The Twopenny Hangover

The image above shows a recreation of what is supposed to be a “twopenny hangover“. It’s a term increasingly commonly found on Google, and it purports to describe a type of cheap Victorian-era doss-house in which indigents could secure shelter and rest for the night more cost-effectively than by paying for a bed, which typically cost fourpence or fivepence. The idea was that, in exchange for the payment, the poor would be allowed to sleep, several men at a time, draped over a rope that had been suspended across a room at chest level.

Acceptance that such places actually existed has become widespread over the past few years, and a look at a  Google Image search for the term “twopenny hangover” shows at least four different pictures that supposedly depict examples. This one, which is by a distance the most detailed and explicit, is actually a still from a 1978 Sean Connery/Michael Crichton caper, The Great Train Robbery, which is set in the London of the middle 1850s; the others have been pulled into the gallery below. Two of these, which seem pretty similar at first glance, can be seen to depict a rather different sort of lodging house when they’re examined closely.

So let’s look into this a bit more more deeply.

So far as I can tell, the term “twopenny hangover” (sometimes corrupted, in online sources, to become the “penny hang“) originates with George Orwell, who – in his highly influential Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), a book which was based on his own experience of living on the margins of poverty during the Great Depression – wrote that

at the Twopenny Hangover, the lodgers sit in a row on a bench; there is a rope in front of them, and they lean on this as though leaning over a fence. A man, humorously called the valet, cuts the rope at five in the morning.

George Orwell

George Orwell

Orwell did not claim to have visited a lodging house of this sort himself; his details came from an informant, a London pavement artist he called Bozo, though he said he was aware of “similar” places in Paris. You’ll note, in addition, that his description of the system used in such places does not actually match the recreation in The Great Train Robbery, since Orwell was clear that men in these establishments slept in a sitting position and merely leaned forward to support their upper bodies on the rope. A reconstruction of this sort of lodging featured some years ago in the 2016 BBC series “The Victorian slum”, in which “a group of 15 volunteers aged between 10 and 59 are transported back to Victorian London as they spend three weeks living and working in a recreation of the notorious Old Nichol slum in Bethnal Green in London’s East End.” It can be glimpsed in this video trailer for the series, 11 seconds in.

Tracing the same basic story back to the 19th century, we next need to notice another very well-known account, How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis, which is a book by a social reformer about life below the poverty line in the New York City of the 1880s. Riis’s book was published in 1890 and is especially notable for the flash photographs that he took to illustrate it. The author includes an entire chapter on the “cheap lodging houses” of the city, and delineates the downward progression from varied from relatively salubrious 25–cent-a-night properties, where “guests” could at least expect their own bed, flimsily partitioned, down through 15–cent dives where the residents slept four deep on filthy bunks, to 10–cent properties, where, Riis observes, “the locker for the sleeper’s clothes disappears. There is no longer need of it. The tramp limit is reached, and there is nothing to lock up, save, on general principle, the lodger.”

A New York seven-cent lodging house, photographed at night by Jacob Riis in about 1888.

Below the 10 cent houses there was a further sort of establishment which charged seven cents a night in which the “bed” provided was a strip of canvas strung between two “rough timbers”. All these places did exist, and Riis visited them himself, but he adds a note to the effect that he has heard it rumoured that a cheaper sort of lodging might also be found, though “so far as I am informed, it has never been introduced in this country.” This was something that “use to be practiced, if reports spoke truly, in certain old-country towns” [he means European ones], where

the “bed” was represented by clothes-lines stretched across the room upon which sleepers hung by the arm-pits for a penny a night. In the morning the boss woke them up by simply untying the line at one end and letting it go with its load; a labour-saving device certainly, and highly successful in attaining the desired end.

