Sometimes too much of a good thing can be bad for you – this adage can definitely be said to apply to the tragic events that took place in St Giles, London, on the afternoon of 17 October 1814. Free beer literally flowed along the street, but it was certainly not the merry event one might imagine.


The Horse Shoe Brewery, owned by Meux & Co., could be found at the corner of Great Russell Street and Tottenham Court Road. One of the largest breweries in London, it had stood there for decades and was an established producer of porter – a type of beer made with brown malt. The brewery’s 22-foot-tall wooden fermentation tank was an impressive sight, and could hold more than 3,500 barrels of beer – enough to provide a pint each to more than one million people.

The area of St Giles was home to many of London’s poorest inhabitants, as well as immigrants, and until the mid-19th century was the site of a notorious rookery – a slum where entire families crammed into one room, and crime was rife. In fact, William’s Hogarth’s famous 1751 print Gin Lane – depicting the evils of gin as opposed to the merits of beer – was set in St Giles; it was this impoverished area of the city that would witness a disaster few could have predicted.

William Hogarth’s famous print, Gin Lane
William Hogarth’s famous print, Gin Lane, warned of the perils of cheaply available alcohol. (Image by Getty Images)

What caused the London Beer Flood of 1814?

At around 4.30 in the afternoon, George Crick, the storehouse clerk of Meux & Co., noticed that one of the iron rings that held the huge fermentation tank together had broken. Such an event happened a few times a year, so Crick’s superior asked him to make a note of the damage to be repaired later. The tank, however, was full and the pressure within meant it was fit to burst.

Just over an hour later, St Giles was flooded with beer as a 15-foot wave of porter swept through the streets. Such was the force of the spouting hot beer that part of the 25-foot brewery wall collapsed, and several neighbouring tanks also ruptured. In a matter of minutes, the brewery and surrounding area was engulfed in around 320,000 gallons of dark brown beer.

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George Crick witnessed the event and later reported the scene to a local newspaper: “I was on a platform about 30 feet from the vat when it burst. I heard the crash as it went off, and ran immediately to the storehouse, where the vat was situated. It caused dreadful devastation on the premises - it knocked four butts over, and staved several, as the pressure was so excessive. Between 8 and 9,000 barrels of porter [were] lost.”

The rookery in St Giles
The rookery in St Giles, London, 1849. (Image by Getty Images)

With no street drainage, the beer had nowhere to go except into cellars and basements – many of which were occupied, forcing the inhabitants to clamber onto furniture for safety. The rushing liquid knocked down everything in its path, including people, causing mayhem and collapsing the basements of houses; the alcoholic fumes alone would have also overpowered many.

The rushing liquid knocked down everything in its path, including people, collapsing the basements of houses

Who died in the London Beer Flood?

In a house on New Street – a small cul-de-sac behind the brewery – a young girl and her mother were killed while taking tea, and in the basement next door, a wake was being held for a two-year-old Irish boy. All five mourners were killed as a wave of alcohol filled the room; a child’s body was also later found in a neighbouring house.

Another fatality was a teenage pub servant from the nearby Tavistock Arms, who became trapped when the walls of the pub collapsed onto her. Remarkably, there were no deaths in the brewery itself, but many suffered injuries as they were swept away by the flood or became buried under rubble.

A map showing the location of the Horse Shoe Brewery
The Horse Shoe Brewery was one of London’s biggest breweries. (Image by Alamy)

The following morning, people surveyed the devastation in horror. The Morning Post described the sight 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”.

In the days that followed, some locals resorted to making the best of the situation by collecting the ‘free’ beer in any vessel they could find. There were reports of one further death from alcohol poisoning, as people drank the beer straight from the street, although this is unconfirmed.

The remains of the brewery became an overnight attraction, and watchmen charged people a penny to visit the ruined building. Many of these visitors also generously donated money for the victims’ funerals – so shocked were they by what had happened.

Was anyone punished for the Great Beer Flood of 1814?

An investigation into the tragedy was launched and the disaster was eventually ruled as an act of God, with no blame on the brewery. Meux & Co., which had lost around £23,000 worth of beer – a considerable sum – was able to claim some compensation, as well as the excise duty, so was saved from bankruptcy. But, since the brewery was found to have done nothing wrong, no compensation was paid to the families of the victims, or to those who had lost their homes and possessions. One anonymous letter written to the Morning Post suggested that the explosion had been an accident waiting to happen, registering surprise that such a tragedy had not occurred before.

For months afterwards, the sickly smell of beer hung in the air around St Giles as a constant reminder of the disaster. The brewery continued to operate until its demolition in 1921; the Dominion Theatre now occupies part of the site.

St Giles Circus in the c1920s
St Giles Circus in the c1920s – a far cry from its slum beginnings. (Image by Getty Images)

Despite the loss of life of 17 October 1814, some key lessons were learned: the original wooden fermentation tanks were replaced with concrete-lined versions, which started to be used throughout the brewing industry.

However, the St Giles rookery would remain mired in poverty for the next few decades, swelling in size due to a huge influx of immigrants after the Irish Famine of the 1840s. Living conditions remained appalling, and outbreaks of bacterial diseases such as cholera were common and spread rapidly among the many families living in such close quarters. It wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that the slums were finally cleared, making way for New Oxford Street.


This article was first published in the October 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed