Interesting Facts

Knockers-up: waking up the Industrial Britain's Workers in 1900-1941

Before alarm clocks were invented, there was a profession called a knocker-up, which involved going from client to client and tapping on their windows (or banging on their doors) with long sticks until they were awake. It lasted into the 1920s.

At a time when alarm clocks were neither affordable nor dependable, the knocker-upper profession emerged and continued well into the Industrial Revolution. It was knocker-responsibility up’s to awaken sleepers so they could arrive at work on time.

They would be paid a few pence per week to go around and wake up workers by rapping on upper windows with a long pole or banging on their doors with a short stick. The knocker-up remained constant until he was certain that his sleepy client was standing and moving.

There were many people working on the project, particularly in bigger industrial cities like Manchester. The task was typically carried out by elderly men and women, but occasionally police constables supplemented their pay by doing it while on early-morning patrols.

In order for the colliery-employed knocker-up to wake the miners at the appropriate time, miner homes in Ferryhill, County Durham, had slate boards set into their exterior walls. The miners would write their shift details on these slate boards in chalk. These slates were referred to as “wake-up slates” or “knocky-up slates.”

Mrs. Molly Moore, a knocker-up herself and the main character of Andrea U’Ren’s children’s picture book Mary Smith, asserts that she was the final knocker-up to work in that ability. Both Mary Smith and Molly Moore employed a peashooter, a long rubber tube, to hurl dried peas at the windows of their customers.

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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. Photo Credit:
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While the standard implement was a long fishing rod-like stick, other methods were employed, such as soft hammers, rattles and even pea shooters. c. 1915. Photo Credit:
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Charles Nelson of East London worked as a knocker-up for 25 years. He woke up early morning workers such as doctors, market traders and drivers. 1929. Photo Credit:
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Doris Weigand, Britain’s first railway knocker-up, makes a call. She is employed to inform workers when they are needed for a shift on short notice. 1941. Photo Credit:
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Mary Smith earned sixpence a week shooting dried peas at sleeping workers’ windows in East London in the 1930s. (Photo credit: John Topham / TopFoto).
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