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Two hundred years ago, eight Londoners died in one of the oddest ways imaginable. Or, to invoke the thoroughly British words of the Times’ news report on the incident, “The neighbourhood of St. Giles’s was thrown into the utmost consternation on Monday night, by one of the most melancholy accidents we ever remember.”
On the evening in question—Oct. 17, 1814—one of the vats at the Meux and Co. brewery burst, blowing apart the building’s timber walls and sending the equivalent of 3,500 barrels of beer cascading onto the streets.
The ale tsunami demolished two homes as it swept along what is now Tottenham Court Road in Bloomsbury. In other homes, according to the Times report on Oct. 19, 1814, “inhabitants had to save themselves from drowning by mounting their highest pieces of furniture.” Others were not so lucky, such as a mother and daughter who had just sat down to tea in their first-floor home: In the evocative words of the Times, the daughter was “swept away by the current through a partition, and dashed to pieces.”
In all, eight people died in the London Beer Flood. Five others were injured badly enough to be taken to the hospital, and three brewery employees were rescued by flabbergasted volunteers, who had to wade through waist-deep beer cluttered with debris.
Contemporary Londoners who wish to pay their respects should head to Holborn: This Saturday, to comemmorate the 200th anniversary of the bizarre disaster, the Holborn Whippet bar will be offering free roasted chestnuts and a selection of three specially brewed porters.
Americans can wait until Jan. 15, the anniversary of the U.S. counterpart to the London Beer Flood: the Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, during which 21 people died in a sweet, sticky tsunami.
Visit Atlas Obscura for more on the London Beer Flood and other flooding-food disasters.