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George Orwell > Down and Out in Paris and London > Chapter XXXVII

Down and Out in Paris and London

Chapter XXXVII

A word about the sleeping accommodation open to a homeless person in
London. At present it is impossible to get a BED in any non-charitable
institution in London for less than sevenpence a night. If you cannot
afford seven-pence for a bed, you must put up with one of the following

1. The Embankment. Here is the account that Paddy gave me of sleeping
on the Embankment:

'De whole t'ing wid de Embankment is gettin' to sleep early. You got
to be on your bench by eight o'clock, because dere ain't too many benches
and sometimes dey're all taken. And you got to try to get to sleep at once.
'Tis too cold to sleep much after twelve o'clock, an' de police turns you
off at four in de mornin'. It ain't easy to sleep, dough, wid dem bloody
trams flyin' past your head all de time, an' dem sky-signs across de river
flickin' on an' off in your eyes. De cold's cruel. Dem as sleeps dere
generally wraps demselves up in newspaper, but it don't do much good. You'd
be bloody lucky if you got t'ree hours' sleep.'

I have slept on the Embankment and found that it corresponded to
Paddy's description. It is, however, much better than not sleeping at all,
which is the alternative if you spend the night in the streets, elsewhere
than on the Embankment. According to the law in London, you may sit down
for the night, but the police must move you on if they see you asleep; the
Embankment and one or two odd corners (there is one behind the Lyceum
Theatre) are special exceptions. This law is evidently a piece of wilful
offensive-ness. Its object, so it is said, is to prevent people from dying
of exposure; but clearly if a man has no home and is going to die of
exposure, die he will, asleep or awake. In Paris there is no such law.
There, people sleep by the score under the Seine bridges, and in doorways,
and on benches in the squares, and round the ventilating shafts of the
Metro, and even inside the Metro stations. It does no apparent harm. No one
will spend a night in the street if he can possibly help it, and if he is
going to stay out of doors he might as well be allowed to sleep, if he can.

2. The Twopenny Hangover. This comes a little higher than the
Embankment. 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. I have never been there myself, but Bozo had been there often.
I asked him whether anyone could possibly sleep in such an attitude, and he
said that it was more comfortable than it sounded--at any rate, better
than bare floor. There are similar shelters in Paris, but the charge there
is only twenty-five centimes (a halfpenny) instead of twopence.

3. The Coffin, at fourpence a night. At the Coffin you sleep in a
wooden box, with a tarpaulin for covering. It is cold, and the worst thing
about it are the bugs, which, being enclosed in a box, you cannot escape.

Above this come the common lodging-houses, with charges varying
between sevenpence and one and a penny a night. The best are the Rowton
Houses, where the charge is a shilling, for which you get a cubicle to
yourself, and the use of excellent bathrooms. You can also pay half a crown
for a 'special', which is practically hotel accommodation. The Rowton
Houses are splendid buildings, and the only objection to them is the strict
discipline, with rules against cooking, card-playing, etc. Perhaps the best
advertisement for the Rowton Houses is the fact that they are always full
to overflowing. The Bruce Houses, at one and a penny, are also excellent.

Next best, in point of cleanliness, are the Salvation Army hostels, at
sevenpence or eightpence. They vary (I have been in one or two that were
not very unlike common lodging-houses), but most of them are clean, and
they have good bathrooms; you have to pay extra for a bath, however. You
can get a cubicle for a shilling. In the eightpenny dormitories the beds
are comfortable, but there are so many of them (as a rule at least forty to
a room), and so close together, that it is impossible to get a quiet night.
The numerous restrictions stink of prison and charity. The Salvation Army
hostels would only appeal to people who put cleanliness before anything

Beyond this there are the ordinary common lodging-houses. Whether you
pay sevenpence or a shilling, they are all stuffy and noisy, and the beds
are uniformly dirty and uncomfortable. What redeems them are their
LAISSEZ-FAIRE atmosphere and the warm home-like kitchens where one can
lounge at all hours of the day or night. They are squalid dens, but some
kind of social life is possible in them. The women's lodging-houses are
said to be generally worse than the men's, and there are very few houses
with accommodation for married couples. In fact, it is nothing out of the
common for a homeless man to sleep in one lodging-house and his wife in

At this moment at least fifteen thousand people in London are living
in common lodging-houses. For an unattached man earning two pounds a week,
or less, a lodging-house is a great convenience. He could hardly get a
furnished room so cheaply, and the lodging-house gives him free firing, a
bathroom of sorts, and plenty of society. As for the dirt, it is a minor
evil. The really bad fault of lodging-houses is that they are places in
which one pays to sleep, and in which sound sleep is impossible. All one
gets for one's money is a bed measuring five feet six by two feet six, with
a hard convex mattress and a pillow like a block of wood, covered by one
cotton counterpane and two grey, stinking sheets. In winter there are
blankets, but never enough. And this bed is in a room where there are never
less than five, and sometimes fifty or sixty beds, a yard or two apart. Of
course, no one can sleep soundly in such circumstances. The only other
places where people are herded like this are barracks and hospitals. In the
public wards of a hospital no one even hopes to sleep well. In barracks the
soldiers are crowded, but they have good beds, and they are healthy; in a
common lodging-house nearly all the lodgers have chronic coughs, and a
large number have bladder diseases which make them get up at all the hours
of the night. The result is a perpetual racket, making sleep impossible. So
far as my observation goes, no one in a lodging-house sleeps more than five
hours a night--a damnable swindle when one has paid sevenpence or more.

Here legislation could accomplish something. At present there is all
manner of legislation by the L.C.C. about lodging-houses, but it is not
done in the interests of the lodgers. The L.C.C. only exert themselves to
forbid drinking, gambling, fighting, etc. etc. There is no law to say that
the beds in a lodging-house must be comfortable. This would be quite an
easy thing to enforce--much easier, for instance, than restrictions upon
gambling. The lodging-house keepers should be compelled to provide adequate
bedclothes and better mattresses, and above all to divide their dormitories
into cubicles. It does not matter how small a cubicle is, the important
thing is that a man should be alone when he sleeps. These few changes,
strictly enforced, would make an enormous difference. It is not impossible
to make a lodging-house reasonably comfortable at the usual rates of
payment. In the Groydon municipal lodging-house, where the charge is only
ninepence, there are cubicles, good beds, chairs (a very rare luxury in
lodging-houses), and kitchens above ground instead of in a cellar. There is
no reason why every ninepenny lodging-house should not come up to this

Of course, the owners of lodging-houses would be opposed EN BLOC to
any improvement, for their present business is an immensely profitable one.
The average house takes five or ten pounds a night, with no bad debts
(credit being strictly forbidden), and except for rent the expenses are
small. Any improvement would mean less crowding, and hence less profit.
Still, the excellent municipal lodging-house at Croydon shows how well one
CAN be served for ninepence. A few well-directed laws could make these
conditions general. If the authorities are going to concern themselves with
lodging-houses at all, they ought to start by making them more comfortable,
not by silly restrictions that would never be tolerated in a hotel.

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