At about 5.30 pm on Monday October 17th 1814, a clerk inspected the huge vat of Porter- a strong black beer- at Meux’s Brewery, near the Tottenham Court Road in London. A large iron hoop supporting the outsize barrel had fallen off an hour earlier; however, there was no real concern- this had happened before. The barrel was huge – the size of a two storey building. And, as it turned out later, rotting away.
The huge fermenting barrel then exploded, and a million pints of beer, mixed with bricks and timber, streamed through the brewery at waist height and spread into the nearby streets of New Street and George Street. The lethal stream of beer, beer fumes, bricks and wood filled the basement cellars of New Street where people where having their tea, and destroyed three houses in George Street. Bricks from the brew house also rained down on New Street. The explosion weakened the facades if the houses and the inundation destroyed the walls, partitions and roof supports.
Eleanor Cooper, aged about 14 was working in the Tavistock Arms public house at 22 George Street. She was scouring pots and pans at a water pump when she was drowned by the incoming wave or crushed by a collapsing 25 foot wall. The beer wave filled the cellar first and then smashed into the yard where she was working. She was found at 8.20, clinging to a water-butt. The Surgeon Ogle was present to help but Eleanor was quite dead.
The newspapers added to the distress by lamenting that 60 pans were smashed beyond recognition. Early newspaper reports gave Eleanor’s age as 10; while this turned out to be incorrect, it did not seem implausible to the press that ten-year old would be working as a servant in the pub. Other reports suggest she was nearer 16; once again the lack of knowledge shows how important a young woman like this was to Regency Society. Her body was sent to the local workhouse and her aged was settled at a guess of 14.
At the partially demolished 3 New Street, the body of the child Sarah Bates was discovered at 1 am in the morning. She was between 3 and four years old .This was part of a heroic campaign by the locals and the brewery servants to locate bodies in the rubble. As today, there were constant calls for silence as people listened to noises from the destroyed buildings. The local working class poor behaved well throughout.
In another part of the house, a Mary Banfield, wife of a coal heaver, her daughter and another child was having tea and the wave of beer washed the mother out of a tenement window and pushed the daughter into another room, where she was smashed into a partition and killed. Her name was Hannah Banfield and she was about 4 years old; the other child was found nearly suffocated but alive; the mother was sent to the Middlesex Hospital in a serious state but eventually recovered.
Most of the deaths were in New Street. This was the home of many poor, predominantly Irish families, many of whom lived in cellar dwellings. At midnight, the corpse of Elizabeth Smith was found on the first floor of one of the two houses in New Street that was completely destroyed. Elizabeth was a 27 year old bricklayer’s wife. Elizabeth had been in the cellar of No 2 New Street with other local Irish at a wake for a child who had died 2 days before. He was John Saville and his mother Ann Saville was one of the victims. Ann was found floating but drowned in the actual brew house itself at 7.30 on the first evening; her house was immediately behind the brewery.
She was placed with her son in one of the 5 black coffins put in the open air to solicit donations for the funeral of these victims who were drowned in the cellar- Mary Mulvey (30), her son by an earlier marriage, Thomas Murray (3) and Catherine Butler , a widow(65) . There were no adult men in the cellar for the wake of John Saville; however, if the explosion had happened two hours later, the men would have been back from work. However, John Saville, wife of Ann, John Bates, father of Sarah and Thomas Smith, husband of Elizabeth, were present at the coffins of their loved ones. They formed, according to the papers “a doleful group”
Anne and her child were buried at St Giles Churchyard on 21 October and the other coffins lay a bit longer at the Ship Inn, Banbury Street, were £33 was raised for their burial.
This was more than enough money for pauper funerals; however the money was more or less extorted from the crowd rather than being a charitable donation. It was more of an entrance fee; two police offers were stationed at the door with a plate in hand to collect sixpences and shillings. The money was to be used for the general welfare of the local poor too, who had lost an estimated £3000 in property- which puts the £33 into some perspective.
The local working poor who survived were soon forgotten; and the backlash began a little. On October 25th the Bury and Norwich Post reported that the “lower class of Irish” that lived in the area were seen by Wednesday “busy employed putting their claim to their share…every vessel from kettle to cask were used…many were seen enjoying their share at the expense of the proprietor”
However, there was, on the whole a lack of victim blaming in this case. Many of the reports of drunkenness and beer looting do not originate from the primary descriptions and I was unable to find the claims of about the Irish repeated in any other papers. The newspaper could-shock horror- have invented the story to pander to the prejudices of its readership.
By November, the emphasis continued to turn away from the victims. The inquest jury at St Giles workhouse had taken only a few moments to declare that the eight were killed “accidently, and by misfortune” The newspapers reported with relief that the Horseshoe Brewery of Henry Meux was insured, and that in November 1814 the company successfully asked the Treasury for the rebate of £7664 of excise duties that had already been paid for the beer
Another £800 in aid was raised in the next two months from local people, including a substantial donation from the Young Brewery at Wandsworth. Meux’s brewery made no contribution. The victims were, after all, merely the poor, and the Irish poor at that.
More about the treatment of the Irish, and the grim reality of the Regency generally, in my book.