreds to marvel at the macabre spectacle (of the ruined beer vats), many locals simply stood around in hushed silence, keeping as silent as possible so the screams of those still trapped could be heard.
A jury cleared the brewers (Henry Meux & Co.) of any wrongdoing, and the incident was set aside as "an unavoidable act of God", with Meux & Co receiving a refund for the excise duty they had paid to produce the beer they had lost, but which had lost so many lives. The Horse Shoe Brewery was soon back into production, making the infamous dark porter ale, until it closed in 1921, and was replaced by the Dominion Theatre.
Looking for something quirky, curious, original & unusual to do in London or Soho this bank holiday weekend? Try Murder Mile Walks. And having read this blog post, I'll give you 30% OFF all tickets, simply by typing MULLEDW1NE into the booking widget above.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tour of Soho’s most notorious murder cases, hailed as “one of the top ten quirky & unusual things to do in London” and featuring 18 murderers, 3 serial killers, across 21 locations, totalling 75 deaths, over just a one mile walk.
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Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime writer, podcaster & tour guide of Murder Mile Walks, hailed as one of the best "quirky curious & unusual things to do in London".
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