The Dominion Theatre stands on Tottenham Court Road. Construction of the theatre began in March 1928 with a design by W and TR Milburn with a budget of £460,000. The theatre hosted the premier of Charlie Chaplin’s slapstick comedy “City Lights” in 1931, with the star in attendance. There is a rather sad and macabre fact about the site that has an element of slapstick contained within it.
The theatre stands on the site of the Meux & Co’s Horseshoe Brewery that had been in existence since 1764 and was particularly renowned for its production of Porter.
On the afternoon of 17 October 1814, at around 4.30 George Crick, the storehouse clerk at the brewery, saw that one of the iron bands that bound one of the Porter vats had slipped. These vats were 22-foot (6.7 m) tall and were filled to within 4 inches (10 cms) of the top. This equated to 3,555 imperial barrels or 106,650 gallons (484,840 ltr) of ten-month-old porter, weighing approximately 32 tons (29,000 kg).
These bands tended to slip off the vats two or three times a year, so Crick was unconcerned but reported his findings to his supervisor. He was told “that no harm whatever would ensue“. Crick was told to fill out a work docket to indent for the repair to take place at a later date. Each metal band weighed in at 7 hundredweight (356 kilograms), so the task of repairing one was no small task.
A little after 5.30 pm, Crick was standing on a viewing platform opposite the vat, holding the completed work docket, when the vat suddenly burst. The force of the vats contents detached the stopcock from a neighbouring vat, which also began rapidly discharging its contents destroying five hogsheads of porter in its path, which added another 250 gallons (1,250 ltr) to the flood. Between these three resepticals around 323,000 imperial gallons were immediately released into the storage area. The tsunami like force of the liquid destroyed the rear wall of the brewery. At 25 feet (7.6 m) high and two and a half bricks thick the power of the wave of Porter can be judged. Some of the bricks from the back wall were thrown skywards, falling onto the roofs of the houses in the nearby Great Russell Street causing further damage.
A wave of porter some 15 feet (4.6 m) high swept into New Street, where it destroyed two houses and badly damaged two others. In one of the houses a four-year-old girl, Hannah Bamfield, was having tea with her mother and sister. The wave of beer swept up the mother and the second child depositing them into the street, Hannah was killed by the deluge, The Times described her as being “dashed to pieces” against a partition.
In the second destroyed house, a wake was being held in the Basement by an Irish family for a two-year-old boy; Anne Saville, the boy’s mother, and four other mourners (Mary Mulvey and her three-year-old son, Elizabeth Smith and Catherine Butler) were killed presumably drowned.
Eleanor Cooper, a 14-year-old servant of the publican of the Tavistock Arms in Great Russell Street, died when she was buried under the brewery’s collapsed wall while washing pots in the pub’s yard. Another child, Sarah Bates, was found dead in a house in New Street adjacent to where the Bamfield’s lived the following day. The land around the brewery was low-lying and flat. With poor drainage the beer flowed into cellars, many of which were inhabited and people were forced to climb on furniture to avoid drowning.
All those in the brewery survived, although three workmen had to be rescued from the rubble and several men were hospitalised. It was estimated that by the time the vats and other storage containers had emptied themselves, somewhere in the region of two million pints of Porter had been discharged.
The following day stories began to circulate of hundreds of people collecting the beer, mass drunkenness and a death from alcohol poisoning. An expert of brewing history, Martyn Cornell, is adamant that newspapers of the time made no reference to any revelry or debauchery by the residents. He says that the newspapers reported that the crowds of onlookers, residents and survivors were well behaved. Cornell also points out that the popular press of the time had a low opinion of immigrant Irish population that lived in St Giles, and were frequently reporting on their misdemeanours, so if there had been any misbehaviour, it is likely to have been reported.
The area surrounding the rear of the brewery showed according to the Morning Post ” a scene of desolation [that] presents a most awful and terrific appearance, equal to that which fire or earthquake may be supposed to occasion“. Watchmen were placed outside to guard the ruins of the brewery, but human nature being what it is they ran a nice little earner charging people to view the remains of the destroyed beer vats, and several hundred spectators came to view the scene.
The mourners killed in the cellar were given their own wake at The Ship public house in Bainbridge Street. The other bodies were laid out in a nearby yard by their families; the public came to see them and donated money for their funerals. Collections were taken up more widely for the families, after a month the donations totalled almost £1,000 (around £80,000 today)
The coroner’s inquest was held at the Workhouse of the St Giles parish on 19 October 1814. George Hodgson the coroner for Middlesex oversaw proceedings.The details of the victims were read out as:
- Eleanor Cooper, age 14
- Mary Mulvey, age 30
- Thomas Murry, age 3 (Mary Mulvey’s son)
- Hannah Bamfield, age 4 years 4 months
- Sarah Bates, age 3 years 5 months
- Ann Saville, age 60
- Elizabeth Smith, age 27
- Catherine Butler, age 65.
The jury returned a verdict of “Died by Casualty, Accidentally, and by Misfortune”. The accident put a curb on the building of huge vats, and breweries were jolted into inspecting and replacing their equipment, for fear of similar disasters.