The Great Beer Flood and the Boer War
So what does the Great London Beer Flood of 1814 have to do with the Boer War of 1899 decades later? A lot really, and it involves a banjo-playing prostitute (a ‘bawd’ in case you’re wondering about the old Middle English used in the headline), so – here’s the tale of how an artillery battery was financed during the South African War (1899-1902) a.k.a The Boer War by a very eccentric and colourful Lady.
Let’s start at the beginning with the London Beer Flood of 1814, basically the flood was caused when a 6.7m heigh wooden fermentation vessel containing ‘Porter’ beer at Meux&Co’s Horse Shoe Brewery in London burst open. It dislodged and burst open another fermenter and storage barrels releasing around a million litres of beer. The resultant wave of beer swept into a slum, tragically killing 8 people as it flooded basements and knocked over walls. Although one person died of alcohol poisoning a couple of days later after hundreds of people collected the beer and mass drunkenness ensued.
Images: The Meux & Co’s Horse Shoe Brewery and Sir Henry Meux, 1st Baronet
The brewery was nearly bankrupted as a result, but was saved by the government after a rebate was given on the excise of the lost beer. Gradually the Meux&Co Brewery found it way back on its feet and became highly profitable. The Meux family (Meux is pronounced ‘Mews’) had a long association with beer and breweries, the owner of the Horse Shoe Brewery was Sir Henry Meux, 1st Baronet (1770-1841), the son of a brewer named Richard Meux (1734 – 1813). Sir Henry Meux would bequeath the brewing empire to his son, also named Henry, Sir Henry Meux, the 2nd Baronet (1817-1883), he headed up Meux&Co Brewery and also became a Member of Parliament. He in turn bequeathed the brewery and family fortune to his son, also Henry, Sir Henry Bruce Meux, the 3rd Baronet, who started managing the brewery from 1878.
Now, it is in Sir Henry Bruce Meux, the 3nd Baronet that we find a most remarkable figure. His wife. Lady Valerie Susan Meux.
Born in Devon in 1847, Valerie Langdon married Sir Henry Bruce Meux in 1878 and moved to his Hertfordshire estate. Langdon claimed to have been an actress, but was apparently on the stage for only a single season. By all accounts, she worked as a banjo-playing prostitute and barmaid under the name of Val Reece (or Val Langdon – her stage name) at the Casino de Venise in Holborn, central London, and it is here that she is believed to have met Sir Henry Bruce Meux.
Images; Sir Henry Meux with Lady Meux playing the Banjo and their Zebra drawn carriage in London.
She certainly struck the big time. Meux had a considerable estate, including 9,200 acres on the Marlborough Downs. He even commissioned James Whistler to paint three portraits of his wife, Valerie, Lady Meux. At Lady Meux’s request, Henry purchased from the City of London the Temple Bar Gate, which they preserved at their Theobalds Park estate. They re-opened and greatly extended the house, including installing a roller-skating rink (roller-skating is older than you think, invented in 1863 – it was initially dubbed ‘rinkomania’ in the 1870s).
Lady Meux took up the mantle of a London socialite, and a very eccentric one at that, she reportedly travelled around London in a carriage drawn by zebras.
Images: Portraits by James Whistler of Lady Meux
During the South African War (1899-1902), early British reverses to the Boer invasions of the British Colonies and sieges of their towns leading to ‘Black Week’ in December 1899 made headline news and the defence of Ladysmith made a particular impression on Lady Meux.
When the Boers declared war against the British on 11th October 1899, Captain Hedworth Lambton was in command of HMS Powerful, which was posted in the China seas, HMS Powerful was a state-of-the-art Cruiser for its time and at the onset of hostilities it was immediately ordered to Durban. Knowing that the British forces at Ladysmith urgently needed more powerful guns, Captain Percy Scott from HMS Powerful’s sister ship, HMS Terrible, devised carriages to transport naval cannon, and Lambton led a Naval brigade to the rescue at Ladysmith with four twelve-pounders and two 4.7″ guns. The enthusiastic response in Britain to these Naval “heroes of Ladysmith” was enormous and made Captain Hedworth Lambton a well-known public figure. Queen Victoria even sent a telegram to him saying, “Pray express to the Naval Brigade my deep appreciation of the valuable services they have rendered with their guns.”
