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.
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.
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.