The London Beer Flood occurred on this day in 1814. At 6:00 on a Monday evening, a torrent of beer came rushing through the streets of the St. Giles district of London.
It started at the Horse Shoe Brewery at Tottenham Court and Oxford Street, where there were huge vats of porter perched on top of the roof. They contained beer, which had been fermenting right there for months. The wooden vats were enormous — some as tall as 22 feet — and were structurally supported by large iron hoops, dozens of them. They sat on the roof of the Meux Brewing Company, each of them containing hundreds of thousands of liters of beer.
The largest vat had started to strain under the weight and pressure of all that porter, and on this day, around 6:00 p.m., one of the iron hoops gave way and all the porter in the 22-foot-tall vat came gushing out. There were about 600,000 liters of beer in there, and when the vat burst and all that beer came exploding out, there was a chain reaction and the surrounding vats on the roof also burst. More than a million liters of beer toppled the brewery's brick wall (it was 25 feet tall) and began flooding the streets of St. Giles.
People came out onto the streets of St. Giles with mugs and buckets and pots and pans to collect the free beer; others leaned over and drank directly from the streams gushing down the streets. But many people were injured by the torrent and sent to the hospital, where inpatients smelled the beer and nearly rioted to get their share.
Nine people died. About half were children who drowned or sustained fatal injuries from the flood, which had also crushed the roofs of buildings near the brewery, adding heavy timber to the gushing rivers of beer. One man died a few days after the flood from alcohol poisoning. Trying to prevent all of it from going to waste, he had drunk a lot of beer in the span of a few days. People brought a lawsuit against the Meux & Company Brewery, but in court the flood was ruled an Act of God, and the brewery was not held legally responsible.
Taken from The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor