Knocker-Uppers: The Human Alarm Clocks of Yesteryear
Does the sound of your phone’s alarm jolt you out of bed every morning? Do you long for a simpler time? Perhaps you should consider employing a knocker-upper!
Way back when personal timepieces were neither affordable nor reliable, knocker-uppers or “knocker-ups” operated as human alarms, moving from house to house tapping on windows to wake sleeping workers for their shifts. The profession, which originated in 19th century Britain, rose out of the Industrial Revolution. With more dock and factory workers needing to report for duty at odd hours, communities employed knocker-uppers to help them greet the day.
Each knocker-upper brought their own unique style to the job. After early complaints that knocking on doors and ringing bells were waking up whole neighborhoods, knocker-uppers began using canes, candle snuffers, and long batons to gently rap on the windows of their customers. One of the most legendary knocker-uppers, Mary Smith, was famous for using a pea shooter. Smith even brought her daughter, also named Mary, into the family business and their story is now an acclaimed children’s book.
The need for knocker-uppers mostly faded as alarm clocks became commonplace in working-class households, although some were still making the rounds as late as 1970. While we may not be familiar with the human alarm clocks of decade’s past, the profession certainly left its mark on the historical landscape of Britain. In one small mining community you can still see the built-in “wake-up” slates on the exteriors of some homes. Residents would write the time they needed the knocker-upper to wake them for their shifts in chalk.
Image: Beamish, The Living Museum of The North
Feeling particularly spry? Try this historic tongue twister that explores the age-old question: who woke up the knocker-upper?
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 didn't knock us up
'Cos he's not up.
Click here to see footage of a knocker-upper in action in the 1940s.