Many workers were awakened by the sound of a tap at their bedroom window up to the 1970s in some locations. A person carrying a long stick would pass by on the sidewalk outside as they made their way to the home of their next client.
In Britain, the “knocker upper” was a regular sight, especially in the northern mill towns where people worked shifts or in London where dockers kept odd hours because of the unpredictable 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 traditional tool was a long stick that resembled a fishing rod, other tools were also used, including 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.
Making sure that employees were not awakened for nothing was one issue that knocker uppers encountered.
“When knocking up began to be a regular trade, we used to rap or ring at the doors of our customers,” Mrs Waters, a knocker upper in the north of England told an intrigued reporter from Canada’s Huron Expositor newspaper in 1878.
“The public complained of being disturbed… by our loud rapping or ringing; and the knocker-up soon found out that while he knocked up one who paid him, he knocked up several on each side who did not,” she continued.
The answer they came up with was to alter a long stick so they could tap on their clients’ bedrooms’ windows loudly enough to awaken the targeted recipients but softly enough to not disturb the others.