The secret world of Knocker-uppers!

We all know how job roles can become obsolete overnight but this isn’t something new.  Have you ever given thought to how people would get up on time for work in the old days?   I’ve never had a problem getting up for work.  If I have to get up at 5am for work  I get up at 5am, if I am travelling and have to be up at 2am then I just seem to wake at 2am. If everyone was a weird as myself then it would have put a very swift end to a fascinating but surely miserable job, that of the Knocker-Uppers!

In the countryside getting up on time wasn’t so much of a problem as people would get up with the sun to main pursue agricultural duties but it was a completely different situation in the cities.

Until the 1970s in some areas, many workers were woken by the sound of a tap at their bedroom window. On the street outside, walking to their next customer’s house, would be a figure holding an extremely long stick or cane.

The “knocker upper” was a common sight in Britain, particularly in the northern mill towns, where people worked shifts, or in London where dockers kept unusual hours, ruled as they were by the inconstant tides.

While the standard implement was a long fishing rod-like stick, other methods were employed, such as soft hammers, rattles and even pea shooters.

Can you guess what the biggest problem knocker uppers faced? It was of course making sure workers did not get woken up for free.

“When knocking up began to be a regular trade, we used to rap or ring at the doors of our customers,” Mrs Waters, a knocker upper in the north of England told an intrigued reporter from Canada’s Huron Expositor newspaper in 1878.

“The public complained of being disturbed… by our loud rapping or ringing; and the knocker-up soon found out that while he knocked up one who paid him, he knocked up several on each side who did not,” she continued.

The solution they hit on was modifying a long stick, with which to tap on the bedrooms windows of their clients, loudly enough to wake up the intended but softly enough not to disturb the rest.

“They used to come down the street with their big, long poles,” remembers Paul Stafford, a 59-year-old artist who was raised above a shop in Oldham.  I would sleep with my brother in the back room upstairs and my parents slept in the front. The knocker upper wouldn’t hang around either, just three or four taps and then he’d be off. We never heard it in the back, though it used to wake my father in the front.”

The trade spread rapidly across the country, particularly in areas where poorly paid workers were required to work shifts but could not afford their own watches.

Charles Dickens references knocking up in Great Expectations as the orphaned character Pip explains…

“As I was sleepy before we were far away from the prison-ship, Joe took me on his back again and carried me home.

“He must have had a tiresome journey of it, for Mr Wopsle, being knocked up, was in such a very bad temper that if the Church had been thrown open, he would probably have excommunicated the whole expedition, beginning with Joe and myself.”

Knocker Uppers even worm their way into the terrible events in Whitechapel and the crimes of  Jack the Ripper.

Robert Paul, the man who discovered the body of the Ripper’s first victim – Mary Nichols, described how the policeman he informed saw no reason to let it detain him from his knocking up duties, Mr Jones says.

“I saw [a policeman] in Church-row, just at the top of Buck’s-row, who was going round calling people up,” Mr Paul told the inquest. “And I told him what I had seen, and I asked him to come, but he did not say whether he should come or not. He continued calling the people up, which I thought was a great shame, after I had told him the woman was dead.”

Knocker uppers were not only confined to industrial cities. Caroline Jane Cousins – affectionately known as Granny Cousins – was born in Dorset in 1841 and became Poole’s last knocker upper, waking brewery workers each morning until retiring in 1918.

Another well known knocker upper was Mrs Bowers, of Greenfield Terrace in Sacriston, County Durham.

She was a familiar sight out on the streets with her dog Jack. She woke each day at 1am and left her warm bed to wake the miners on the early shift.  She began knocking up during World War One and continued for many years, according to Beamish, the Living Museum of the North.

Mary Smith

The legendary Mary Smith with her Pea-shooter

The trade also ran in families. Mary Smith, who used a pea shooter, was a well-known knocker upper in east London and her daughter, also called Mary, followed in her mother’s footsteps. The latter is widely believed to have been one of the capital’s last knocker uppers, according to Mr Jones.   Mary used dried peas to wake her clients up and charged them sixpence a week for the privilege.

With the spread of electricity and affordable alarm clocks, however, knocking up had died out in most places by the 1940s and 1950s.

Yet it still continued in some pockets of industrial England until the early 1970s when finally everyone had access to cheap and reliable electricity and alarm clocks.

For another post relating to Beamish Museum see Visiting the home of Joseph Hedley whose murder in 1826 shook the world!

Or for a totally forgotten consequential tragedy of Jack The Ripper read  Elizabeth and John Sodeaux – Two unintended victims of Jack The Ripper

Or for something a little creepy how about a peek at an abandoned Jack The Ripper mortuary I unexpectedly stumbled across in an East London cemetery!

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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3 Responses to The secret world of Knocker-uppers!

  1. Very interesting, Stephen

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: I’m on UK national Talk Radio tonight at 9.30pm | Stephen Liddell

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