‘Every morning, Bessie woke before dawn to the sound of the knocker-upper – employed by the brewery to wake the drayman living in the next room – tapping on the window with his stick. He would tap tap tap until at last a burst of angry muttering and swearing indicated the drayman had risen.’ [‘Orphan Rock‘, March 2022]

It was whilst researching everyday jobs of the late-1800s/early-1900s in Sydney, that I came across the knocker-upper.

The Fetherston Clock-Tower, Ardagh, Longford, c.1865

Since prehistoric times, people have measured time. Sometimes by simple observation of the heavens plus deductive reasoning, sometimes with instruments such as sundials, water clocks or hourglasses. Incense clocks were used in India and China, whilst sophisticated timekeeping astrolabes were made in Persia. The invention of the verge and foliot escapement [around 1275] was the first type of controlled time-keeping – simple weight-driven clocks accurate enough to mark the hours, but not the minutes or seconds, and it did not have a clock face. Most were applied to the towns’ tower-clocks, where they would ring the hours, calling the people to work or to prayer. The invention of the mainspring [early 1400s] allowed for smaller clocks to be built for the first time, and by the sixteenth century timekeepers became more refined and sophisticated, so that by 1625 watches began to appear, but very few were able to afford such things.

‘Iron and Coal’ by William Bell Scott, 1860

Prior to the industrial revolution, most people lived in agrarian or handicraft societies, which disregarded clock-time, and where time was based instead on the natural cycle of sunrise and sunset, as well as that of the seasons, the cycles of the moon or the tides, and the ringing of the town’s clock-tower clock. But with the coming of the industrial revolution starting in the late-1700s, time changed. With work now organised under the factory system, local rhythms and traditions were erased – time no longer ‘passed’, but was ‘kept’. It became a measurable resource. Factory owners and employers used this to their advantage, introducing shift-work, and enforcing punctuality and time-discipline. This, of course, influenced peoples’ behaviours – when they ate, when they slept, and when they woke. But how did dockers, factory workers, miners and other shift-workers wake up at a specific time when watches and clocks were too expensive, and being late for work often meant instant dismissal and a speedy spiral into poverty and homelessness? Enter the knocker-upper.

A knocker-upper

Knocker-uppers were usually elderly men or women who, for a fee, would come wake you every morning at a specific time. Fees varied, with the most expensive being those that needed to be awakened the earliest or who lived the furthest, with the average fee in the early 1800s being three pence a week. With thirty or more houses, a knocker-upper could make 2 pounds a week – close to $400 in today’s money. Initially, knocker-uppers would loudly knock or ring at their customer’s door, but they soon realised those on either side of the paying client’s door were also getting woken up, but for free, or would be people who did not want to be woken up, and so would complain. So they devised a solution – they used a long stick with which to tap on the window of their customer, loud enough to wake the one within, but not so loud as to wake anyone else. A conscientious knocker-upper would not to leave until the occupant had proven they were awake.

One well-known knocker-upper in east London was Mary Smith, who used a pea-shooter to wake her clients. Children’s book author and illustrator Andrea U’Ren has written a book about her, following Mary as she wakes her town’s laundry maids, the fishmonger, and even the sleepy mayor.            

‘Mary Smith’ by A U’Ren

Even policemen sometimes supplemented their income by combining the work of a knocker-upper with their early morning patrols. An article in Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper [Sunday 2nd September 1888], reporting on the first victim of Jack the Ripper, quotes Robert Paul, the man who discovered the body:

‘I saw a policeman in Church-row, just at the top of Buck’s-row, who was going round knocking 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.’

By the early 1940s, however, alarm clocks had become affordable, and knocking-up died out as a profession. #HistoricalFiction #OrphanRock #AussieLit #Australianfiction #histfic #timekeeping