Bed Sharing – Pros and Cons. Part 2: Britain

Watch this short video produced by the Victoria and Albert Museum to learn the history of Britain’s most famous bed, shared by hundreds of travellers over three centuries.

Bed sharing has its problems. Your bed partner might snore, hog the covers or wake you up too early.

But it also has its benefits – warmth, intimacy, protection. Most practically, it saves space. For these reasons, bed sharing has been practised and highly valued in many cultures.

These two posts compare attitudes to bed sharing in Japan and in Britain.

Home and Away

Painting of two sisters sleeping (Johann Georg Meyer von Bremen, 1851) Public Domain

In Western culture having a bed to yourself in your own bedroom is considered desirable, if not essential to health and well-being. But it hasn’t always been this way.

A great number of people living in Britain over the past 500 years could only dream of such luxury. Finding an affordable space to sleep at all could be a challenge, and beds were very often shared with family members or even strangers.

Gin Lane, 1751. This engraving by William Hogarth depicts the desolation of a slum in Bloomsbury, London.
British Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Housing was so overcrowded in English cities in the 1600s and 1700s that many families shared one room. People rented space in a bed (leased at two pennies a night), with entire families sleeping in one bed. Some lodgers shared beds with strangers.

These were people that were lucky enough to have a place to sleep. The homeless slept on the streets – a situation that continued into the 1800s.

Sketch of a tenament building in Bethnal Green, London, 1848. Beds are crammed into the upstairs rooms and a crib lies in the cellar. Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
Illustration of children sleeping rough, 1867. Mary Evans Picture Library.
In this 1841 cartoon from Punch magazine Mr Punch, having just been shown round the very fine stables of a country estate, visits a cottage housing tenant farmers. The building is cold, damp and draughty, and the occupants are sleeping in one room.

The caption below the cartoon reads: Mr. Puch (To the Landlord): “Your stable arrangements are excellent! Suppose you try something of the sort here! Eh?”
Children sharing a bed in a slum in Bethnal Green, London, c. 1900-1910 © Museum of London

The better off shared beds for companionship and convenience. Children, especially brothers or sisters, commonly slept together. It was not unusual even for very wealthy people to share a bed with a friend, family member or servant when away from home.

The Great Bed at Ware (which can be seen in the video at the top of this page) could fit four couples comfortably. This large, ornate Elizabethan bed was crafted as a novelty to attract customers to one of the coaching inns in the town of Ware.

Bed partners were generally of the same sex and age. Conduct books advised that servants should show respect to their betters by giving up the best side of the bed.

Two friends share a bed in a guest house in the film “The Lady Vanishes” (1938)

Blanket Fair

     To pig: to sleep with one or more people in a bed
     Bed-faggot: a troublesome bed partner (East Anglia)
     Curtain lecture: a scolding delivered by an unhappy wife at bedtime
     Blanket fair: a euphemism for bed (Sheffield)

The intimacy and vulnerability of bed sharing brought both dangers and opportunities.

A seventeenth-century print depicting a curtain lecture.

Used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Sleepers were vulnerable to theft and violence, so it was important to have a good relationship with a bed partner. A stocking-maker from Derbyshire, called Samuel Smith, discovered this rather too late. He woke up in the night to find that his girlfriend had cut off his penis! – revenge for breaking his promise to marry her.

Most of the time bed partners were simply a nuisance rather than criminal. They might snore, especially after a heavy night of drinking, or else annoy their fellow with disagreeable conversation. An unfortunate husband might be subjected to a “curtain lecture”, if their wife took the opportunity of getting something off her chest.

Old Tinker was not to be pumped by this little cross-questioner; and signifying to her that bed was a place for sleeping, not conversation, set up in her corner of the bed such a snore as only the nose of innocence can produce.

William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair

Many people enjoyed the company of their bedfellow. In the hours between nightfall and sleep, people let down their guard and cast away convention. Sisters confided secrets, work colleagues shared jokes, a lady and her maid had a farting competition!

The fun had with a good companion at bed time may be the origin of the term “blanket fair” – as in the nursery rhyme:

Up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire,
  Down sheet lane to blanket fair!

Bedfellowship played an important role in keeping sleepers safe during the night. This applied to high and low alike. Elizabeth I had a number of trusted women who searched her bedchamber at night and slept in her bed to keep her safe from assasination attempts. In one-room cottages in Ireland the women slept nearest the wall and the men near the door, so that they could protect the house from intruders.

Franz Nadorp, murder of the sons of Edward IV, 1836. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Illustration from Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1852-53) by Hablot Browne (Phiz). A young woman nurses her sick maid servant.
Illustration of a mother tucking her children into bed. Shown on the cover of the Literary Digest, 29 January, 1921
Norman Rockwell, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Married Love

Embed from Getty Images

Photograph of a couple sleeping in twin beds, circa. 1950

Between 1850 and 1950 bed sharing was regarded as unhealthy, even for married couples. Victorian doctors and health campaigners warned that the weaker companion would drain the health and vitality of the stronger.

Modern, forward thinking couples ditched their double beds for twin beds. It was only in the 1940s that sleeping in separate beds came to be seen as a sign of a failing marriage. Marie Stopes, author of Married Love, called twin beds “an invention of the Devil, jealous of married bliss”.

The problems of bed sharing haven’t gone away. For many couples married bliss involves waking up with no covers or sleeping on the very edge of the bed. In 2020 an article in Good Housekeeping suggested a clever solution – one bed, two separate duvets.



Anna Whitelock, Elizabeth’s Bedfellows: An Intimate History of the Queen’s Court (2013) Political intrigue, sexual scandal and assasination plots at the court of Elizabeth I, told through the history of the Queen’s bed and those who shared it.

Hilary Hinds, A Cultural History of Twin Beds (2019) Hygiene, modernity and the battle over the marriage bed – the history of twin beds between 1870 and 1970. A short article about the history of twin bed was published in the Guardian in August 2019.

Sasha Handley, Sleep in Early Modern England (2016) A riveting look at sleep c. 1600-1800.  Find stories about beds, bed sheets and bedfellows.  Available from Waterstones and Amazon

Emily Cockayne, Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England, 1600-1770 (2008) Not about sleep specifically, but vividly portrays the overcrowded, delapidated, and disease-ridden conditions of preindustrial cities.