Post Date: 15th October 2013
Author: Matt Gedge
On 17th October 199 years ago London witnessed one of the most bizarre and tragic accidents in its history.
In the neighbourhood of St Giles – where the Dominion Theatre now stands – loomed the vast Henry Meux and Co Brewery. Inside were a number of huge vats, each ‘three to four storeys in height’ and capable of holding up to 3500 barrels of porter (strong beer).
On 17th October 1814 at around 5pm disaster struck when one of the vats exploded. The beer burst through the brewhouse with such force that the bricks from the walls flew over the tops of neighbouring houses. As beer surged forward, the backs of a number of buildings on adjacent Russell street were caved in – two private houses, a booksellers, a poulterers and the Tavistock Arms.
Within minutes, neighbouring George Street and New Street were swamped with alcohol, with the houses on Russell Street bearing the brunt of the wave as beer crashed into the buildings and swept down into the cellars. Servants sought safety by clambering onto furniture, but not everyone managed to escape unharmed. On the first floor of one of the private residences on Russell Street a mother and daughter were having tea; the mother was killed instantly by the onrushing porter, while her daughter was swept through a partition and ‘dashed to pieces’. In the Tavistock Arms a young girl suffocated. In another house around 30 people had gathered for the wake of a young girl who had died just days earlier. Tragically five of those died.
The London Morning Post described the aftermath of the explosion: ‘The surrounding scene of desolation presents a most awful and terrific appearance, equal to that which fire or earthquake may be supposed to occasion’. A large and devastated community gathered quickly and attempted to rescue those who had survived. Three men were rescued from the brewery by people wading in beer up to their waists while others cleared away the rubbish and listened to the cries of trapped residents.
Eight people died in the disaster. In the aftermath three of the bodies were laid in coffins with shrouds nearby, with members of the public paying their respects and leaving a small contribution towards their funeral. Five people who had died in the wake were laid in a parlour in black coffins while their names and ages were written on lids that stood around the room. Two constables stood at the door with a plate for donations, and it was reported that people of all financial standing left money, supported by the local shopkeepers who positioned notes in their windows to take subscriptions for the bereaved.
The one consolation was that the accident didn’t happen an hour later as this meant that the majority of men were still at work.
How did this tragedy come to pass? Well, according to the London Morning Post, the vat which burst was said to be old and ‘in a decayed state’. Evidence given to the House of Commons Select Committee in 1817 suggested that the brewer Henry Meux ‘used methods on the borders of legality and beyond to secure trade’.
Despite losses of around £15,000 the brewery not only survived but flourished and Henry Meux’s personal fortune grew with it. Within a month he had married, and petitioned the government for remission of £7000 excise duties paid on the beer lost in the accident, and before he died he had been granted a baronetcy!