Sleeping in a Four-Poster Bed

I am lucky enough to sleep in a four-poster bed. It dates from around 1850 and is 5 ft 6 ins wide, 6 ft 8 ins long, and nearly 8 ft high. Fortunately, my terraced 1820 house has high ceilings. The bed has a roof canopy, a curtain behind my head, side curtains which remind me of sails on a tea clipper, arched pelmets around three sides at the top, and three lower valances which cover from  the bottom of the mattress to the floor. Sleeping in it is like being on board a galleon.

My 1850s four-poster bed

The sailing ship feel comes partly from the bed being higher than modern beds; the mattress is 2 ft 9 ins off the floor. When my daughter was little she wanted to live under the bed. It’s perfectly possible to crawl underneath and, once upon a time, it would have housed a truckle bed for a servant or child. Nowadays, a number of suitcases, clothes boxes and my Christmas decorations live there.

The oak roof frame has a walnut cornice elegantly curved and decorated on the outside and the two posts at the foot of the bed are also carved walnut. Walnut is a hard wood and difficult to carve, and the barley sugar twists of the posts demonstrate that the bed, whilst not being of stately home status, is a classy one.

One of the posts at the foot of the bed showing the rectangular panel which covers a bolt 

The whole bed comes apart (think IKEA 19th century style). The last time I moved it (from the first floor to the second floor), it took about four hours to dismantle and reassemble. The base oak timbers slot together neatly and are secured to the four upright posts by long bolts – with their own, specially-made screwdriver.

The rectangular panel removed to show the bolt which holds the base of the bed together 

When not in use, the screwdriver, which look like a fork with the two middle tines missing, hangs by a piece of string under the bed – as it has done for over 150 years.  The bolt holes are cunningly hidden under the rectangular carved panels which you can lever out with a bent pin, and then push back into place.

The roof frame also slots together and there is a spike at the top of each post which the frame fits onto – this bit is fiddly (it’s 8 feet up) and usually entails a fair amount of cursing – I use a small step-ladder. Originally, the bed had a horse hair mattress but, after 150 years or so, it was decidedly lumpy, the curls of horse hair came through the frayed 19th century ticking, and it gave me asthma, so it had to go. I now have a comfortable modern mattress.

The pelmet in the process of being put up. You can see the tape tacked to the wood and the half of the press stud. Note the barley sugar twists of the walnut posts

The annual wash, not to mention hanging everything back in the right place, is quite a chore – at least I have the benefit of a washing machine and a modern iron, unlike a 19th century housemaid.

The pelmet curtain in place 

When I inherited the bed, the curved roof pelmets were held in place by tacks, and the wood underneath was pitted with over a century’s worth of holes where the tacks had been hammered in and then removed when the curtain pelmets were washed. I needed to come up with an alternative way of fastening the pelmet to the wood. I thought of using velcro but in the end I used a double tape with plastic press studs. a building friend stapled one side of the tape to the wood (a bit hap-hazardly) and I sewed the matching tape to the curtains, taking care that the press studs met properly.

I love sleeping in  my four-poster and I write whilst sitting comfortably propped up with a cushion against the headboard. And, of course, if I ever need to feature a bed in a novel (and which novelist doesn’t!) I only have to look at my four-poster for inspiration.

Elizabeth Hawksley


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6 thoughts on “Sleeping in a Four-Poster Bed”

  1. Oh, so much ENVY. How wonderful to own and sleep in such a beautiful bed.

    I love the details you give. As you say, pity to poor housemaids and laundresses without modern conveniences. They must presumably have had to change the whole set periodically, don’t you think? Muslin for summer and velvet for winter, perhaps?

    1. I love your idea of having summer and winter bed curtains. Taking the bed curtains down for their annual wash is an entire day’s work. The curtains have shrunk slightly and getting the bottom valances back through the long pieces of dowelling can be a bit of a nightmare. I’ve sharpened the ends of the dowelling slightly which helps. Well, thinking about it, make that two day’s work: taking them down and washing them, then ironing them and putting them back up. And the roof curtain seems to collect an awful lot of dust over the year.

  2. Wow, that is seriously fantabulous for an historical novelist. Perfect for writing too. Though I don’t envy you the big move. Do you sleep with the curtains closed around you, I wonder?

    1. Thank you for your comment, Elizabeth. No, the curtains don’t close. If you look at the photo you will see that the side curtains are quite narrow. You can pull them back – which I do to reach the bedside light, for example, but I can’t close them more than the 2 ft 2 in. length of dowelling. That’s fine because it allows me shade from direct sunlight from the window.

  3. Oh, wow! I fell in love with your bed instantly – who wouldn’t? But maybe changed my mind when I read of the two-day chore of washing and rehanging those curtains. I have one question though. Do you sleep well in it?

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