18 October 2018

Beer Ahoy!

In the classic 1949 Ealing comedy Whisky Galore!, the unwelcomely sober lives of the inhabitants of the Hebridean island of Todday are considerably enlivened when they realise a cargo ship sinking off their coast contains 50,000 crates of whisky. Much of the comedy revolves around the attempts of the islanders to salvage the whisky and hide it from the stuffy authorities. This was actually loosely based on a real-life incident, when the whisky-carrying SS Politician sank off the island of Eriskay in 1941.

A somewhat similar incident occurred in Brisbane once, only this time involving beer and not whisky, and with a lot less hiding and more instant consumption. This was during the devastating floods of 1893, which showed that although natural disasters can bring out the best in people, others can be quick to seize an opportunity no matter what the circumstances.

The damaged building in this case was the West End Brewery, which had opened on the corner of Montague and Merivale Streets in 1886. The brewery contained a lot of rickety wooden sheds that were inundated when the Brisbane River flooded in March 1890, although not too much damage was done at that time.

The West End Brewery during the 1890 floods. (State Library of Qld)

Worse was to come in the larger flood of February 1893, and of the five breweries in Brisbane that year, West End Brewery suffered the most. The rising water reached up to the second-storey windows of the main tower, and of course all the houses in the immediate neighbourhood were submerged. Although the brewery tower survived the experience, the timber buildings were wrecked by the raging torrent. The damage is apparent in the State Library of Queensland photo below.

West End Brewery damage after the 1890 flood. (State Library of Qld).

Not only were many brewery buildings gone, so too were 500 kegs of beer, worth about $250,000 by current values. Some were carried by the waters to the railway embankment, the nearest high ground, while others washed ashore at the foot of Bowen Terrace. The results were all too predictable. Word spread quickly and large numbers of men swarmed to the riverbank. The scene was described in the Brisbane Courier:
"A great deal of drunkenness was unfortunately observable in various directions. The weather was no doubt the excuse for the over-indulgence of many; but when kegs and barrels of beer floating away from the West End Brewery were washed ashore at the foot of Bowen-terrace and others from the Phoenix Brewery were picked up in Fortitude Valley the scenes enacted were disgusting in the extreme, and men were seen drinking all they could and then quarrelling for possession of the cask containing the balance. Several of the accidents which occurred are undoubtedly the result of this and similar misconduct."
Another news report read:
“Hundreds of casks of beer from the West End Brewery were seen floating along, some of which were rescued along the banks, tho bungs knocked out, and conscienceless beings (I cannot call them men) swilled the contents till they became mad drunk.”
It is not too hard to imagine similar scenes taking place now if kegs of beer were washed down the Brisbane River, and much of it would no doubt go straight onto YouTube, complete with overloaded utes, bogan fistfights, and Yours Truly struggling down the street with a wheelbarrow full of beer.

Despite their massive losses, the West End Brewery was rebuilt as an imposing brick structure and by the following year the owners were claiming to have the largest output of beer in Queensland.

Brisbane Telegraph, 1894.

It might have survived massive floods, but the West End Brewery closed in 1913 and the premises was turned into a bottling factory.

For most Brisbanites the Great Flood of 1893 had been a tragic disaster, but for a few 'conscienceless beings' it brought manna from Heaven in the form of a bounty of free beer. What would you have done?