Have you ever wondered how people got to work on time before smartphones? Well, once upon a time there were alarm clocks—little devices invented by dumb people to shock the sleeping body with a horribly shrill sound that was responsible for waking up the world—It also led to the invention of the 10-minute “snooze” button, for obvious reasons; and the perpetual demand for NEW alarm clocks because your old one doesn’t respond very well to being hurled across the room.
But how did people in times gone by manage to wake up in the morning on time? Keeping a roof over your head and feeding your family during the nineteenth century often meant rising in the pitch-black of night, without even dawn light to alert you to the time. During the Victorian era, a time piece of any kind—be it a pocket watch, or a clock—was expensive to own, and thus something working class people could not afford to purchase. During the Industrial Revolution, when workers performed shift work in factories, the problem of getting up on time became even more acute.
Back in the day, some people resorted to the art of “over-drinking,” or drinking so much water before bed that you’re bladder would wake you up (hopefully early enough) to use the “facilities”.
As is so often the case, where there’s a need, someone steps in to supply the demand.
Enter the “knocker-upper”. A job that was popular in the United Kingdom and Ireland during the nineteenth century. This enterprising individual would invest money in a timepiece, or some other method of keeping track of the minutes and hours. He or she would then arm his or herself with a lantern; a long pole (for upper-story windows); a short stick (for the ground floor); a cane or wooden mallet (for rapping on doors)—even a pea shooter! (for all of the above)—and wander the Victorian streets during the wee hours of the morning, tap-tap-tapping on windows and doors, alerting those slumbering within that it was time to “rise and shine”.
Above: A nineteenth-century “knocker-upper”, Mary Smith, using a pea-shooter to arouse her clients.
A typical fee was a penny a month—and for that, the knocker-upper would agree to be there, every morning. outside the assigned window, at the appointed time, to tap on the windowpane with the end of his long cane, or etc. The conscientious knocker-upper gave an undertaking not to leave until the occupant had displayed adequate proof that he or she was indeed awake.
“Knocking up” was so commonplace during the nineteenth century that author Charles Dickens made a passing reference to the job in his novel Great Expectations. Pip (Chapter Six): “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.”
If this sounds like an unlikely way to make a living, consider how many people needed to get up early, say, in a town such as Baldock in Hertfordshire, which had a population of around 2,000 people. Many of Baldock’s workers were employed by the railway and brewing industries. This meant meant shift work, and early starts. There were, in fact, three local breweries in Baldock, all of which employed “draymen” whose day began at 3:00 am. So, there was plenty of work for the diligent knocker-upper, who finally went to bed once everyone else was up.
Knocker-uppers continued to perform these duties into the 1920s. In Manchester, England, the last professional knocker-upper turned in his long pole sometime during the 1950s.
Oddly enough, the practice didn’t completely die out until the 1970s.
(Sources: Wikipedia, Grunge.com, YouTube)
—Images: Unless credited otherwise images used are from Pinterest, Wikipedia, and the Public Domain.