Dec 15, 2020
Knocker up. Who woke up the workers in Victorian England
The history of the knocker ups. The ancient craft of human alarm clocks.
For many centuries, some workers were already standing at the crack of dawn knocking on the streets of London and Manchester in front of their clients’ apartments. In the England of the industrial revolution, the knocker-ups marked the beginning of another tiring working day. We will have to wait until the 70s of the twentieth century to find automatic alarm clocks in almost all the bedrooms, the familiar and perhaps less noisy ones. Before the advent of this seemingly simple gadget, the “knockers” were equipped with long bamboo sticks that reached the windows of the first floors of each house, hence the name knocker-up, or “knocker at the top”. Workers, doctors or teachers it makes no difference: factory workers weren’t the only ones who were awakened to this unpleasant sound coming from their window.
The knocker-ups were mostly men and were paid to wake even nobles or people from a higher class in Victorian England. However, this strange profession was very common in the northern cities of England or in some industrial districts of London where people worked in shifts. After hitting the stick against the window, the knocker-ups waited for a signal to tell if people had finally risen and to receive a small reward. The daily wage of the knockers was still low, but it was often a second job, so much so that he could supplement his salary.
But who woke up the “human alarm clocks”?
It almost seems like a tongue twister and in fact there is no shortage of nursery rhymes that tell funny anecdotes about this profession. The knockers, in fact, stayed up all night and slept during the day. Or they organized themselves in shifts and indicated the times on a blackboard to know when to wake up the various customers. On their account, stories and tales were often very imaginative. In fact, it is said that these people had the power to make the whole city fall into a deep sleep. Or it is interesting to note the strange coincidence with the expression “to be knocked up” which means getting pregnant. It was thought, in fact, that the knockers would wake up husbands to send them to work, and then sneak into their wives’ house during the day.
The knocker ups in the days of Charles Dickens and Jack the Ripper
The figure of these workers was the source of inspiration for one of the many novels of Charles Dickens. The writer who meticulously described life inside London workhouses also included this detail in one of his masterpieces. This is the book Great Expectations, in which the friend of the protagonist Pip, an English orphan, is continually tired due to the deafening alarm clock of the knocker ups. Also around the story of Jack the Ripper there are several anecdotes related to these strange workers. It is said that the witness to Jack’s first victim was a knocker who was doing his job. In short, the history of this humble profession evokes a past made up of extraordinary myths and legends in Victorian England.