Once upon a time everyday working folks paid someone to “knock them up”. It was a quaint and curious English and Irish custom, begun during the Industrial Revolution and carried forward into the early twentieth century (and beyond for some locales). Before alarm clocks were available and affordable, “getting knocked up” was essential to ensure working men and women avoided fines for arriving late to work.
It may have been a curious custom, but it was honest work for anyone willing to arise before anyone else in the neighborhood, and rain or shine walk around tapping on their clients’ windows, or should I say “knocking them up”. They would advertise themselves as a “knocker-up” or “window tickler” and were paid two to three pence per week to make sure their client rolled out of bed on time.
The work of knocking up the neighborhood was a necessity on one side of the world, while on the other side Americans found it a “Queer English Custom”.1 For some it wasn’t a neighborhood job, but rather part of their duties as caretakers of prominent residences. At the bishop of London’s residence, Fullham Palace, the lodgekeeper began knocking up the domestic help around 5:30 a.m.
The palace knocker-up used a fifteen-foot pole known as a “rousing stave” to wake up the servants, knocking until the “wakee” gave “a more or less grateful answer in reply.” It may have been a similar device, but there was a difference between the rousing stave used in rousing the help and the one used during church services “directly upon the persons of inattentive or dozing members of the congregation.” Still, it served essentially the same purpose.
During the era before alarm clocks were more readily available in the United Kingdom, one might see a card in the window of the general store: “Workmen called early in the morning. Terms moderate.” The Washington Post, musing about the knockers-up of England, opined:
a “knocker-up” would have a much harder job in America than he has in England…. In the first place, the houses in the industrial sections are closely packed together in long rows, like the buildings in the business sections of American cities, and are very seldom more than two stories high. Thus the “knocker up” is able to quickly arouse an entire street of workers, the rattle and roar of his stick bringing the men and women promptly from their beds. And his work is expedited by the fact that many of the sleepers hear him while he is a dozen hoses away, and are out of bed and rapping on their windows in reply by the time he reaches them.2
In other words, a knocker-up would have a harder time making a living in America since buildings were built so close together. Why pay for a knocker-up when the rap on your neighbor’s window is sufficient to arouse you. Perhaps the equivalent today would be people who “borrow” their neighbor’s wi-fi signal instead of paying for their own internet service?
Not everyone appreciated their neighbors’ knocker-up at such an early hour, especially actors and actresses who tended to “sleep in” after arriving home late the night before. One London actress, a Miss Hay, was just dropping off to sleep when she heard a “weird sound against her window.” Startled, she rushed to the window and threw the curtains aside, and heard “Coom on, Joe,” shouted a voice. “Are you no gettin’ oop to-day?” The knocker-up had forgotten his regular client was away.3
Not only did the knocker-up arouse his clients, he even saved a few it appears. The London Evening News reported two women had saved themselves from a burning house by sliding down sheets to the street. The fire was just below their living area and a knocker-up had sounded the alarm when it was apparent escape by the stairs would be impossible. The building was gutted, but the occupants were saved thanks to their neighborhood knocker-up.4
While the job normally provided steady income, a knocker-up was out of luck when worker strikes occurred from time to time. One such person ended up in court after he’d stolen a pair of boots, “pleading that because of the cotton lockout nobody wanted his services and that he was starving.”5
One knocker-up in particular was diversely affected during the same cotton lockout. He had been calling on clients every morning for forty years . It was his only occupation and his sole means of support. Suddenly, two hundred clients didn’t need his services or perhaps couldn’t afford them during the lockout. Clients preferred their reliable knocker-up to alarm clocks even in 1912.6
Unfortunately, there were no knocker-up trade unions to protect their livelihood in the event of work stoppages. In one town, however, knockers-up combined their efforts and began demanding advance payment.
