Poverty, Beer, and an Act of God

On 17 October 1814 beer vats belonging to the Meux and Company Brewery ruptured at the Horseshoe Brewery, inundating the neighboring streets with a tidal wave more than 15 feet high of more than 323,000 gallons (1,470,000 liters) of alcohol.


The aptly named London Beer Flood sounds funny at first, but it was an industrial disaster that resulted in massive damages and at least eight deaths, including the drowning deaths of 4 year old Hannah Bamfield, 3 year old Sarah Bates, and 3 year old Thomas Mulvey.

I know I shouldn’t be more grieved over the deaths of the nursery-aged children than the deaths of the adults – it is not as though adulthood makes drowning a less horrible way to die. Nonetheless, the idea of little children dying in such a terrible manner just breaks my heart into smaller pieces.

wf1/1856  after 124

The accident was ruled an Act of God by the courts, and the brewery wasn’t held legally responsible, but the loss of life in the deluge was anything but unavoidable or without responsibility. The parish in which the accident happened, St. Giles, was famous for it’s rookery, a slum filled with the “mean tenements densely populated by people of the lowest class”.

By calling the slums rookeries the middle and upper class Londoners could distance themselves from the humanity of those who lived within the tenements, thinking of the inhabitants as no better than any other species of noisy, noisome animals. 

gin_lane in st giles rookery

The appalling tenements in the rookeries had walls that caved under the onrush of beer like tinfoil, crushing those within, as well as crowed basement apartments that filled up and turned into instant drowning pools. The housing conditions of the rookery were as much to blame for the deaths that occurred than the flooding beer. The deaths were the result of an uncaring, hands-off philosophy of government that allowed the poor to live in conditions we’d report to the authorities if we found a dog living in them today.  

The sad thing is that no one seems to have caredexcept for the novelty of the disaster.

After the accident, watchmen charged people a penny or two-pence to see the ruins of the beer vats, and visitors came in their hundreds to witness the macabre spectacle. But a report in The Times praised local people’s response to the disaster, noting how the crowd kept quiet so the cries of trapped victims could be heard.

It wouldn’t be until the Victorian Era that there would be a widespread political and public push to do something to alleviate the conditions the working poor were forced to live in. Prior to that, only the ‘radical’ Whigs dared suggest that perhaps it was the lack of a living wage that caused the working poor to be so destitute, rather than an inherent flaw in the poor themselves.

Charles Dickens’s work was one of the most significant influences behind the growing sympathy for the oppressed masses. He described the wretched existence of the London poor in minute detail in his best-selling novels and stories, including classics like Oliver Twist  from 1838, which featured the rookery at Jacob’s Island:

… crazy wooden galleries common to the backs of half a dozen houses, with holes from which to look upon the slime beneath; windows, broken and patched, with poles thrust out, on which to dry the linen that is never there; rooms so small, so filthy, so confined, that the air would seem to be too tainted even for the dirt and squalor which they shelter; wooden chambers thrusting themselves out above the mud and threatening to fall into it—as some have done; dirt-besmeared walls and decaying foundations, every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot, and garbage: all these ornament the banks of Jacob’s Island.

Dickens also made the impoverished characters in his novels, whether they were the protagonists or supporting actors, so compelling that he almost single-handedly ‘humanized’ the people previously dismissed as the near-animals who infested the rookeries. Between Dickens and the growing art of photography, only the most callous Londoners were unmoved by the degradation poverty inflicted on their fellow men … especially when those fellow men were merely small children.

victorian slum children

In 1940s post-war Britain, democratic socialism made huge strides toward eradicating the worst conditions of absolute poverty. There were still poor people, but thanks to the efforts of my personal hero Prime Minister Clement Attlee and his allies, they were poor people with adequate salaries for food, safer housing, workers rights, and national health care.

Alas, democratic socialists like Attlee, who made the average British citizen better off they they had ever been in recorded history, got labeled pinko-commie-hippies during the Cold War and socialism all but disappeared from politics. Apparently it was all to easy to make the public believe socialism and communism was the same thing. Don’t let those differing words and definitions fool you, boys and girls! This trend toward privatization and deregulation helped bring back Regency Era income inequality, if not a resurgence in London rookeries. Although the lack of rookeries may simply be that the poor cannot afford to live in London anymore.

gini-index-uk inequality

This inequality, and the entire generation of adults who were born in the 80s and never got to benefit from a living wage or an affordable house, are the reasons behind a new upsurge in democratic socialism. They want the same kinds of wages and opportunities enjoyed by the workers in the 1950s … and who can blame them? Those most concerned with systemic inequality are disenchanted with the official left wing party as they are with the right wing, because the left has moved so far away from the leftist ideology that they became moderate right wingers, and the right winger are now so hard right they would scare Georgian Ultra Tories. Many young voters thus feel the only chance they have to find a Clement-like lefty is in the socialist party.

As for myself, I remain a staunch democratic socialist because I think the only way to prevent rookeries – and all that they symbolize — is to make capital share the profits with labor, and only a strong government can make that happen.

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