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 the cost of 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.
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.”
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:
- 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
- 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
- He could not be certain they existed
- If they existed at all, it was somewhere in Europe
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.
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.
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.