Today in London’s unruly history: a bursting brewery vat turns St Giles into a free festival, 1814.

The St Giles Rookery, was one of central London’s most notorious slums for centuries, a harbour for rebels & criminals: “ one dense mass of houses, through which curved narrow tortuous lanes, from which again diverged close courts”… Largely contained between Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury Street (then Charlotte St) Broad Street and St Giles High Street, a warren of cheap lodging houses, “set apart for the reception of idle persons and vagabonds.”, a haunt of coiners and thieves, costermongers (pedlars and street hawkers) , fish-women, newscriers, and corn-cutters. A major bugbear of authorities and moralising reformers, supplier of large numbers to the gallows at Tyburn and the convict transport ships… It teemed with the poorest, the most desperate.

On the edge of the Rookery’s most notorious streets, a large brewery, originally built by Blackburn & Bywell, though later known as Stevensons (and also possibly Manx & Co), used to occupy the land where the Dominion Theatre stands, between the end of Bainbridge Street and Great Russell Street, backing onto some of the ‘darkest spots’ of the old rookery.

“a great day for the Rookery”

On October 17th 1814, this was the scene of a disaster which is said to have turned into a free festival: “the great porter vat, which stood 22 feet high and contained 3555 barrels (or 135,000 imperial gallons)… the talk of the town when first erected… burst, flooding the Rookery.” Other vats burst as the debris collapsed, and several flimsy garret walls collapsed under the tremendous force of thousands of gallons of dark beer, killing several inhabitants [seven, possibly; it also damaged the Tavistock Arms pub]. But the rookery-dwellers weren’t likely to pass up such an opportunity, as described by local chroniclers Gordon and Deeson, (with typical loaded language: again, note the immediate likening of the residents to verminous animals): “Like rats out of their holes came the mob and lapped at the porter as it ran along the gutters, or cupped their hands and poured it down their throats…” The more enterprising grabbed whatever containers they could to collect the porter for later consumption, “even the children, in the scantiest of rags or more more frequently nothing at all, ran out to do their share with spoons… it was a great day for the Rookery.” In court it was held to be an Act of God!

Allegedly along with those crushed and drowned by the initial flood, a couple of St Giles folk drank themselves to death, bringing the official number of deaths to eight. While the images of a free piss up for the poor warm the heart, you have to wonder if this is all entirely true, especially as it bears an uncanny resemblance to the earlier story of the burning of Langdale’s Gin Distillery in Holborn in the Gordon Riots, not a mile east and just thirty-odd years before; you can’t help feeling maybe the incidents have been confused, and spiced with a dose of moral come-uppance by temperance-swilling historians.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

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