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 wielding a long stick.
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,
“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.”
While the standard implement was a long fishing rod-like stick, other methods were employed, such as soft hammers, rattles and even pea shooters.
But who woke the knocker uppers? A tongue-twister from the time tackled this conundrum:
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, up
So our knocker-up didn’t knock us up ‘Cos he’s not up.
One problem knocker uppers faced was 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 rouse those intended but softly enough not to disturb the rest.
In return for being awakened, customers paid the knocker-up a set weekly fee. These weekly fees were reasonable and usually based on how far the knocker-up had to travel and the time of day the person needed to be awakened. Mrs. Waters charged the following: “All who were knocked up before four o’clock paid … eighteenpence a week; those who had to be awakened … after four gave…a shilling a week; whilst those who had to be aroused from five to six o’clock paid from sixpence to threepence weekly, according to time and distance.” Mrs. Waters claimed she “never earned less than thirty shillings a week; mostly thirty five; and … as high as forty shillings a week.” However, most of Mrs. Waters clients were knocked-up between five and six o’clock in the morning.
Knocker-ups developed a system to remember which houses needed to be knocked up and at what time. To keep customers straight, knocker-ups often chalked outside their customer’s homes. They used “all manner of figures, ‘1/2 past 3,’ 1/4 to 4,’ ‘5 o’clock,’ and such.” Sometimes there were more than chalked sidewalks, as it was claimed that in Manchester signboards were often used. Besides displaying the time, the signboards also advertised a knocker-ups business. Such signs could be found hanging “over the doors of dingy cottages, or at the head of flight of steps, leading to some dark cellar-dwelling, containing the words, ‘Knocking-Up Done Here.’
The goal of a knocker-up was to get as many customers in the smallest circle as possible and to cover as much ground as possible “in as little time, so it became like a ‘sprint-race.’ For that reason, knocker-ups sometimes exchanged customers with one another. Mrs. Waters never claimed to have exchanged customers, but she did assert her good wages occurred because she devised a system to knock-up a large number of houses in a short time: She found shortcuts through neighborhoods; claimed she “took care not to let the grass grow under her feet”; and, asserted she had a “knack of rousing … employers because … my knock or ring or way of tapping was more effective than that of other knockers-up’.”
There were large numbers of people carrying out the job, especially in larger industrial towns such as Manchester. Generally the job was carried out by elderly men and women but sometimes police constables supplemented their pay by performing the task during early morning patrols. In fact many saw this as a means of supplementing their income and in some cases as more important than their duties in policing the community. Robert Paul, the man who discovered the body of Jack the Ripper’s first victim – Mary Nichols, in Bucks Row Whitechapel, described how the policeman he informed saw no reason to let the murder 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 knocking 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.”
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.
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 particularly in the industrial areas around Manchester. It is believed the last knocker up retired from the job, in 1973 in Bolton.
A video of a knocker up from Burnley in the late 40’s is available from the North West Film archive at Manchester Metropolitan university. To view it follow the link below:
Mike Canavan from Manchester wrote a song which was performed regularly around the folk clubs. “The Knocker Upper Man ” Here is a You Tube video of Joe Stead performing it for an American audience.