Today is the anniversary of this rather bizarre industrial disaster that occurred near what is now the Dominion Theatre on 17 October 1814.
Back then, London’s drinking classes were supplied by dozens of competing breweries dotted around the capital and its outskirts. The competition between some of these manifested itself by their building ever bigger vats. Prior to going into commission, the brew-houses, as PR stunts, would typically use these massive containers to host big swanky dinners for the directors and their guests.
The monolithic porter vat of Messrs. Meux and Co. had a capacity of over a million pints. On the fateful day, at about 6pm, one of the steel bands (each weighing over 500 lb) split, allowing a pressure explosion that could be heard five miles away*.
The tsunami of beer smashed down the brewery wall, destroyed immediately two houses and severely damaged many others plus the Tavistock Arms. The beer then flooded the basement rooms of numerous adjacent buildings. A huge throng immediately assembled many of whom had the presence of mind to harvest beer in pots, pans, teapots, jars, bottles – anything that came to hand. Many others simply embarked on an immediate free piss-up.* All of this severely hampered rescue work while the constabulary struggled to control the mayhem.
The Times report “Dreadful Accident” of 19 October stated:
The bursting of the brew-house walls, and the fall of heavy timber, materially contributed to aggravate the mischief. The crowd collected from the time of the accident to a late hour was immense. It presented many distressing scenes of children and other inquiring for and lamenting their parents, relatives, and friends.
In the end there were eight fatalities and many more severely injured. Rescue workers were literally up to their waists in beer while attempting to find and retrieve the dead and the hurt, some of them injuring themselves in the process. Some of the bereaved displayed the bodies of the dead in their front rooms, charging the curious to take a look. Such was the crowd in one such house, that the floor collapsed, causing further injuries*.
The smell of beer pervaded the area for months.
A little bit more at Wikipedia, here.
Update 17/10/2012: On the very day that I wrote this post two years ago another blogger was doing likewise. His is long, comprehensive and very well worth reading – the best on-line account of this incident I have seen so far. *He casts doubt, nay scorn, on some of the stories surrounding the saga, quite probably urban myths. I’ve repeated one or two in my account, now asterisked above, but will leave them to stand.