Food related disasters happened with an unsettling frequency throughout history. These disasters come in one of two varieties. The first variety involve food that is somehow adulterated, whether on purpose or as a tragic mishap. One such incident occurred in Bradford, England, in 1858, when a mistake at a druggist led to a batch of peppermint lozenges being prepared with arsenic, leading to several deaths. The second variety of food related disaster involves massive amounts of a food product itself breaking out of its storage and releasing mayhem on unsuspecting passerby. Perhaps the strangest such happening occurred in 1919, when a massive flood of molasses swept through northern Boston, killing 21 people and injuring 150 more.
Today’s food disaster is of the latter type. The unsuspecting people of London were subjected to a flood of the alcoholic variety when a huge fermentation tank in a brewery burst, releasing its contents in a 15 foot high wave of beer that killed 8 people.
A wave of beer
The disaster took place at The Horse Shoe Brewery, at the corner of Great Russel Street and Tottenham Court Road. The tank responsible for the disaster was a 22 foot high wooden structure held together with iron rings. At full capacity, it held upwards of a 3500 of beer. On the afternoon of October 17, 1814, one of the iron rings snapped, and an hour later the rest of the tank ruptured, unleashing a wave of beer that collapsed the back wall of the brewery and ripped open other vats.
Soon, 320,000 gallons of beer flooded St. Giles Rookery, a densely populated slum. Passing through the slums, the 15 foot wave of alcohol picked up debris along the way and inundated George Street and New Street in a few minutes. It collapsed two houses, killing Marry Banfield and her daughter Hannah in one house and killing four mourners at an Irish wake being held for a 2 year old who had died the day before.
When the flood ended, a total of 8 people were found dead in the rubble. Naturally, the shell-shocked Londoners demanded answers.
An act of God
Popular myth has Londoners turning out in their hundreds, armed with pots and pans, to scoop up the free beer laying in pools all over the streets. Some died of alcohol poisoning in the party that followed. However, there do not appear to be any reports of such activitiy in the newspapers of the day. In reality, the crowds who turned out to view the destruction were respectful, keeping quiet so that rescuers could hear victims trapped in the rubble.
There is no mythology surrounding the inquiry that followed. The brewery was taken to court, but courts found that the disaster was an Act of God and that the tank owners were not liable for damages. The disaster cost the brewery around £23,000. The company was able to reclaim the excise duty paid on the beer, and were granted £7250 in compensation for the lost beer.
The Horse Shoe Brewery managed to survive the disastrous flood, continuing to do business until it was eventually demolished in 1922. After the London Beer Flood of 1814, wooden fermentation tanks were phased out and slowly replaced with lined concrete vats.
“The London Beer Flood of 1814.” Historic-uk.com. Historic UK. May 24, 2015. http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofBritain/The-London-Beer-Flood-of-1814/
Tingle, Rory. “What really happened in the London Beer Flood 200 years ago?” Independent.co.uk. October 17, 2014. The Independent. May 24, 2015. http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/features/what-really-happened-in-the-london-beer-flood-200-years-ago-9796096.html