Death by Beer: The London Beer Flood of 1814

Depiction of London Beer Flood in Dr Who Magazine in 2012. Zytophile

The London Beer Flood Begins

At around 4:30 pm on Monday, October 17, 1814, one of the 22 iron loops securing a 22-foot high vat in one of the brewery’s rear storehouses fell off. It was located around three feet from the ground, and the vat itself was almost full with approximately 3,555 gallons of ‘entire’ porter. At the inquest, later on, the storehouse’s clerk, George Crick, admitted that no one was worried about the hoop falling off because it happened 2-3 times a year.

Crick wrote a note to one of the brewery partners informing him that the hoop had fallen off, but otherwise, no one paid much attention to the matter. About an hour later, Crick heard the vat burst, and when he reached the storehouse, he was stunned to find that the beer had smashed through a 22-inch thick wall. Even worse, its force, along with that of the flying debris, knocked the cock out of a 2,100 barrel vat which resulted in the equivalent of over 1,200 barrels of beer escaping. It was utter chaos as Crick, and his staff tried to prevent others from drowning. They were up to their waists in beer and had no idea what was going on outside.

Depiction of London at the time by William Hogarth. The History Press

The Beer Tsunami

In the end, around 323,000 gallons of beer burst out into the streets of London and caused havoc. The brewery was located amongst the tenements of St Giles Rookery which housed some of the poorest people in the city. It was common for entire families to live in a single room. Although it was ultimately a terrible tragedy, it could have been even worse. As it was still early in the evening, most of the houses were comparatively empty. Had the accident occurred an hour or two later, the death toll would have been in the dozens at least.

One can only imagine the scene as a 15-foot high wave of dark liquid plowed through the streets. It flooded cellars, went through the backs of houses and forced people out of first floor rooms. One of the victims was four-year-old Hannah Banfield. She was having tea with her mother, Mary, when the beer flooded through the room, tossed Hannah through a partition and killed her instantly. Mary and another one of her daughters barely survived.

14-Year-Old Eleanor Cooper was another victim. She was caught up in the wave when outside scouring for pots. The tragic teenager was found upright amongst the ruins three hours later. The most heart-wrenching part of the tale unquestionably surrounds the wake of two-year-old John Saville. His family was in the cellar grieving his death (he had died the previous day) when the beer wave crashed in and killed five people, including John’s mother, Ann.

A three-year-old girl named Sarah Bates was the last known victim. There is only one eyewitness account of the disaster. It came from an unnamed American who happened to be in the area at the time. He wrote about the tragedy 20 years later in a New York magazine called The Knickerbocker. He said that “whole dwellings were literally riddled with the flood.” The survivor wrote about his good fortune to survive as his “clothes were heavy with the hot malt liquor which had saturated them (the victims).” While there is no doubt that this stranger than fiction tale really happened, a few myths are surrounding the London Beer Flood that are worth tackling.