How to get to work on time in the 19th century

Question: In an age before alarm clocks (and then in the one before affordable alarm clocks), how did anyone get to work on time? 

Answer, at least in parts of Britain: Starting in the nineteenth century, they got woken up by a knocker-upper. 

Digression: In American, if you’re knocked up, you’re pregnant. (This does not apply to the male of the species.) In British, though, you can knock up some scrambled eggs without anyone giving birth to little baby scrambled eggs. Knocking something up means you’re building it “very quickly, using whatever materials are available.” In the case of our example, we’ll hope that’s eggs, not cement blocks. 

Being knocked up can also–in British–mean being tired. 

But more to the point, you can knock someone up by pounding on their door when they’re asleep. 

Or on their window.

For the sake of clarity, reproduction takes place in the same way in both countries, it’s only the language that changes. Let’s say you’re talking about waking someone up. By knocking. Take two words, knock and up. Now combine them and shake and you’ll get one of those things we call a phrase–a small number of words that, over and over again, spot each other across a crowded room, run into each other’s arms, and form a unit of meaning.

The American meaning? It dates back at least to 1830 and I can’t begin to explain why it means what it does, but all the same it does.

Where were we?

People were going to work. It was the beginning of the nineteenth century, bang-slam in the midst of the industrial revolution. Industry was (and is) a regimented beast. It depended on everyone being in their place at the same time. Keeping your job meant getting up at the right time.

 

A rare relevant photo. This is a knocker-upper from London. She was known for using a peashooter to wake people up.

Enter the knocker-upper

Actually, knocker-uppers didn’t enter. They walked down a street and tapped on windows, or possibly doors, and they kept going. Because they got paid by the head, and if they were going to make a living they had to get a move on. Getting your butt out of bed was up to you. 

Most of them carried a long pole so they could reach an upstairs window. One, Mary Smith, was known for using a pea shooter. Others carried soft hammers or (so I’ve read) rattles. I’m skeptical about the rattles, because they wouldn’t want to wake the neighbors. Not just because they’d complain, but because they’d be waking them up for free. 

We’ll talk about payment in a minute.

As an aside, you might’ve noticed that “upstairs window” is a little vague. In Britain the floor up one flight of stairs is the first floor. In the U.S., it’s the second floor. The two countries put the numbers in the same order, but they start counting in different places.

Knocker-uppers tended to be old men or women. Does that mean the women were old or just that they were women? I’m not sure. The source I stole the information from lists them that way, either because they didn’t notice that the words can be understood two different ways or because they were doing what I am and dodging the issue. I’m just going to duck behind this nice potted begonia over here and pretend it has nothing to do with me. 

Just think of the women as being a kind of upstairs window.

Don’t think about it too hard.

Occasionally cops worked as knocker-uppers while they were on their rounds, earning a bit of extra income since they were up anyway. Robert Paul, who found the body of Jack the Ripper’s first victim, saw a cop and told him about the dead woman but the cop was knocking people up and couldn’t be bothered.

“I saw [a policeman] in Church-row,” Paul said at the inquest, “just at the top of Buck’s-row, who was going round calling people up. 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.”

Knocker-uppers were particularly common in northern mill towns and in London, where dock workers’ shifts changed with the tides, although they also worked in smaller cities and towns. The trade went into decline in the 1940s and 1950s, and the last knocker-upper is thought to have retired in 1973.

I’m not sure why anyone was still paying a knocker-upper in 1972. Maybe out of loyalty. Or because they liked the personal touch.

 

Who paid? 

Customers paid by the week. A knocker-upper named Mrs. Waters (from somewhere in the north of England) told a Canadian newspaper in  1878, “All who were knocked up before four o’clock paid … eighteen pence 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.” She said she “never earned less than thirty shillings a week; mostly thirty five; and . . . as high as forty shillings a week.” 

There were twelve pence in a shilling. I’ll leave you to figure out who got a bargain while I hide behind that begonia again.

How much of a person’s pay would that eat? These were low-wage workers, and in 1880 a male laborer’s average pay was £30 a year; a woman’s was £15. A pound was made up of 20 shillings, and a family’s budget would have had next to no give in it. Still, the knocker-upper’s price had to be within a working person’s reach. 

Mrs. Waters also talked about her customers tapping back to let her know they’d heard her–some cheerily and some complaining and swearing the whole time. 

To keep the times and places straight, knockers-up chalked times on sidewalks and buildings, and some may have hung up signs.

