When we give the account of the murder of Mary Nichols on the nightly Jack the Ripper tour, we often discuss how Robert Paul and Charles Cross, the two men who initially discovered the body, having ascertained that the woman they had stumbled upon was indeed dead, continued on their way agreeing to report their find to the first policeman that they encountered.
They met Police Constable Mizen who was engaged in knocking-up duties, and they sent him to the site of what was, as it transpired, the first of Jack the Ripper’s murders.
A SERVICE FROM THE POLICE
But what was knocking up?
Well, it was a service offered by the police to residents who had to get up in the early hours of the morning to get out to work. Few people in the area had time pieces, and alarm clocks were unheard of.
So, if your job required an early start, and you wanted to be sure that you didn’t oversleep, you could request that the beat officer – who would, after all, be passing your premises as part of his duty – give a loud knock on your door or window to ensure that you rose in time to make it to work. Some residents would request it by prior arrangement, others would simply place a card in their front window detailing what time they wished to be roused at and asking the police officer to ensure they were woken at that time as he passed.
THE CIVILIAN KNOCKER-UPPERS
But, it wasn’t just the police who performed this necessary duty.
In fact the post of knocker-up – or knocker-upper, as he (or, on occasion, she) was also known – was a professional calling in both Britain an Ireland throughout the 19th century and on into the 20th century before modern technology – i.e. alarm clocks – rendered their duties obsolete.
The knocker-upper’s job, by necessity, involved an early start and he would have to be awake himself by 3am. He would then head out into the early hours to perform his essential service for the neighbourhood. Armed with a long pole or stick, often made from bamboo, with pieces of wire or a knob on the end, he would commence is rounds by going around his regular clients and knocking or scratching on their bedroom windows to wake them up.
People would often write the time they wished to be awoken at onto a piece of card and place it against the pane of their ground floor windows for the knocker-up to see.
A knocker-upper would never leave your house until he was certain that you were up and ready to leave for work on time.
WHO EMPLOYED THEM?
Some of them were employed by factories or other businesses and would do the rounds of the employees houses to ensure that they got up and in on time. Others were freelance and would have an established list of clients, a bit like modern window cleaners or milkmen.
The freelancers would be paid a few pence for their services and they would do the rounds of the houses they had served during the week on Friday evenings (pay day for most people) and collect their fees.
Of course, this does beg the question who woke up the knocker upper? Well, it would appear that the technique in most cases was to stay up all night until they had finished your duties.
A SONG ABOUT THEM
If you are interested, you can watch and listen a song about the Knocker upper in Bolton performed by Joe Stead on the video below.
MARY SMITH THE EAST END KNOCKER-UP
But, as mentioned earlier, the position was open to both genders and one of the most famous female East End knocker-ups was Mary Smith, who relied on a different, though equally effective, method of waking her clients.
Mary would carry a long tube around with her and she would use it to shoot dried peas at the windows of her sleeping clients!
Her daughter, Mary Moore, followed her into the profession and is generally believed to have been England’s last knocker-upper.