Early risers: before alarm clocks there were knocker-uppers

An Irishwoman’s Diary

An early poster for the capture of Jack the Ripper. Photograph: PA.

Have you ever wondered how you might have earned your keep if you were born more than a century ago? The early risers among us might have been knocker uppers. It sounds faintly rude, but a knocker upper – or knocker up – was an honourable, and very vital, job in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Back before alarm clocks were ubiquitous, people who rose before daylight to work in factories, mines and markets paid a knocker upper to wake them. The knocker upper would not leave until the client came to the window or gave a signal that they were up. For that service, they received about sixpence a week.

But the knocker uppers had to be careful as they went from house to house. They had to be loud enough to be heard by their clients, but they didn’t want to wake everyone in the house at 3.30am. They also didn’t want to wake the next-door neighbours for free.

And so, the knocker uppers hit on some ingenious solutions to this quandary. Many carried long bamboo sticks to help them rap on upstairs bedroom windows. Others used adapted fishing rods.


And then there was the doyenne of them all – Mary Smith from the east end of London. She carried a pea shooter and, with the precision of a sniper, sent a lively shower of dried legumes at the window panes of Limehouse.

Photographer John Topham took several photographs of her in 1931 and she looks like a formidable woman as she stands in her voluminous skirts, hand on hip, aiming her pea shooter upwards. You get the feeling that you wouldn't roll over for another sleep if Mary Smith was bouncing dried peas off your window. I doubt she'd entertain the notion of a snooze button.

Precision pea-shooting clearly ran in the family because her daughter inherited her pea-shooter and continued using it until those pesky alarm clocks took away her livelihood.

In some cases, the knocking up work supplemented another income. Many policemen on the night shift took on knocking up duties in the wee hours and in one case, this double-jobbing might have aided the escape of a dangerous killer.

Robert Paul was on his way to Covent Garden market at 3.45am in August 1888 when a man pointed to the body of a woman he had just discovered in a gateway. It was Mary Nicholls, Jack the Ripper's first known victim. Paul quickly looked for a policeman and found one on the next street, performing his knocking up duties.

“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 told Lloyd’s Weekly newspaper. “He continued calling the people up, which I thought was a great shame.” By the time the double-jobbing policeman arrived at the scene, the investigation had already commenced.

So perhaps if that policeman had been patrolling the area, instead of performing his knocking up duties, the future serial killer might have been stopped in his tracks.

That's not the only connection between an unhinged person and a knocker up. In early 1950, newspapers reported on a retired man in northern England who still employed a knocker up to wake him at 5am, despite having nowhere to go. He said it was for the sheer joy of hurling abuse at the knocker upper before rolling over and going back to sleep. None of the articles mentioned the presence of a wife but, if she existed, she would have been forgiven for harbouring dark and murderous fantasies about him at 5am every day.

From everything I've read about knocker uppers, I can only conclude that Ireland produced the greatest knocker upper of all. He was brought to the public's attention in this very column, in January 1930. An Irishman's diarist wrote of his beloved dog, a mix of sheepdog and terrier, whose pleasing trick was to play the part of official knocker upper to his master. The dog would sleep on a mat outside his bedroom door and in the morning, he would enter and wake the writer with a combination of his paw and tongue.

“When he saw me stir and open eyes, he would give a short bark of good will and go off to bring in the cattle,” the diarist wrote. “This done, he came up again, and if I were not out of bed he would pull systematically at the clothes, unperturbed by protests, until I showed a leg. Then from the vantage of the door, he would keep an eye on my toilet, giving whines of remonstration if I dallied.”

Impressive as she was, not even the pea-shooting Mary Smith could offer a superior service to the one provided by that sagacious dog.