What has Riis just told us here? Several quite important bits of information, actually:

  1. His description of the way such houses operated is the closest match we have to the sort of place shown in our film still, and to the “twopenny hangover” internet trope in general
  2. Nonetheless, the clothes-line joints that Riis had heard of operate a little differently to the lodging houses of internet legend. They cost only half as much, and instead of the rope being “cut” each morning (which would seem pretty wasteful of rope), it is merely untied
  3. He could not be certain they existed
  4. If they existed at all, it was somewhere in Europe
Jacob Riis

Jacob Riis, a Danish immigrant who had a significant impact on America’s understanding of immigration in the 19th century

This latter point is particularly interesting in that German archives do offer two images – one a drawing dating to before 1909, and the other a photograph that might, possibly, date to 1929 or 1930. But both these images show establishments that very closely resemble Orwell’s description of a “twopenny hangover” – complete with sleepers seated at a bench – rather than a clothes-line house.

The drawing apparently comes from the well-known German socialist Eduard Fuchs’s six-volume Illustrierte Sittengeschichte vom Mittelalter bis zur Gegenwart, an exploration of the customs and culture of the period. The photograph apparently shows jobless men in a depression-era “emergency shelter” – several of the versions that appear online claim it was taken in Hamburg, and Brooman’s 1985 school textbook Weimar Germany: Germany 1918-1933 prints it with the caption: “These men have paid to sleep ‘on the line’ in a warm room during the winter of 1930. The rope holds them up while they sleep.” More work would need to be done to trace both these images to their source and, hopefully, confirm at least some of these details. I have some doubts about the drawing in particular, because, while the image caption associates it with the Salvation Army, which had indeed operated in Germany since 1886, it very closely resembles the sort of style used in late Victorian-era British illustrated newspapers, and I’m not sure if the same style was equally common in Germany. But the key point seems to be that, if establishments like this were the source of the rumours that Riis got hold of, those rumours seem to have made them less comfortable and more desperate than they actually were.

Thus far, you’ll note, we’ve got no further back than the 1880s, and the stories that Riis refers to can’t, so far as I have been able to establish, be traced in reports that date any earlier than that; an attempt to search for the term “twopenny hangover” in the online British Newspaper Archive, for instance, produced nothing but 1930s references to Orwell’s book. Henry Mayhew, whose four-volume London Labour and the London Poor (1851) was compiled from years’ worth of interviews with hundreds of informants, and remains an inexhaustible fount of information concerning the lives of the working classes of Victorian London, devotes a section of his work to lodging houses, but while he describes a variety of different kinds of establishments, and lists plenty of horrors – the man who set up four doss-houses using beds he’d purchased from the defunct Kings Cross Smallpox Hospital is probably the worst – he makes no mention of any place that did not at least provide its occupants with beds, however lice-ridden. There is, however, one literary account of something resembling the type of place we’ve been considering, and which dates as far back as the 1830s, and this is a passage that appears in Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers.

Dickens, of course, was an experienced newspaper reporter with a longstanding interest in low-life, and there is quite an extensive literature on the extent to which this book should be seen as an example of realism – but, while it has not, so far as I can say, been shown that the sort of establishment described below really did exist in the London of the late Georgian period, a close reading suggests it might be possible that Dickens’s famous and best-selling account somehow contributed to the rumours that Jacob Riis heard half a century later; note the telling repetition of the detail of how the rope was “undone” each morning to terminate the sleepers’ rest. In addition, this passage bears such strong similarities in terms of its terminology to Orwell’s that it may have been an inspiration for the “twopenny hangover” as well. Yet note – here as before – that the sleeping arrangements described only very superficially resemble the situation shown in the image from The Great Train Robbery.

Mr Pickwick (far right) meets the indefatigable Sam Weller (left, in striped waistcoat) at the White Hart; this is the original 1836 illustration by “Phiz” (Hablot Browne). Dickens’s introduction of the larger-than-life cockney boot-black lifted monthly sales of his instalments of The Pickwick Papers from 1,000 to 40,000, turning the book into a publishing sensation and making the novelist’s name.

The speaker here is Pickwick’s cockney manservant, Sam Weller, who explains that, at one low point in his life, he was forced to take “unfurnished lodgin’s for a fortnight”:

‘Unfurnished lodgings?’ said Mr. Pickwick.

‘Yes – the dry arches of Waterloo Bridge. Fine sleeping-place – within ten minutes’ walk of all the public offices – only if there is any objection to it, it is that the sitviation’s rather too airy. I see some queer sights there.’

‘Ah, I suppose you did,’ said Mr. Pickwick, with an air of considerable interest.

