London Beer Flood

In an early evening night in October Mrs. Banfield was having tea with her two young daughters. The Banfield family was one of several poor Irish immigrant families that crammed into poorly constructed buildings along New Street. Living on the edge of poverty in London, England. Without warning a fifteen foot wave of English Porter crashed into their house sweeping her and one of her daughters into the street.

At the time of the incident The Meux Brewery and Whitbread Brewery were the two largest breweries in London. From July 1815 until the incident the brewery made 102,493 imperial barrels or 4,431,236 gallons of beer. Most of this was Porter because that was the popular style of the day. What makes this unique was the way in which the beer was fermented. If you have been to a modern brewery you have seen the large cylindroconocial fermenters that can hold anywhere from 5 to 20 barrels of beer. As was common for that time the Meux Brewery had a wooden fermentation barrel where their largest could hold 18,000 imperial barrels. This vessel was 22 feet tall with a series of iron hoops weighing a total of 81 metric tons binding the wooden staves.

With natural materials such as wood there are subtle changes that constantly occur. Ones of these is that wood expands and contracts and the iron hoops occasionally fall off the vat. This was normally not a concern and the bands are replaced and reset to maintain the hold of the vessel. That was the occasion on the afternoon of 17 October 1815 one of the bands, weighing 700 lbs, fell off the vessel. A cellerman noticed the incident and reported it to his supervisor.

An hour after the reported first band falling off the vat unexpectedly burst releasing it’s 3,555 imperial barrels of Porter into the brewery. The force of the rupture knocked out the valve of a neighboring vat and the contents were released into the brewery as well. These violent eruptions caused a chain reaction and several other hogsheads of aging beer burst. This destruction led to estimated total volume of somewhere between 128,000 to 323,000 imperial gallons of beer filling the brewery. The story may have ended there with just a brewery flooded and beer as the only casualty, but if that were the case I would not be writing about the incident today.

Unfortunately for the tenants of New Street, which ran behind the building, the brewery’s wall burst and beer flowed into the street. This collapse sent up to 323,000 imperial gallons out in a 15 foot wave of beer. This wave crashed into the poorly constructed houses along New Street. Two of the houses were completely destroyed and two were severely damaged. In one of those houses were the three Banfield ladies were enjoying tea that the same time. Many of these houses had basements which flooded with the flowing porter.

The wave of beer swept Mrs Banfield and one of the daughters out into the street. Sadly her daughter, Hanna Banfield, was killed in the destruction caused by the gallons of beer. Seven others passed away by either drowning in their flooded basements or under the collapse of buildings.

As is common with disaster caused by large manufactures at the time the Brewery was not held liable for the deaths. After an inquiry the incident was determined to be an “act of god” and Meux and Company did not have to pay damages. The brewery was even able to stay in business by collecting the excise tax they had already paid on the lost beer. Ultimately the brewery ultimately closed in 1921 and the building was leveled to make way for the Dominion Theatre.

Because of this disaster the use of wooden vats to ferment thousands of gallons of beer was faded out. These were replaced by concrete vats and ultimately the stainless steel clyndroconocal fermenters we see today.

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