Thursday, October 17, 2013

199 years since the beer flood

Today is the 199th anniversary of the London Beer Flood of 1814. We have all heard the story a few times, but our young writers took a fresh approach to telling the story, and I thought you all might enjoy her findings. 

Enjoy, and in honor of London, please don't spill your beer today! 

by Marissa S.

On October 17, 1814, a deluge of beer swept through a neighborhood in London. The foaming crest flooded business buildings and homes alike, wreaking havoc everywhere it spread. The catastrophe came to be known as the London Beer Flood.

The flood began at Henry Meux’s Horse Shoe Brewery, which exclusively brewed porter. Late in the day, a 22-foot-tall vat exploded, filling the room with beer and causing the other vats in the room to likewise explode. With nowhere else to go, the dark ale crashed through one of the brewery’s brick walls and out into the streets. Overall, 300,000 gallons of beer flowed out of the Horse Shoe in a wave 15 feet tall.

The porter raced out into the adjoining neighborhood, filling basements and ground level rooms and apartments. Buildings collapsed as the beer tore through walls in its path, people and their possessions were swept up as the wave careened along. In one house, a woman was washed out of an upper floor window and injured. An American walking along the street that the beer used as its river bed later wrote that he had been swept up by the porter and carried along until he was plucked out of the sticky stream by rescuers. Others were not so lucky. At a wake being held in a basement beer sloshed in so quickly that the mourners were not able to escape. Mary Mulvey, her young son Thomas, Ann Saville, Elizabeth Smith and Catharine Butler joined the ranks of the dead. Two little girls, Hannah Banfield and Sarah Bates, died when the ale smashed into their homes and carried them off. Back at the Horse Shoe Brewery, employees had also suffered. Two were taken to the hospital in critical condition. Eleanor Cooper, a bar maid, had been killed when the porter knocked through the brick wall of the brewery.

In addition to the lives lost, thousands of dollars worth of private property was destroyed by the onrush of porter. Buildings were wrecked and furniture and household items washed away. One person lost a private (and illegal) still that was found floating in the beer. Everything that remained was saturated in the pungent porter. The Horse Shoe Brewery itself lost a considerable sum. The building was in shambles and would have to be repaired. Duties had already been paid on the hundreds of thousands of gallons of the lost ale. Additionally, the brewery would be unable to sell the beer that everyone was swimming in and thus suffered a loss in revenue.

Rescue and relief efforts started quickly. Those not carried off carefully sifted through the debris, pulling out many people trapped under buildings or struggling in the lagoon of beer. One child, presumably a sibling of Hannah Banfield, was pulled out of the building the little girl had died in. The child was suffering for want of oxygen, but alive. Newspapers of the time praised the efforts of those who worked as rescuers and commented that if the flood had happened even an hour later many more would have died, as workers would have been home for the day. As it was, only eight people died as a direct result of the flood. Later, the disaster was ruled an Act of God and no one was held responsible for the damage done by the Beer Flood. However, a collection was taken up to provide financially for the families who had lost so much, and those who came to view the bodies of the deceased were asked to donate a small amount of money to help cover the cost of the funerals. The Horse Shoe Brewery was able to recoup some of its losses, as Parliament allowed an equal amount of porter to that lost to be brewed duty free.

In the aftermath of the flood, many legends sprung up regarding the actions of those in proximity to the flood. One man, tales told, died of alcohol poisoning after drinking too much of the river of beer. A newspaper reported that many people scooped up the free ale in pots and pans to drink later. One rumor said that injured, beer-soaked people were carried to a hospital and provoked a riot. The other patients, smelling the beer, thought that they were missing out on a party. Still another myth said that the family of one of the flood victims put the body on display and charged people to view it. So many people crowded in that the floor collapsed, sending everyone into the beer-full basement. The family moved the grisly display, but were soon shut down by the police.

This is a true account of the London Beer Flood and the circumstances and stories surrounding it.

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