Knocker-Up: How the British Woke Up
A knocker-up, sometimes called a knocker-upper, was a person who roused sleeping people. The term knocker-up was also associated with the term knocked-up, which meant tired. There was also the door knocker (generally composed of brass or iron) that people used when knocking at a door.
Knocking-up first started in England and Ireland well before alarm clocks were affordable, reliable, or common and although people like Madame Tussaud, the Prince of Wales, or Queen Victoria may have not used them, they were popular with many UK residents, particularly people who worked in factories and mills. To accomplish the job, a knocker-up often used a trucheon or short, heavy stick to knock on a client’s door. To reach a high window, a long stick, often made of bamboo, might be employed, and at least one knocker-up used a pea shooter to rouse sleeping clients.
With all the noise the knocker-up made, knocker-ups soon learned “that while he knocked up one who paid him, he [also] knocked up several on each side who did not.” This resulted in the adoption of long tapered wands like fishing poles or rods that were sometimes called a snuffer outer, which was also an implement used to extinguish gas lamps at dawn. Sometimes the wands were 15 feet long, but the advantage of such long implements was that the knocker-up could tap, tap, tap and wake the paying customer rather than the non-paying neighbor.
Although some knocker-ups were unemployed, sometimes they had other jobs, such as a night-watchmen. At least one knocker-up was “the mother of a family of workers, to whom she [was a] … domestic slave … [and turned] the necessity to profit by performing the same duty for her neighbors.” There was also a Mrs. Waters who got into the business after her husband was injured and she mentioned to his co-worker she was willing to do anything to keep a roof over her family’s head. The foundry man replied, “If you will knock me up at three o’clock every morning but Sunday, I will give you half-a-crown a week.” Realizing the man was sincere Mrs. Waters agreed. By the end of the first year, she had acquired thirty customers; within five years she had eighty clients; and, after that, she had as many as ninety-five at the same time. Mrs. Waters’s clients did not just include foundry workers but also numerous factory workers and people who plied the markets.
Some people believed knocker-ups were indispensable. Thus, one person wrote:
“There are so many things … to lure a working man into late hours of enjoyment, — so many wild excitements that help to ‘knock him up,’ after his ordinary work is over, and when his time is his own, so many temptations to ‘lengthen his days by stealing a few hours from the night,’ that the services of the morning ‘Knocker-Up’ are essential.”
Mrs. Waters worked as a knocker-up for thirty years and also believed her customers preferred being awoken by a knocker-up than by an alarm clock. This was because she claimed a clock “fails to awake[n] them, or if it awake[ns] them, they are at times so sleepy that they drop off again.” She asserted there was no better “money … spent as that which is paid to the profession; … [as] most who pay it think so.”
In return for being awakened, customers paid the knocker-up a set weekly fee. These weekly fees were reasonable and usually based on how far the knocker-up had to travel and the time of day the person needed to be awakened. In Mrs. Waters case she charged the following:
“All who were knocked up before four o’clock paid … eighteenpence a week; those who had to be awakened … after four gave…a shilling a week; whilst those who had to be aroused from five to six o’clock paid from sixpence to threepence weekly, according to time and distance.” Mrs. Waters claimed she “never earned less than thirty shillings a week; mostly thirty five; and … as high as forty shillings a week.”
However, most of Mrs. Waters clients were knocked-up between five and six o’clock in the morning.
Knocker-ups developed a system to remember which houses needed to be knocked up and at what time. To keep customers straight, knocker-ups often chalked outside their customer’s homes. They used all manner of figures to denote the time, such as “1/2 past 3,” “1/4 to 4,” and “5 o’clock.” Sometimes there were more than chalked sidewalks, as it was claimed that in Manchester signboards were often used. Besides displaying the time, the signboards also advertised a knocker-ups business. Such signs could be found hanging “over the doors of dingy cottages, or at the head of flight of steps, leading to some dark cellar-dwelling, containing the words, ‘Knocking-Up Done Here.'”
The goal of a knocker-up was to get as many customers in the smallest circle as possible and to cover as much ground as possible “in … little time [in what was] … like a ‘sprint-race.'” For that reason, knocker-ups sometimes exchanged customers with one another. Mrs. Waters never claimed to have exchanged customers, but she did assert her good wages occurred because she devised a system to knock-up a large number of houses in a short time: She found shortcuts through neighborhoods; claimed she “took care not to let the grass grow under [her] feet”; and, asserted she had a “knack of rousing … employers [because] … my knock or ring or way of tapping was more effective than that of other knockers-up.”