‘Sights, sir,’ resumed Mr. Weller, ‘as ‘ud penetrate your benevolent heart, and come out on the other side. You don’t see the regular waygrants there; trust ’em, they knows better than that. Young beggars, male and female, as hasn’t made a rise in the profession, takes up their quarters there sometimes; but it’s generally the worn-out, starving, houseless creators as roll themselves in the dark corners o’ them lonesome places – poor creatures as ain’t up to the twopenny rope.’

‘And pray, Sam, what is the twopenny rope?’ inquired Mr. Pickwick.

‘The twopenny rope, sir,’ replied Mr. Weller, ‘is just a cheap lodgin’ house, where the beds is twopence a night.’

‘What do they call a bed a rope for?’ said Mr. Pickwick.

‘Bless your innocence, sir, that ain’t it,’ replied Sam. ‘Ven the lady and gen’l’m’n as keeps the hot-el first begun business, they used to make the beds on the floor; but this wouldn’t do at no price, ‘cos instead o’ taking a moderate twopenn’orth o’ sleep, the lodgers used to lie there half the day. So now they has two ropes, ’bout six foot apart, and three from the floor, which goes right down the room; and the beds are made of slips of coarse sacking, stretched across ’em.’

‘Well,’ said Mr. Pickwick.

‘Well,’ said Mr. Weller, ‘the adwantage o’ the plan’s hobvious. At six o’clock every mornin’ they lets go the ropes at one end, and down falls the lodgers. Consequence is, that being thoroughly waked, they get up wery quietly, and walk away!‘

We need to note here, I think, that there are a couple of clear comparisons between this passage and the internet trope we’re interested in that do suggest to me there’s some connection between them. A rope is let go first thing in the morning; it’s undone at the top of the hour; and the purpose of doing so is to deposit sleepers unceremoniously on the floor, so that they wake up and vacate the premises.

Finally, I think it’s worth reporting on a practical experiment that was tried by one of the contributors to Casebook, an online forum devoted to the Jack the Ripper murders and the East End of London in the 1880s. The writer, who had heard the story of the twopenny hangover, attempted to recreate the experience for himself – with interesting results (amended here to correct spelling and typos):

After my first night on the ropes, I can say…..man that was uncomfortable. Sorry, no pictures yet, because I was the only one home last night.

I first tried to sleep standing up, facing the rope with my arms hanging over it. That only lasted about 3 minutes. I find this method most improbable, because without anything other than the rope supporting the body you cannot stay on it. If you were ever able to get to sleep, your legs would go limp and you’d fall off.

Next, I tried sitting facing the rope, arms hanging over. This method would be possible, but only after you are very tired. The first thing you find out with this method is that, unless you have a large rolled-up piece of material between your arms and the rope, your arms will fall asleep before you do.

Next, I tried leaning forward with my forehead on the rope. This was much more comfortable that the other two tries, and I could sleep this way. It’s the same as resting your head on the desk in front of you – or the seat-back on the school bus, as I heard one person put it. The drawback is that if there are more people on the rope and someone moves it, you will fall off.

Last, I tried leaning back against the rope with my arms hanging over it. This position actually supported my body very well, but not my head. It was by far still the best position, and I actually slept for about an hour.

What I think we can say, in conclusion, is that maybe we don’t actually need a first-hand account of a twopenny hangover to understand the power that it holds. Even a second-hand description of such a place creates a very vivid, visual image in the mind’s eye, one that’s immediately and obviously “degraded”. It’s this, I strongly suspect, that explains the popularity of the modern “twopenny hangover” trope, and it is also, surely, why the people who designed the sets for The Great Train Robbery chose to depict indigents draped over a clothes line in a filthy room. It’s instantly apparent that these men are the lowest of the low. We understand at once that they have plumbed the depths of Victorian society. Depicting the same group of men slumped at a bench, their heads resting on arms and elbows supported by ropes, would not be remotely so dramatic or impactful.