Who woke up the knocker-upper? Themselves, for the most part. They were night owls, sleeping during the day. Think of them as people who worked the graveyard shift. 

How did they know what time it was? Nothing I’ve found addresses this, but cities and towns had clocks–they were an important civic show-off item–and even if you couldn’t look at your wrist and know if you were two minutes ahead of schedule, you’d get a nice loud bong every fifteen minutes, and a count on the hour. When I was a kid–we’re going back to the 1950s here–stores still had clocks in their front windows and long before I had a watch I could walk down the street from clock to clock and know the time. 

41 thoughts on “How to get to work on time in the 19th century

  1. Eighteen pence a week sounds like a lot of money. I hope there weren’t many people who needed to be up at that time. I knew about knocker-uppers, but I didn’t know how the system worked financially. I might have assumed that mill-owners employed them.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating – I loved th lady with the pea shooter. I had no idea that the “bobby” who found Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, victim of Jack the Ripper, was also working as a knocker upper too. May partially explain the poor start the investigation got.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. You’re brilliant. I’m here to knock you up and say hello. ♥️ I loved reading this post very much. I also enjoyed that rare relevant photograph. What diligent individuals the knocker uppers were.

    I have two iPhones and neither of them can get me out of bed at 5:40 am. One morning last month, they both gave up and didn’t ring at all. And then, Siri ignored me so I couldn’t use voice commands to ring my office. (I had forgotten how to use the contacts app and then it refused to show me my office’s details). My boss thought all of that was an act of God, so I got the morning off.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You’re leading me gently toward the conclusion that Siri is god, right?

      Years ago, I saw an alarm clock that had a helicopter propeller on top. When it rang, it would rise up and fly in some unpredictable direction so that you couldn’t just reach over and slam your hand down to shut it off. By the time you’d dealt with the problem, you’d be out of bed. I wanted one–not because I was having trouble getting up but because it was so damn nutty, but I didn’t figure it would live through more than one or two landings, so I saved my money.

      I probably should’ve bought it.

      Thanks for the compliment. I don’t seem to be pregnant, so I must still be asleep.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I grew up in/near a bunch of factory towns (here a lot of the towns were built by the factory so the owners could make more money by renting out the homes to workers). The companies blew the whistle twice per shift – first one to wake up the workers, second one to let them know it was time to leave to walk to work. As to night shift workers, if they were woken up during the morning shift then they were sleeping on the job. As far as the second shift it probably depended on how they handles the shifts. Most workers I lived near, they woke up with the morning whistle, carryied out their non-work day, went to work for 2nd shift, came home and went straight to bed, so the afternoon whistles really didn’t wake them up.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Sadly. company towns were a lot like the song Sixteen Tons. The towns here had two methods of being built, depending on how bad the factory was. The town I lived in the factory was noise and smokey, so the houses near the factory were cheap and meant for the laborers. As you went up the hill (and further away) the houses were nicer and only mangement could live in them.

        The town next to us had a quiet, clean factory (air wise), so management lived near the factory so they didn’t have as far to travel. As you got further away (and up the steep hill) you got into lower management, then workers.

        In both towns upper management had carriages/cars sent to bring them to work so they didn’t have to exert themselves. Stores were initially set up and run by the companies (at stiff prices) until it became too costly, then they were sold to private parties to run.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. A very enjoyable post !
    I surmise that the cop summoned to Polly Nichols’ body figured that if she was already dead there was no need to hurry. (This is not necessarily an idea that died out in the 19th century.)
    The helicopter alarm is fascinating. I finally got so I put the alarm across the room so that I had to get up.
    I used to have alarm clock cats (one would pee on the bed if she was especially annoyed with me) but now that both they and I have gotten older, they seem annoyed when I remove them from off me in order to get up myself.
    Still on the list for my Covid shot. I’ve been on the 75 + list for almost two months now…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I guess planting the clocks where the helicopter would land saves a lot of trouble and money, even if it doesn’t make you laugh as hard.

      A peeing cat would get me out of bed. It would probably also get her banned from the bed. Bad cat.

      The only good thing about the waiting list is that–well, you keep getting older. Maybe eventually they’ll get it that you’re a priority.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. In the terraced streets of miners’ houses in NE England, there used to be a slate attached the the brickwork by the front door. The pitman would chalk the time on the slate he needed to get up. I thought this was a service provided by the colliery or National Coal Board.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. If you’re looking for a a derivation for the American usage, surely you’ve already provided it:

    >>Knocking something up means you’re building it “very quickly, using whatever materials are available.”<<

    Liked by 1 person

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