Victorian Four Penny Coffins or Penny Beds, Homelessness, and More

Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward by Sir Luke Fildes. Public domain.

In the Victorian era, the homeless created a persistent problem for Londoners. Industrialization was one reason for an exploding homeless population. Part of the problem was that in order to accommodate the railroad, neighborhoods had to be demolished. That resulted in fewer houses, caused crowding in other neighborhoods, and drove up rents. In addition, workers from out of town flocked to London looking for work. The jobs they took gave them money, but these workers created an even greater demand for housing and caused rents to rise further, which then made it impossible for some workers to afford housing.

Out-of-town workers, were not the only homeless ones in London. There were also failed businessmen, women formerly of good society, and the poor and the destitute. With all the homeless, many people thought “great evil” could arise from them having inadequate shelter or lodging. So, to fix the situation, some Londoners offered charitable solutions. One magazine wrote about London’s homeless problem and such attempts to fix it in 1900:

“The beginning of the social work is to be seen in the cheap shelters scattered all over London. … They are rough, and their accommodation is not luxurious. But today, with thousands of the London poor, the roughest shelter is an asylum of bliss.”[1]

These Victorian asylums of bliss went by several names but included four penny coffin beds, a term initially used to describe homeless shelters and later sleeping arrangements. The Salvation Army was among the first to provide and manage these shelters. The Salvation Army, which had initially been called the East London Christian Mission*, emphasized their goal of providing comfort, aid, and a compassionate option for the homeless. In addition, Salvation Army workers, known as Salvationists, were hopeful that by doing good works they might attract people to the Christian faith.

Example of penny sit-up. Public domain.

What was offered in the way of amenities at these homeless shelters was a penny sit-up, a two penny hangover (or two-penny rope), and the two or four penny coffin. Of these, the penny sit-up was the cheapest amenity. A penny got a person food and shelter, and the penny sit-up price also allowed the person to sit on a bench all night in a warm building, but the sitter could not sleep. In fact, in order to ensure there was no sleeping, monitors often roamed the halls waking those that fell asleep.

The penny sit-up was better than being hungry and cold or sleeping on the street. One journalist went to see how the penny sit-up operated in 1902 and provided the following description:

“Rightly understood, the ‘Penny Sit-up’ is the most remarkable feature of the homeless side of London, not so much because of what the ordinary visitor sees as of what he does not see. He carries away a mental picture of a large shed, of row after row of backed forms, occupied to their fullest capacity by men in all stages of squalor; and if he is there about midnight, of the inmates bent forward on their seats, with their heads resting on their folded arms, which are supported in turn by the backs of the forms in front of them, all, or nearly all, are fast asleep. That is the surface aspect of the ‘Sit-up’; and it is sufficiently pathetic and suggestive to haunt one for weeks afterwards. … You can find men in the ‘Penny Sit-up’ who have slept in the Salvation Army shelters, shifting about from one to another, every night, since they were opened.”[2]

Victorian penny coffins or penny beds
William Booth and his wife Catherine. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

William Booth, an English Methodist preacher, who with his wife, found The Salvation Army, wrote about the homeless problem in England in a book titled, “In Darkest England and the Way Out.” In the book, he noted that although there had been attempts to alleviate homelessness not enough had been done. He also sent officers out to interview the homeless. One officer returned with a report after having interviewed a widower who tried the penny sit-up and who had also observed accommodations at the shelters. The widower stated:

“[I]t’s very fair out here of nights, seats rather hard, but a bit of waste paper makes it a lot softer. We have women sleep here often, and children too. They’re very well conducted, and there’s seldom many rows here, because everybody’s tired out. We’re too sleepy to make a row.”[3]

Charles Dickens. Author’s collection.

If a person had two pennies, he or she could purchase the two penny hangover. This option, like the penny sit-up, allowed the person to obtain food (usually tea or coffee and some bread), shelter, and a bench, but, in addition, a rope was placed across the bench so that the homeless person could lean over it and sleep. Although that might have been a smidgen more comfortable than the penny sit-up, the person still could not lie down. Moreover, in the morning, when the rope was cut, the homeless person was expected to immediately leave.

The two penny hangover solution was once described by the greater writer Charles Dickens in his “Pickwick Papers”:

“’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. ‘Well the advantage o’ the plan’s obvious. At six o’clock every mornin’, they lets go the ropes at one end, and down falls all the lodgers. Consequence is that, being thoroughly waked, they get up very quickly, and walk away.’”[4]

Example of the penny coffins. Public domain.

If a poor or homeless person wanted to lay down to sleep, he or she needed to purchase what was called a two penny or four penny coffin. (The two-penny coffin was for the bed alone and the four-penny coffin usually included food.) The penny coffins, sometimes called bunks, were barren wooden boxes barely long enough to allow a person to stretch out. These snug beds acquired their names because the beds were often shaped like a coffin. Such coffins were warmer than sleeping in the streets, and they were much more economical than sleeping overnight in beds purchased at from the Salvation Army.