Charles Dickens – a daguerrotype taken in 1852

Charles Dickens – a daguerrotype taken in 1852

Given these outcomes and these observations, I do wonder whether hazy recollection of Dickens’s telling phrase “twopenny rope” may not be the origin of the trope that we’re exploring. It was published, let’s remember, in one of the best-selling novels of the whole nineteenth century, and it was shown by Dickens himself to befuddle Mr Pickwick. Might it be that this phrase, stripped of its Pickwick Papers association with a rough sacking bed, created just such a vivid image in its readers’ minds – one that was subsequently filled in and detailed by imagination? What sort of picture would your mind conjure if you were told that someone slept on a “twopenny rope”?

Given the apparent lack of first-person descriptions of such houses, I am very tempted to suggest that this might explain how the rumours that Jacob Riis heard in the US in the 1880s – but associated with the “old country” some time earlier – actually got started. The sheer vividness of the picture that’s created in the mind’s eye might, equally, be responsible for the imaginative reconstruction we have been so struck by in The Great Train Robbery – and for the “twopenny hangover” internet trope which, illustrated with modern reconstructions or repurposed images taken in the sorts of lodging houses that actually did exist, persuades browsers of the internet today that such lodgings actually were quite common.

I say tempted. I’m not certain. But I’d certainly want to see fresh, contemporary evidence before I conceded that the popular 21st century conception of the “twopenny hangover” had any basis in fact.

13 thoughts on “The Twopenny Hangover

  1. That’s quite expensive – I’ve always heard it referred to as the “Penny Hang”. I suppose even hanging on the line is more expensive in London.

  2. Very interesting ”
    So, I thought about the fellow who gave trying to sleep on a rope, a go of it.
    I can see the dilemma that, in theory, might sound (dreadfully) possible, yet once tried, found to be practically impossible.
    Yet there’s this to consider: the body count.
    One person on a rope would be unstable, even if rope is tight.
    But, would many bodies, on the same rope in a limited amount of space (if any) be so improbable? Body next to body would likely provide support by proximity.
    I’m not sure I think the bloke on a rope is real or exaggerated. It is fun to muse on the subject. 🙂

  3. I’d like to mention that this particular sleeping system was described in France as early as 1842 (so later than the Pickwick Papers, but those were only translated in French in 1887). It was known as coucher à la corde, or dormir à la corde.
    An anonymous writer in Le Charivari wrote in 1842:

    “There is somewhere, under the pillars of Les Halles [then the district of the Paris food market], in the neighborhood of Paul Niquet, a place where one sleeps at night on the floor for 7 centimes and a half per head. In this hovel there is a rope stretched out at support height and on which the mylords and aristocrats of the area have the privilege of leaning for the additional payment of five centimes. This is called coucher à la corde [sleeping on the rope].”

    Paul Niquet was an (in)famous cabaret owner in Les Halles, known for selling strong liquor.

    In 1852, the chief editor of the same journal, Taxile Delord, a left-wing journalist, used the expression coucher à la corde in a short funny piece about the trouble he had finding a place to sleep in Paris due to the Carnival. After trying to rent a room in several hotels, he ends up in a “quite dark an filthy street”:

    “”Impossible, my good man,” replied a voice behind the counter, “so many Limousins have come to Paris for the Carnival that I have no more rope.” I saw that I could not even find a place to sleep on the rope, so I decided to wait until dawn in my carriage.”

    The following year, Delord wrote an article titled “Down to the rope” full of outrage about projected street demolitions in Paris and the resulting homelessness of poor people:

    “Last night at midnight, as I passed through the Place du Carrousel, I saw a man planting two stakes in the ground to which a long rope was attached. No sooner had this rope been stretched than a crowd of people approached it eagerly. These unfortunate people were homeless tenants who had come to sleep on the rope in the Place du Carrousel. There are dormitories of the same kind in a great many districts of the capital. They fight for places with a fierceness that often leads to brawls and duels. On nights when it rains, the sleepers hold their umbrellas open over their heads. This is what we have come to.”

    While Delord’s text is presented as a direct account, his article includes several jokes (he talks about a man whose house was demolished when he was vacationing!) and it is impossible to know whether he actually saw people “on the rope” or just made it up to sell his outrage.