For many years the profession was strictly male-oriented, but in the early twentieth century women began to pursue careers as knockers-up – an oddity for some. Still, it must have taken a special kind of person to arouse themselves from slumber before heading out to arouse others from theirs. Such was the case of Henry Wood who years before had been nursed back to health by Florence Nightingale. Despite the challenges of his chosen occupation, Henry seemed well suited for the task:
Leaving his bed every morning at four o’clock he is soon afterwards in the streets. He meets nobody but the friendly policeman as he goes from house to house and taps with a long stick at the bedroom windows of cotton-workers who pay him a few pence a week to do so. “Owd Harry” has to face many bitter and wretched mornings in the course of a year, yet he is hale and hearty and likely to go on rousing people to the duties of the day for a long time to come.7
Knockers-up were an amusement for Americans it seemed, newspapers calling the custom quaint or queer. One even came up with a tongue-twister of sorts, musing about what happens when the knocker-up isn’t himself knocked-up on time:
One morning a lad went into the factory at a quarter past seven, and the manager saw him, and said: “Well, Johnny, why are you so late?” The boy began to cry, and said: “Well, sir, it’s a case of this. Our knocker-up has a knocker-up to knock him up at 4 o’clock, and our knocker-up’s knocker-up didn’t knock our knocker-up up, so your knocker-up didn’t come to knock us up.”
Most knocker-ups were reliable, however. Indeed it was true according to Mr. W.B. Mucklow who produced a stereopticon slide show in 1892. Mucklow had met with every day “street characters” in the great cities of the world. At the top of his “50 Life Models” was none other than a knocker-up, followed by the milk boy. Other life models included “two old fruit women”, “the Italian and monkey”, “the blind Bible reader” and last of all “the policeman”.
The profession experienced a setback of sorts, as evidenced by a news item entitled “Persons Not Insurable”. In 1913 certain provisions of British law forbade the following men from obtaining insurance: “men who volunteer, or are asked, in a market, to put burrs under the wheels of vehicles, cover the horses, and adjust their nose-bags, while the drivers are in a shop, no payment for these services being promised; a ‘knocker-up,’ engaged by various people to wake them daily for a fixed weekly payment.”
When World War I broke out, knocker-up services were in even higher demand in Lancashire especially as workers went to work in military-related industries. It turned out to be a boon for a knocker-up who might normally receive up to three pence a week per client. Now that the war effort had kicked in, they could demand four pence as extra war pay.8
It appears the practice wasn’t going away even though the rest of the modern world had long since adapted to waking up to alarm clocks. During World War II certain areas of England still employed their friendly neighborhood knocker-up. Scotland adopted the practice, perhaps briefly in 1941, when a shortage of alarm clocks for factory workers was noted.
In early 1951 there were still a few knockers-up awakening railway workers in Derby, England. However, on August 4, 1951 it was announced that English railroads had ended the “ancient job” of knocker-up:
Britain’s most unique jobholder – the “knocker-up” – had been declared extinct by a ruling of the nation’s socialized railways. Ever since trains began running in Britain, “knockers-up” have plodded before dawn through snow, fog and rain to awaken engineers and firemen in the big railway towns.
They knocked on doors until sleepy heads emerged from windows above and assured that the men behind the throttle would get to work on time. But the railway management decided it could save about $840,000 yearly by asking the trainmen to wake themselves.
Today, 1000 former “knockers-up” were looking for new jobs. They predicted, however, that the muddle caused by their absence would convince the railway management to revoke its order before the month was out.9
Alas, it appears this was indeed the end of the time-honored knocker-up profession. After years of indispensable service to mankind they were suddenly quite the opposite – “dispensable” and no longer needed.
Postscript: Being a knocker-up wasn’t the only “curious profession” of the nineteenth century, however. Others included: “artificial ear and nose makers, prayer-makers, leg stretchers, saladmakers, knockers up and fourteenth men.”10
The “fourteenth man” was much in demand in Paris where, to avoid the awkwardness of having thirteen guests at a dinner, the “lucky man” was always ready at a moment’s notice. This is, of course, in contrast to the Thirteen Club whose express purpose was to challenge the notion of the number thirteen being unlucky. In case you missed my article about the Thirteen Club, you can read it here.
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!
© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2015.
- Muskegon Chronicle, 04 Mar 1892, p. 2
- Washington Post, 19 May 1912
- London Evening News, 11 Feb 1915, p. 5
- London Evening News, 26 Aug 1912, p. 3
- London Evening News, 16 Jan 1912, p. 5
- London Evening News, 01 Jan 1912, p. 4
- London Evening News, 07 Dec 1903, p. 1
- Vancouver Daily World, 16 Feb 1916
- The Baytown Sun, 04 Aug 1951
- Abilene Weekly Reflector, 15 Jan 1891