So picture it. You went out for a night on the town. You have a pint. And another. And another. And a whiskey. And another pint. On and on it goes until you’ve been thrown out, vomited in the alley and need to stumble back home without so much as a kebab to help you. You fall face-first into your bed, probably without even taking your clothes off and you’re gone for the next twelve hours.
At last, you’ve woken up. Your bleary eyes burn in the meager light through the window, your whole body feels drained and worst of all, your head feels like a construction crew is trying to knock it down from within. “Ah fuck.” You think to yourself. “I’m hungover.” And then, maybe if you’re coherent enough, you might think to yourself “What the hell does that mean? I’m not ‘hungover’ anything.” And then you drag yourself to the shower and forget about it while trying to move on with your day.
Well fear not, today I’ll be answering the question you were too hungover to bother remembering to Google yourself later. Or at least, one of the many theories. But please, stick with me for a bit, because the origin of the term is just the start of a much more interesting piece of history.
What you see here is a bunch of guys ‘hung over’ a rope, sleeping. This was a service offered by the Salvation Army during the Victorian era at ‘doss houses’, where particularly homeless people could pay a mere two pennies to be provided access to an indoor rope they could hang over and go to sleep on, like the world’s shittest hostel. Back in the day, two pennies was worth a fair bit more than it is now, but definitely not close to enough for even the most run-down shitty hotel out there.
As one might expect, similar to today, the homeless were unfairly stigmatized as drunks. And indeed, the service was often taken up by general drunks who simply weren’t capable of stumbling back home in their inebriated state. Plus, just the image of sleeping hung over a rope seems like something a drunk person would do. With it especially not conducive to a good nights sleep, you can see why the parallel between this shit accommodation and the aftereffects of a night drinking could be drawn. But here’s the thing, the cost for the accommodation was two pence. But that wasn’t the only pricing available, you could shop around a bit.
You see, the two-penny rope was the mid-range accommodation available. For just one penny, you could go to a ‘penny sit-up’, which let you sit down on a bench and… That’s it. You couldn’t really even sleep, you just sat on a bench all night with lots of other presumably homeless people. Anti-vagrancy laws were harsh at the time, I should emphasize. For a penny extra, a rope could be stretched across to let you do a sit-down version of the other rope ‘hotels’, but these were less common.
Lastly, you had the ‘four penny coffin’. Which is just what it sounds like. For four pennies, you get to lay down in a tiny narrow box, possibly with a tarpaulin, surrounded by countless other impoverished people who weren’t quite impoverished enough to go without actually laying down for the night. It’s so grim looking, it almost feels like satire of how society at large views and treats the homeless.
You may be happy that we live in more enlightened times now, but then again, we’re now living in a world where ‘anti-homeless architecture’ is a thing, such as unnecessary bars on benches to prevent laying down, sloped surfaces on flat walls and sometimes just straight-up spikes. Shit. Anyone else want a drink?
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