It is possible, it turns out, to have too much of a good thing.
Two hundred years ago today, in London, the Horse Shoe Brewery on Tottenham Court Road suffered a malfunction. The metal hoop helping to support one of the enormous storage vats snapped; in short order, the side of that vat—which stored some 610,000 liters of beer—ruptured. The debris compromised the nearby vats, which also burst. And the beer inside the vats, a porter, had nowhere to go but out: out of the burst container, and out into the rest of the brewery. And then out into the streets. And then out into other businesses and homes of St. Giles Rookery, the slum that had previously inspired Hogarth’s Gin Lane.
The newly liberated beer came in an enormous wave—15 feet high, according to reports at the time—like some kind of ironic Greek punishment being doled out to St. Giles' beer-happy residents. The wave flooded cellars and took debris along with it—leaving, as Atlas Obscura writes, "a path of foamy destruction in its wake."
George Crick was the clerk on duty at Horse Shoe at the moment of the flood. As he recalled it, according to The Independent: “I was on a platform about 30 feet from the vat when it burst. I heard the crash as it went off, and ran immediately to the storehouse, where the vat was situated. It caused dreadful devastation on the premises—it knocked four butts over, and staved several, as the pressure was so excessive. Between 8 and 9,000 barrels of porter [were] lost.”
Also lost in the disaster were human lives. Eight of them. Five were people who had been attending the memorial service of a child who had died on October 16; the two others were a mother and daughter who, having just sat down to tea, were swept away in the torrent. Another was a teenage girl, an employee of a local pub.
The disaster, as many such disasters will, brought out both the best and the worst in the people who lived through it. On the one hand, according to newspaper reports, people behaved admirably. They kept quiet during the chaos and its aftermath so that the cries of the victims trapped in the rubble could be heard. On the other hand, though, visitors—hundreds of them—came to the Horse Shoe Brewery to see the ruins of the beer vats. And the brewery's guards, apparently, charged those visitors to see the spectacle. There were rumors that London's citizens, in the immediate aftermath of the flood, had helped themselves to the beer that was now, in every sense, free; those rumors, however, have never been substantiated.
What was substantiated, though, was the danger of inner-city breweries. “I have always held it as my firm opinion, that the many breweries and distilleries in this metropolis … are most dangerous establishments, and should not be permitted to stand in the heart of the town,” a letter published in the Morning Post newspaper put it. “I am only surprised, when I consider the immense body contained in these ponderous vats, that similar accidents do not more frequently occur."
The note was signed, perhaps appropriately, a "friend of humanity."