2 April 2024

On the ropes – a very uncomfortable sleeping arrangement or a sailor's bed?

I was recently reminded of the unsubstantiated accounts of men having to resort to a night spent sleeping hung over a rope, as mentioned in this piece about The Twopenny Hangover.

I’ve always queried this sleeping arrangement as, for many reasons, it just couldn’t have worked. A
s I am aware, the single rope thing has only ever been referenced within movies and retrospective 2nd- and 3rd-hand accounts, all of which makes it merely hearsay. Yet the notion persists.
Having given this a fair bit of consideration, I have come to the conclusion that these sleeping arrangements were simply a room full of single hammocks.

For instance, consider that if you did manage to doze off hanging over a rope, whether seated or standing, the rope would sway about and act like a sound amplifier every time someone else along the rope moved or made a noise. If you were hanging from your armpit(s) as they suggest, the bulk of your weight being below your chest, then gravity would take control as you fell into a sleep state and you'd simply slide down and fall off the rope, disturbing everyone around you. It could only work if you tied your elbows to your waist to stop yourself from moving about and losing purchase. Nope, I think it's nonsense!

Most reports of this 'on the ropes' sleeping arrangement are far from reliable seeing as they are written by well-heeled men who would never have needed these places. The poor men who did need to use doss houses didn't have the time or inclination to keep a diary or write down their experiences. Therefore, all we have is hearsay.

Within the link above, towards the end, there is an excerpt from Charles Dickens's Pickwick Papers which includes this description:
"... 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..." 
At first, I wondered if this was describing a multiple hammock design, such that each sacking/canvas ‘bed’ was attached to ropes at the head and foot ends, perhaps with multiple canvasses side-by-side along that parallel system, hence the reference to the ropes being 6ft apart, which is the length of a bed. In the morning, with the beds being being 3ft off the floor, the proprietor could easily move under and along them to untie the knots (at the foot end?!) via a simple slip knot, as I also very much doubt they would have cut the expensive rope. The clients then would fall to the floor – a rather shocking start to the day! The ropes and 'beds' could then be easily fixed back again for the next customers. Also, the canvas could be easily removed and replaced if damaged in any way.
However, even this idea is doubtful as to support the weight of possibly four men per length, the knots must have been pretty substantial, ditto the brackets to which they were fixed.
I am therefore of the opinion that these rope beds were merely single hammocks as per on a ship, the ends tied three foot from the floor to allow for the sag of the hammock.

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Thanks, Jane