A giant wave of beer once flooded London.

  • Horse Shoe Brewery, London
Horse Shoe Brewery, London
Alan King engraving/ Alamy Stock Photo

London was once a prominent beer-brewing city; in the 1850s, the U.K. capital was home to the largest brewery in the world. London’s beer business was robust in the 19th century — and it was also the source of an industrial accident that sent thousands of gallons of beer flooding the streets. It happened at the Horse Shoe Brewery, located at the corner of Great Russell Street and Tottenham Court. On the afternoon of Monday, October 17, 1814, one of the large iron rings used to hold together the brewery’s wooden fermentation tanks broke. The vat was massive: It stood about 22 feet high, and held roughly the equivalent of more than 3,500 standard barrels of the company’s porter beer. Within an hour, the damaged tank burst, sending a gush of beer that broke through a wall and caused several more of the tanks on the premises to split open. 

More than 380,000 gallons of beer then rushed through the streets of St. Giles, a densely populated, poverty-stricken London neighborhood. The wave reached up to 15 feet high, and came crashing into nearby homes and businesses. Although everyone at the brewery survived, the London Beer Flood claimed the lives of eight people in the neighborhood. In the aftermath, the media reported a respectful atmosphere as St. Giles residents reckoned with the tragedy; stories about locals scooping up as much beer as they could drink also emerged, although historians now dispute the likelihood of these reports. A hearing ultimately found that the brewery was not responsible, dubbing the incident an act of God.

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