    In 1857, writer Charles Aubin wrote the following about the life of Parisian ragpickers (chiffonniers):

    “From three to five in the morning, the ragpickers meet in certain cabarets in the Halles district, for example at the famous Paul Niquet’s; there each of them receives for two sous a small glass of brandy and the right to sleep for two hours on the rope, […] In front of the counter where the brandy is served, the cabaret-keeper stretches out a long rope, on which the ragpickers lean to sleep. At dawn, they must wake up and leave; to save the trouble of waking each ragpicker one by one, the barman unties the rope by one of its ends; all the sleepers fall on top of each other; they are awakened, they pick up their belongings and return to the filthy houses where they pile up the day’s harvest.”

    One should note that Paul Niquet’s establishment was demolished in 1853 (Huart, 1853), so Aubin’s text was already outdated.

    The expressions coucher à la corde and dormir à la corde seem to have entered the French language in the 1860s. It was mentioned in Pierre Larousse’s Dictionnaire Universel in 1869 as follows:

    “Coucher à la corde, dormir à la corde: To spend the night in one of these lodgings that they existed a few years ago in the outer districts and in the vicinity of the Halles, seated with one’s arms supported on a rope stretched waist-high, that is untied early in the morning in order to awaken the sleepers.”

    By then, the practice seems to have acquired a legendary status. It shows up in numerous newspaper articles and novels until the 1930s, and it is often presented as something of the past, as in the novel of Léo Lespès Les secrets de Paris (Lespès, 1874):

    “This way of being housed was called coucher à la corde. It was misery, not crime, that lodged in this way.”

    Lespès’ novelistic description includes some details not found elsewhere, notably that the sleepers were separated by knots on the rope, something that he may have made up. Others claimed that the practice still existed but that it was on its way out. An article on the “lugubrious Paris” mentions that the hotels à la corde were disappearing in the late 1870s (Mérican, 1879). According to journalist Paul Bluysen, the hotels à la corde had been put out of business by the opening of municipal shelters in 1886. In 1890, he wrote that there was only one hôtel à la corde remaining in Paris, in the Goutte d’Or district (18th arrondissement). Charles Virmaître, in his slang dictionary of 1894, also claimed that municipal shelters ended the practice, and describes a hôtel à la corde of the 11th arrondissement as follows:

    “Before the invention of the municipal shelters, there was a hostel in the rue des Trois-Bornes, run by Father Jean. The only room was about twenty metres long and three metres wide. A thick rope was stretched along the whole length, finished with two strong rings which fixed it at each end. The customers, most of them giverneurs, paid three sous for the entrance; this sum gave them the right to sit with their arms on the rope and to sleep. About fifty people could fit in. At five o’clock in the morning Father John rang the alarm bell by tapping an old saucepan with a piece of iron. Among the sleepers there were some whose sleep was hard and who did not get up. Then Father John would unhook the rope and the sleepers would fall onto the flagstones. Sleeping on a rope is legendary (popular slang).”

    In the 1890s, another establishment, the Hôtel Fradin, near the Halles, was often reported to use a rope. However, a journalist who visited the hotel found no such thing, and while it was a miserable place, people slept on benches and on beams, not on ropes (Blosseville, 1895). When Fradin died in 1902, newspapers mentioned the rope again, though the claim was that the rope was used as a “pillow” (Le XIXe Siècle, 1902). In the 1920s, the Fradin hotel was still known for its rope, as shown by this drawing published in Le Petit Journal in 1923 (Chabannes, 1923). In 1930 the left-wing journal L’Ami du Peuple wrote that the “inn of the Grappe d’Or and hovels near place Maubert were places where bums could sleep on the rope for 1.5 francs”, but the author may have used the expression in the general sense of “sleeping rough” (Lédé, 1930).

    So, what to make of this? Like in the UK/US situation, it is difficult to separate facts from fiction. The numerous mentions of hôtels à la corde in Paris, notably by left-wing writers (Delord, Bluysen) since the 1840s seem to indicate that the practice was real, though uncommon, and that it may have survived until the early 1920s, in some form or another. In any case, the name of the practice seems to have acquired over the years the general meaning of “sleeping rough”. But it was also described as legendary (the Niquet place in the 1840-50s, the Fradin hotel since the 1890s), and it became something of a vivid literary trope (poor people sleeping on ropes, with the cruel hotelier waking them up at 5 or 6 am by untying the rope) useful to describe the sordid past – and occasionally the sordid present – of Paris.