One person claimed knocking up was a “ticklish job.” Part of the issue was how long and how loud the knocker-up rapped or tapped. One person described it in the following fashion:
“[It is] a moderate murmur at first; but if the apparition of the night-capped head is slow in coming forth from the window above, an indignant energy soon marks … [the] appeal, and a storm is raised on the sounding panels loud enough to rouse a whole district.”
Some neighbors didn’t like the early morning noise, and there were reports of some knocker-ups being “pelted from windows” and having water “chucked out” windows down on them. Police were not necessarily friends to the knocker-ups as they thought about doing the job but found that they could not be in two places at the same time. Moreover, people wanted a private-knocker if they could get one.
Upset neighbors were not the only problem a knocker-up faced. Knocking-up customers were not always good-tempered, even if they were paying for a wake up call. The knocker-up would rap, rap, rap at a door or tap, tap, tap at the window and would not stop until the client signaled with a like response. Mrs. Waters claimed she knew by the responding rap who was “surly … pleasant … short-tempered and … long temper[ed].” For instance, one of Mrs. Waters’s grouchy customers was a slender, ill-featured man. She claimed he reminded her of weasel and stated:
“[H]e had to be up at five o’clock … [and] was given to drink … so that he was not only hard to awaken, but … never came to the window … [and instead] indulged in angry mutterings.”
Mrs. Waters eventually got fed up with his sour attitude and gave up her “shilling-a-week customer … [because she] was so plagued by his temper and insulting ways.”
As for Mrs. Waters she was faithful in her duties and was never late for a job. That was because she was knocked up too. Every morning her husband woke her, and she maintained she never once overslept. She also had a routine and “went to bed at nine o’clock every night, except Saturday night; and having a tired body and contented mind, I was not long in dropping asleep.” Her first customer had to be awoken at three o’clock in the morning. She rose at half past two to make sure she had time to dress and walk the twenty minutes necessary to reach her client’s home. When the weather was at its worst, which for a knocker-up was wet weather with pelting wind and rain, she left even earlier.
Most knocker-ups were paid weekly. Mrs. Waters said she received her wages “mostly on … Saturday afternoon and night.” Most customers sought her out, although some left payments with people she’d appointed to receive her pay. For customers that failed to pay, Mrs. Waters had a solution:
“I just gave a hint that if they did not pay up that week-end I would let them overlie themselves a morning now and again.”
Most customers knew they would lose more by being “quartered,” a punishment that resulted in the temporary loss of a person’s weekly wages by one quarter. It was therefore cheaper to pay for Mrs. Waters to knock them up, and, so, they paid her on time.
Knocker-ups were popular enough for authors to include some sort of description of them. For instance, Charles Dickens talked briefly about a knocker-up Sketches by Boz and Great Expectations. There were also references to knocker-uppers in numerous weeklies and illustrated monthlies throughout the Industrial Revolution. People also created songs, plays, musicals, and poems in their honor. There was even one inventive person who went so far as to create the following tongue twister:
“We had a knocker-up, and our knocker-up had a knocker-up, and our knocker-up’s knocker-up didn’t knock our knocker up. So our knocker-up did knock us up, ‘cos he’s not up!'”
-  Chambers’s Journal, Vol. 54, November 17, 1877, p. 723.
-  The Leisure Hour, Vol. 6, 1857, p. 312.
-  Chambers’s Journal, p. 722.
-  Waugh, Edwin, Lancashire Sketches, 1869, p. 298.
-  Chambers’s Journal, p. 722.
-  Ibid., p. 723.
-  Ibid.
-  Waugh, Edwin, p. 298.
-  Ibid., p. 300.
-  Chambers’s Journal, 722.
-  Ibid.
-  The Leisure Hour, p. 312.
-  Chambers’s Journal, 723.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Vas, Gratian, Tongue-Twisters, 1995, p. 117.
This is an excellent depiction of this now defunct aspect of working-class life. Some sources imply that it died out in the 1920s or soon after. I recall it in railway workers’ circles in North Lincolnshire in the late 1940s, and mention the practice in my memoir, Grammar School Boy: A Lincolnshire Education, published in 2014.