Brewing Trouble

Brewery Workers in St Giles Circus 1875

Brewers outside the Combe and Co’s Brewery, Castle Street, St Giles Circus, London (1875)

 On Monday 17th 1814, the area surrounding St. Giles was subject to what the Morning Post described as ‘one of the most melancholy accidents we ever remember’:

About six o’clock, one of the vats in the extensive premises of Messrs. HENRY MEUX and Co. in Banbury-Street, St. Giles’s burst, and in a moment’s time New-street, George-street, and several others in the vicinity, were deluged with the contents amounting to 3,500 barrels of strong beer. The fluid, in its course, swept every thing before it. Two houses in New-street, adjoining the brew-house were totally demolished. The inhabitants, who were of the poorer class, were all at home. In one of them they were waking a child that died on Sunday morning.[1]

Though there is the temptation in hindsight to riff on the farcicality of what has been called The Great Beer Flood of London, commentators at the time recognised that this was nothing less than a catastrophe. In the end, the body count was eight. The dead were of Irish descent, as we might have anticipated from the flood’s location in a part of London characterised by its Hibernian immigrant population, and all of them were women and children – the men were still at work, and thus were not yet in the crowded basements they knew as home. Those who were unfortunate enough to be indoors when the vats burst clambered onto what furniture they had in an attempt to escape the rising brown waters. As so often in disasters (natural, man-made, or a mixture of the two – as in this case) poverty exacerbated the consequences of the initial calamity. That marginal detail of antediluvian infant mortality reminds us that the accident only supplemented a generally high child death toll, it being for the poor in particular an all too common part of the fabric of everyday life.

As is now the case, disaster makes a fine spectacle for those not intimately acquainted with it: a letter by ‘A FRIEND TO HUMANITY’ to the Morning Post bears witness to the author’s self-consciously benevolent attempt to visit the scene of destruction. After dodging collapsible walls and bristling at the presence of so many other gawping spectators, our philanthropist returns home and writes an angry letter about it all, one peculiar example of the voluminous middle class discourse on the ill effects of alcohol upon the poor:

 I have always held it as my firm opinion, that the many large and extensive breweries and distilleries in this metropolis (though highly necessary in themselves), are most dangerous establishments, and at the same time great public nuisances, and should not be permitted to stand in the heart of the town, but should be detached from it, as our magazines for gun-powder are, being, in my opinion, equally dangerous with them…[2]

[1] The Morning Post Wed 19 Oct 1814.

[2] The Morning Post Sat 29 Oct 1814.

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