There were varying descriptions of how these coffins were arranged at the places where they were available. One charitable institution that had them was located on the Southwark Bridge Road and called the South London Night Refuge. A nineteenth century visitor went to observe and report on the sleeping accommodations available at the refuge in 1872. He then wrote the following description of the sleeping arrangements:

“I entered a long, narrow room, upon the floor of which were rows of what at first sight appeared to be coffins. On closer inspection, however, I found the were simply wooden bunks, in which the homeless people slept. These bunks were about forty in number, and were placed endways against the walls, leaving a free passage down the centre of the room. They contained neither mattress nor covers — a necessary arrangement … both on the score of cleanliness and economy.”[5]

One sandwich seller named John Fosh fell upon hard times and purchased a four penny coffin in 1891. When asked about it, he gave this interesting description to the newspaper reporter:

“Fourpence for a doss. Salvation Army, Horseferry Road, a coffin bed and a leather blanket; but it’s warm enough; the room is with steam pipes. At seven at night you goes in and gets some coffee and a bit of bread. When you goes out at seven in the morning you gets some more coffee and a bit more bread. Them and the doss is fourpence – and very good for the money.”[6]

Not everyone appreciated the coffin beds as much as Fosh. Mary Higgs was a writer and social campaigner who made several undercover trips in the early 1900s to determine the worthiness of the accommodations provided for the poor and the destitute. She then compiled what she had gathered into a book titled “Glimpses Into the Abyss” and published it in 1906. One man whom she interviewed remarked that what they slept on “weren’t worth calling beds”[7] and then stated, “The Salvation Army give you what they call a bunk — like a coffin, and oilcloth to put over you — for 2d.! That’s charity for you and religion!”[8]

Despite the shelter, warmth, and safety afforded by the penny sit-ups, two penny hangovers, or four penny coffins, people were sometimes were found dead while using them. For instance, a newspaper article dated 15 January 1895 reported that ill-dressed man was found dead in a coffin at the Mint-street location in London. Around the same there was also a report of the death of a 65-year-old woman named Anne Clifford (whose alias was Knight). She was found dead in her ‘bunk’ at a Salvation Army shelter on Hanbury Street in the area of Spitalfields.

Knights’s case was investigated and a trial was conducted to determine fault in her death. The following details were provided:

“Agnes Braid, night officer in charge of the shelter, stated [that the] … witness did not see the deceased on Saturday night, but on going to wake her on Sunday morning found her dead. — The Corner: Are they in beds or bunks? — Witness: Bunks, sir. — The Coroner: I supposed there is something for warmth? – Witness: They put their own clothes over them [later this was amended to oil cloths being used for warmth]. The place is heated by hot water. — The Coroner: Kept at an even temperature? – Witness: No. … The Coroner: How many come in every night? — Witness: From 200 to 300. … A Juror: A more important question is that such a number of persons should be allowed to sleep in one room. The Coroner: A certain cubic measure is required or it would not be allowed … In the meantime, hundreds willingly go there; otherwise they would be sitting about on doorsteps.”[9]

Ultimately, in Knight’s case, the jury determined the Salvation Army was not at fault and that Knight died from natural causes brought on by old age and debility.

William Booth. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although the penny sit-up, two penny hangover, and four penny coffin were not ideal solutions, at least it was an attempt to help the poor and the homeless. It also kept the homeless out of the harsh elements and probably saved some lives. Higgs wrote in her book that The Salvation Army provided ‘vermin-free’ and ‘spotlessly clean’ shelters, and Booth mentioned in 1888 how Salvationists believed in providing quality charity as Salvationists had noted:

“We think that all decent persons, instead of having to lie down out of doors, to walk the streets, or to enter the registered lodging-house, should have an opportunity to obtain food and lodging, such as they can pay for, in cleanliness and decency.”[10]

Higgs also maintained that Victorian shelters in general aided the “social need.” She was also hopeful about helping the homeless and wrote, “Grave as are the problems to be solved, menacing as is the danger if reforms are neglected or delayed, I believe the Spirit of God … will guide our national policy into the right channels.”[11] However, she also knew action was required and concluded, “We should aim at getting every individual into a safe and sanitary shelter at night.”[12]

*The name “The Salvation Army” developed because of an incident when Booth was dictating a letter to his secretary and mentioned they were a volunteer army. Booth’s son overheard his father and cried, “Volunteer! I’m no volunteer, I’m a regular!” Booth then instructed his secretary to cross out the word “volunteer” and substitute the word “salvation” instead. Thus, The Salvation Army was born.

References:

  • [1] The Windsor Magazine v. 12 (London: Ward, Lock and Bowden, 1900), p. 638–39.
  • [2] G. R. Sims, Living London: Its Work and Its Play, Its Humour and Its Pathos, Its Sights and Its Scenes v. 1 (Cassell, Limited, 1902), p. 337.
  • [3] W. Booth, In Darkest England and the Way Out (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p. 26.
  • [4] A. Barrère and C. G. Leland, A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant Embracing English, American, and Anglo-Indian Slang, Pidgin English, Gypsies’ Jargon and Other Irregular Phraseology v. 2 (G. Bell, 1897), p. 373.
  • [5] The Quiver: An Illustrated Magazine for Sunday and General Reading (1872), p. 554.
  • [6] Northern Whig, “The Sorrows of a Sandwich Man,” January 23, 1891, p. 7.
  • [7] M. Higgs, Glimpses Into the Abyss (London: P.S. King, 1906), p. 179.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Sheffield Evening Telegraph, “Death in a Salvation Army Shelter,” January 2, 1895, p. 3.
  • [10] Shields Daily Gazette, “The Salvation Army and the Poor,” December 12, 1888, p. 3.
  • [11] M. Higgs, p. 302.
  • [12] Ibid., p. 327.

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