    Sources

    “Causeries.” Le Charivari, October 28, 1842. https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k3055988z.
    Aubin, Charles. “Les mille et un métiers : les chiffoniers.” La Semaine des enfants : magasin d’images et de lectures amusantes et instructives, 1857. https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k424402c.
    “Echos.” Le XIXe siècle, May 21, 1902. https://www.retronews.fr/journal/le-xixe-siecle/21-mai-1902/29/1914433/3.
    Blosseville, Auguste. “Une visite chez Fradin.” La Patrie, May 9, 1895. https://www.retronews.fr/journal/la-patrie-1841-1937/9-mai-1895/2935/4566015/1.
    Bluysen, Paul. “Croquis parisiens.” La République française, January 10, 1890. https://www.retronews.fr/journal/la-republique-francaise-1871-1924/10-janvier-1890/655/1906577/2.
    Chabannes, Jacques. “A l’asile de nuit.” Le Petit Journal, April 29, 1923. https://www.retronews.fr/journal/le-petit-journal-illustre/29-avril-1923/83/1077223/2.
    Delord, Taxile. “Jusqu’à la corde.” RetroNews – Le site de presse de la BnF. Accessed May 19, 2021. https://www.retronews.fr/journal/le-charivari/21-aout-1853/127/3939131/2.
    Huart, Louis. “Mort de Paul Niquet.” Le Charivari, March 19, 1853. https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k3058762z.
    Larousse, Pierre. Grand dictionnaire universel du XIXe siècle. Tome 5 CONTRE-CZYZ. Paris: Administration du Grand dictionnaire universel, 1869. https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k2053572.
    Lédé, Marie-Louise. “L’hospitalité de nuit.” L’Ami du peuple, November 3, 1930. https://www.retronews.fr/journal/l-ami-du-peuple-1928-1937/3-novembre-1930/1029/3992933/2.
    Lespès, Léo. “Les secrets de Paris.” La République française, February 14, 1874. https://www.retronews.fr/journal/la-republique-francaise-1871-1924/14-fevrier-1874/655/1884271/1.
    Mérican, Charles. “Le Paris lugubre.” Gil Blas, November 26, 1879. https://www.retronews.fr/journal/gil-blas/26-novembre-1879/121/258571/3.
    Virmaître, Charles. Dictionnaire d’argot fin-de-siècle. Paris: A. Charles, Libraire, 1894. https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k109806d.

    • Thanks so much for this. Some truly interesting information here. As you say, we’re much closer here to something apparently real than we were before, but the repetition of story elements and the legendary aspects that you comment on do continue to complicate matters. I’m beginning to sense there may be a good paper in this.

  4. Great story! I have only seen this sleeping arrangement once in the movie based on Jack the Ripper, “From Hell”, where the prostitutes sleep. Great to have you back Mike!

  5. So glad to read a post from you once again, and this one made me appreciate my old and obsolete bed much in need of replacement. Were I this destitute, I am sure a better use of the rope would spring to mind.

    • Thank you – the main reason I’ve been so quiet this year, at least, is that I’ve been working on a couple of large investigations that have turned out to be much more complex than I anticipated; every time I check into some apparently minor detail I uncover a whole new area that’s never been properly researched, and which demands yet more time to deal with properly. More on these in due course, but it was nice to finally light on a topic that was a bit more compassable and to actually finish up a post for once…

  6. I had read about this bizarre sleeping system in David K. Randall’s book Dreamland, but it was so brief. Discussing how sleep has changed over the years, he writes “During the Victorian era, for instance, laborers living in workhouses slept sitting on benches, with their arms dangling over a taut rope in front of them. They paid for this privilege, implying that it was better than the alternatives.” I read this and thought, eh? The heck is this? Now I know! Excellent post, thank you!

    • Goodness I’ve really missed these, it’s been so long :). What a delightful and fascinating read – as always, from Mike Dash. Sending a very warm thank you

  7. Pingback: The Twopenny Hangover – Cyber News Network

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