Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
On this day 200 years ago, a crowd of unlucky Londoners learned the hard way that there's no such thing as a free drink.
On this day 200 years ago, a crowd of unlucky Londoners learned the hard way that there’s no such thing as a free drink. In what came to be known as the London Beer Flood, collapsing vats at the Horseshoe Brewery sent an incredible 323,000 gallons of beer into the streets of London. The idea of a vast Tsunami of ale may be the stuff some people’s dreams are made of, but the results were anything but a laughing matter. Two nearby buildings were all but washed away by the flood and eight people were killed. Among them was 4-year-old Hannah Bamfield, who The Times described as being “dashed to pieces” against a partition while having tea in a first-floor room. Down in a nearby basement, five mourners—four women and a 3-year-old boy—were drowned while they were themselves attending a wake for a young boy who had just died.
That the beer flood caused such damage and loss of life says a lot about the neighborhood where it took place. By 1814, the Parish of St. Giles was a teeming, poverty-stricken quarter swollen with recent immigrants from Ireland. Later to become a setting for several of Dickens’ grimier scenes, it was a ramshackle area of blow-me-down buildings and narrow courts where even the basements were full to the rafters.
What makes the flood particularly ironic is that this exact neighborhood is where William Hogarth set his famous print "Gin Lane." The satirical image, showing Londoners destitute and sick thanks to the hard liquor Britons still call Mother’s Ruin, was created to contrast with the same artist’s "Beer Street." This showed the city flourishing under the nourishing, temperate influence of ale. Hogarth might have been surprised to learn that after his death it was not gin but his wholesome beer that would bring so many people in the area to their deaths.
It’s hard to imagine anything like the beer flood happening in the area today. The Brewery’s site is covered by a theater, while the Rookeries of St. Giles are covered with a modernist skyscraper and a flashy but bleak new build from Renzo Piano.
One nearby address is still keeping the memory alive, however. The local pub Holborn Whippet has brewed three anniversary ales to commemorate the day the streets ran brown with beer. American readers may be disappointed to learn, however, that this pub is not a dark, crooked old place with horse brasses hanging on its beams, but a fancily revamped microbrew-house scrubbed up to resemble a luxurious Victorian bathroom. There’s no need to mourn, though. While some traditions may get washed away, at least the beer flood anniversary is a reminder of just how much this city has changed for the better.