So impressed by their actions around the Ladysmith siege, Lady Meux, in her own patriotic way decided to do her bit for England and sprang into action. She ordered, six naval 12-pounders on special field carriages made by Armstrong of Elswick. The guns were sent directly to Lord Roberts in South Africa, because they had been refused by the War Office. The unit which manned these guns were known as the “Elswick Battery”. The battery was in action several times, including the Second Battle of Silkaatsnek near Rustenberg on the 2nd August 1900.
Images: The Elswick Battery Naval Guns donated by Lady Meux in South Africa during the Boer War.
Sir Henry Bruce Meux died on the 11th September 1900 at his Theobalds estate, the couple were childless and he was still a very wealthy man, thus leaving Lady Valerie Meux, now aged 48, one of the richest women in Britain with no heirs to the family fortune. She owned a string of race horses, entering them under the assumed name of ‘Mr Theobalds’, and won the Derby in 1901. She also collected a vast array ancient Egyptian artefacts.
When Captain Hedworth Lambton, the commander of the Naval Brigade at Ladysmith, returned to England, he called on Lady Meux at Theobalds to recount his adventures in South Africa and to praise the patriotic spirit of her gift. Lady Meux was “touched by this tribute” and wrote out a new will and testament making Lambton the chief heir to the large fortune left by her husband, including her house at Theobalds Park in Hertfordshire and a substantial interest in the Meux&Co Brewery. The only condition was that Lambton should change his name to Meux.
So, when Lady Meux died on 20 December 1910, Captain Hedworth Lambton without hesitation, promptly changed his name by royal licence to Meux, thereby enabling him to inherit her substantial fortune. By the end of the 1st World War, Sir Hedworth Meux GCB, KCVO (née Lambton) was a Full Admiral in the Royal Navy and the Naval aide-de-camp to King Edward VII.
Images: A Tea Cloth in the Ladysmith Siege museum celebrating the ‘Heroes of Ladysmith’ – Captain Hedworth Lambton top right and Admiral Sir Hedworth Meux (née Lambton) during WW1.
Back to the Beer
So what became of Meux&Co Brewery – can we still buy the beer? Well, sort of, you’re possibly drinking it now. When the Admiral of the Fleet, the Honourable Sir Hedworth Meux retired from the Royal Navy in 1921, in the same year Meux&Co Brewery was directed to move their production to the ‘Nine Elms’ brewery in Wandsworth which the Company had already purchased in 1914. The original ‘Horse Shoe’ brewery was demolished and today is the site of the Dominion Theatre, a Grade II listed art deco theatre in the heart of London.
In 1961 Meux&Co Brewery was sold to Friary, Holroyd and Healy’s Brewery of Guildford in Surrey. The company was renamed Friary Meux but only existed as an independent brewery until 1964, when it became part of the new national group, Allied Breweries. Through a series of more brewery mergers, the breweries ultimately merge with Carlsberg in 1992 and become Carlsberg-Tetley, which it is now part of the Carlsberg Group.
One for the road
In addition to my love of military history, I am also the owner of a Craft Beer Brewery in South Africa, and I love a good historic yarn like this, so I can only hoist one of our ice cold ‘Old Tin Hat’ beers to a Carlsberg Pilsner and say thank you once again to my good friend, Dennis Morton, who researched and directed me to this fantastic bit of history. Another toast to The Anglo Boer War and Related History Group (Facebook) and Iain Hayter.
Written and Researched by Peter Dickens with thanks to Dennis Morton.