This particular London Shoes topic is definitely one of the lesser known historic incidents that has happened on London’s streets – I had certainly never heard of it before, and I’m guessing that many others haven’t either – it certainly is an interestingly weird story.
So – this week’s article published on Shoe’s website/facebook/twitter feeds, is all about…… “The Great London Beer Flood of 1814-that occurred in the St. Giles Rookery”.
In the early 1800’s, where the famous Dominion Theatre stands today in Tottenham Court Road-W1 – there used to be the ‘Horseshoe Brewery’, a division of the much bigger ‘Meux & Co Brewery’ organisation.
At that time, the particular area of London that stretched between Tottenham Court Road down to the historic St. Giles-in-the-Fields church just the other side of today’s Oxford Street – was known as the St. Giles ‘Rookery’, and was one of the biggest and most awful slums in London.
The area was full of Irish and French immigrants, plus many other down & outs of differing nationalities – who were crammed in to run down, overcrowded, rat infested and unsanitised houses and dwellings.
The maze of narrow streets, lanes, alleyways, pavements, courts, passages and yards of the St. Giles Rookery district were rife with violence and crime and prostitution, theft, robbery and drunkenness. The area was so rough that even local law enforcement or any council authorities wouldn’t go anywhere near the area.
The really bad slum districts of London were called a ‘Rookery’ because the dwelling habits of the people who lived in these areas was likened to the nesting habits of ‘Rooks’, a species of birds who inhabit large noisy colonies consisting of multiple nests that were crammed high in the tree tops.
Also – at that time, the term ‘to rook’ was London street slang for ‘cheating & stealing’.
The strange thing is, that today, the old St. Giles ‘Rookery’ area of London, is one of the most expensive parts of London property wise – but back at the beginning of the 1800’s it was a crime ridden, no-go area.
The famous ‘William Hogarth’ 1822 illustration “Gin Lane” depicts exactly what the St. Giles ‘Rookery’ was like – as it was influenced by the slum, and you can even see the spire of St. Giles Church in the background of the drawing.
Anyway – Meux & Co’s Horseshoe Brewery (on the site that is now the Dominion Theatre) operated right in the middle of the St. Giles Rookery district, and it was a prominent landmark in the area.
Inside the brewery were a number of fermenting barrels used in the brewing process.
These wooden fermenting barrels were massive things, roughly 22ft high and held together by a number of huge iron rings that encircled the barrels.
On the afternoon of the 17th October 1814, one of the iron rings encircling one of these massive barrels inside the Horseshoe Brewery……….snapped!!!
This caused the whole 22ft high barrel to rupture , releasing hundreds of gallons of hot fermenting beer to gush out at such a force, the walls of the brewery basement collapsed.
Because of the force of this tsunami of beer, it caused other nearby barrels & vats to also split open and gush out their contents.
It is reported that at least 320,000 gallons of beer poured out into the St. Giles ‘Rookery’ district nearby to the brewery, sending a 15ft high wave of beer and debris to cause total carnage in nearby buildings and streets.
This wave of beer flooded the basements of 2 nearby houses – causing terrible consequences.
In one of these houses a mother and daughter were having their tea.
In the other of the houses a wake was being held for a 2yr old boy who had died only the previous day.
It completely took out one of the exterior walls of the nearby Tavistock Arms pub – again causing fatal consequences, as it trapped a barmaid and killed her outright.
In total 8 people were tragically killed that day as a result of the incident – they were:-
Eleanor Cooper – aged 14 / Mary Mulvey – aged 30 / Thomas Mulvey – aged 3 / Hannah Bamfield – aged 4 / Sarah Bates – aged 3 / Ann Savill – aged 60 / Elizabeth Smith – aged 27 / Catherine Butler – aged 65
It is said that, because the area and its inhabitants were so poor, some of the dead’s corpses were laid out on display in a nearby cellar throughout the following days of the tragedy – and a fee was charged if you wanted to go along and see the bodies – as the disaster was seen as a good way of making some much needed money.
It is also reported that several days after the incident, there was cases of some of the ‘Rookery’ residents dying of alcohol poisoning – as a result of them running out into the streets at the time of the incident, and scooping up beer off the ground into containers.
Apparently, the stench of beer (& death) hung in the air around the streets of the St. Giles Rookery for weeks afterwards.
The formal inquest into the tragedy took place on 19th Oct 1814 just 2 days after the incident, and, because of the adverse media coverage, the decision was made to hold the inquest at the St. Giles Workhouse.
The final inquest verdict was that the incident happened “Casually, Accidently & by Misfortune” – and because the tragedy was considered an ‘Act of God’ – compensation was not warranted.
In fact, the Brewery were allowed to re-claim the excise duty they had already paid on the beer – and this repayment actually saved the firm from bankruptcy .
The Brewery was also granted £7,250 as compensation for the barrels that they lost in the disaster.
However, some good did come out of this disaster, as almost immediately after the incident, wooden fermenting casks and barrels were replaced by new designs that were fortified and strengthened by concrete fixtures and fittings.
The Horseshoe Brewery cost £23,000 to rebuild following the tragedy – and the brewery continued to operate from the Tottenham Court Road site right up until 1922, when it was demolished – and the Dominion Theatre built in its place – which is still standing to this very day.
Sadly, there are no plaques, notices, statues or touristy type historic landmarks in the Tottenham Court Road area to commemorate this small but nevertheless historic occurrence – but, not far away from what was once the old St. Giles Rookery slum, in today’s swanky Bloomsbury district, there stands a pub with the strange name of the ‘Holborn Whippet’, where once a year on the anniversary of the 1814 London Beer Flood, they serve up a special commemorative ‘porter’ beer to mark the occasion and remember the tragic incident and those poor souls who lost their lives as a result – which I think is rather touching.
So – how about that for a story.
Having traipsed all around the old St. Giles Rookery streets as they are today, looking cautiously over my shoulder every now and then to make sure there weren’t a wave of ‘Fosters’ creeping up on me – rather than seek out a nearby pub (they are mostly all closed), I decided instead to track down the nearest “Cabman Shelter” for a nice ‘cheeky’ cuppa before heading off back home.
These Cabman Shelters were small green huts, which stood on the pavements next to major London roads. They had a small kitchen fitted inside them and they sold food and (non-alcoholic) drink to the London cabbies.
Between the years 1875 & 1914, there were 61 Cabman Shelters scattered across London – and today, it so pleasing to see that around 15 are still in situ and still doing what they were designed to do.
So – I sought out the lovely and very popular little cabman-shelter that is situated up at Russell Square, where I had a long chat with the lady running the place – in all honesty, with the way the ‘new normal’ is, in the now ‘ghost-town’ of London, I think she was just pleased to have someone to talk to, as there are very few cabbies & punters about these days – I just hope & pray that things will change for the better over the coming months.
Anyway – I necked down my ‘cheeky’ cuppa and saw-off a small packet of digestives, among the peace, tranquility & greenery of beautiful Russell Square – then it was time to don the old mask and board the tube back home.
Hope you enjoyed learning about the little know ‘Great London Beer Flood of 1814’ as much as I did.
See below the full gallery of photos accompanying this ‘Great London Beer Flood in the St. Giles Rookery’ blog