As the clocks go forward for the start of British Summer Time, many of us will rue the loss of an hour in bed. But how did people get to work on time before alarm clocks?
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, ruled as they were by the inconstant tides.
“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
So our knocker-up didn’t knock us up
‘Cos he’s not up.
“The knocker uppers were night owls and slept during the day instead, waking at about four in the afternoon,” says author Richard Jones.
The trade spread rapidly across the country, particularly in areas where poorly paid workers were required to work shifts but could not afford their own watches.
Charles Dickens references knocking up in Great Expectations and it also features in the story of the Jack the Ripper murders in east London.
Knocking up was so commonplace Dickens made passing reference to it in his novel Great Expectations.
The orphan Pip takes up the tale in 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.”
Knocker uppers were not only confined to industrial cities. Caroline Jane Cousins – affectionately known as Granny Cousins – was born in Dorset in 1841 and became Poole’s last knocker upper, waking brewery workers each morning until retiring in 1918.
Another well-known knocker upper was Mrs Bowers, of Greenfield Terrace in Sacriston, County Durham.
She was a familiar sight out on the streets with her dog Jack. She woke each day at 1am and left her warm bed to wake the miners on the early shift.
She began knocking up during World War One and continued for many years, according to Beamish, the Living Museum of the North.
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, according to Mr Jones.
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, immortalised in songs by the likes of folk singer-song writer Mike Canavan.
“Through cobbled streets, cold and damp, the knocker-upper man is creeping.
Tap, tapping on each window pane, to keep the world from sleeping…”