Knocker-Uppers: When Being Knocked Up Was a Wake Up Call

Before alarm clocks existed, the job of waking people up was done by “human alarm clocks,” people known as knocker-ups or knocker-uppers. They roamed the city streets in the early morning hours tapping on windows to wake their clients from slumber so they could get to work on time.

When we first moved to the UK, years ago, we were making plans with someone and they asked, “Should I come by and knock you up?” Being fresh from the US, where being knocked up meant being pregnant, my husband and I were confused. Then, to our relief, we learned that it just meant to knock on our door. (Whew!)

The Industrial Revolution filled the cities with workers

Jobs in the Cities

In the mid 1800s the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. London and other cities across the country were heaving with the hordes of people who had poured in from rural areas. They had come to take jobs in the various industries that were springing up everywhere: shipbuilding, engineering, mills breweries, printers, working on the docks, and in the many various factories.

All these people now had to get to work on time every day, and that meant they had to wake up on time – but how could they do that?

How to Wake Up?

When they had lived in the countryside on their farms, they could rely on the sun peeking through their window or on the crowing barnyard rooster to rouse them from their slumber. And if the hour of their rising varied a bit from day to day, it didn’t really matter. They could start or end their farming day earlier or later depending on the season or weather.

Man Sleeping by David Ryckaert 1649 

But in their new jobs, they had to start at the same time every day – and getting to work on time was very important. If they were late, they could be fined or have their wages docked. They could even lose their jobs for being late one time too many. But how could they wake themselves up and make sure they didn’t oversleep?

Human Alarm Clocks

Something called an alarm clock had recently been invented in France, but they weren’t widely available yet. And there were rumors that it wasn’t very reliable anyway. The only reliable solution was a “human alarm clock.” Those who had to be up early were willing to pay someone to come by their home every morning at the appropriate hour and wake them up.

Knocker upper knocking on the door

Out of necessity an occupation was born. The people who came around to wake folks up were dubbed knocker-ups or knocker-uppers. They got this name because in the early days of the profession, the knocker-uppers would knock loudly on the door or sometimes ring a bell or make some other form of noise in the street. They succeeded in waking their client, but, unfortunately, they woke the neighbors too.

There were two problems with that. First of all, if the neighbors didn’t want to get up that early they weren’t very happy about the noise. And secondly, if the neighbors did need to get up at that hour they were getting knocked-up for free.

Knocker-upper with her lantern and long pole to reach upper-story windows

Knocker-Uppers Begin to Tap

So, the knocker-uppers became more discreet. Most of them began to use long poles, similar to fishing poles, to tap at the upstairs bedroom windows. Some even used pea shooters to shoot small objects at the window. That allowed them to wake only those who paid for the service.

Well-known London knocker-uppers who used pea shooters. Mary Smith on the left and her daughter, Molly Moore, on the right.

A good knocker-upper waited until they received a signal that the client was awake. And as you know, some people wake up grumpy and some wake up nice. The knocker-upper had to take them all in stride: the curses coming through the window as well as the sleepy smile and gentle wave.

While most of the knocker-uppers’ clients were individuals who paid for their own service, sometimes factories or private businesses would pay knocker-uppers to wake their entire workforce. And those knocker-uppers didn’t hang around to make sure the client was awake. They just gave a few taps on the window and moved on.

Knocker-upper with his pole and clock


Knocker-uppers had to be organized and make sure they could get to everyone at the correct time. They often charged different rates depending on the location and time the client needed to be up. The farther away and earlier the “wake up call,” the higher the price.

In mining areas, where workers’ shifts changed often, some houses had slates outside the door called “knockey-up boards” where the client would leave instructions about which shift they were working and when they needed to be knocked up.

Neither Rain nor Snow nor…

Being a knocker-upper was not an easy occupation. They had to rise before the sun and venture out into the dark streets no matter what the weather. They would brave rain, snow, and freezing temperatures to wake up their clients. Many a knocker-upper had 80-100 clients to knock up every morning.

A Cigarette card honoring Molly Moore, one of the last knocker-uppers in London

Who Knocks Up the Knocker-Up?

And, of course, there was the problem of the knocker-upper waking up on time themselves. A little tongue twister of the day goes:

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, up

So our knocker-up didn’t knock us up ‘Cos he’s not up.

Many of this profession would sleep during the day then stay awake all night just so they wouldn’t be late for their clients. Some knocker ups were working as early as 3:00.

Non-Human Alarm Clocks

Eventually the alarm clock was perfected and became an affordable and reliable way to wake up on time. As more and more homes had alarm clocks, fewer people needed knocking up and the profession died out. Knocker-ups are now a fading memory, but their contribution to the Industrial Revolution was invaluable. They were the unsung heroes who made sure people were up so they could get to their jobs on time.

Queen Victoria and her piper-upper

Royal Piper-Upper?

While the working-class people of the UK had their knocker-uppers, it seems that Queen Victoria had her own version: a piper-upper.

In 1842 Queen Victoria visited the Scottish Highland and fell in love with bagpipe music. She created the position of Royal Piper so she could listen to the music whenever she wanted.

Thereafter, Queen Victoria awoke to bagpipe music being played beneath her window every morning. The tradition has been carried on by succeeding monarchs and continues to this day. The Royal Piper plays every morning at 9:00 for 15 minutes underneath the Sovereign’s window.

Today, everyone (even the sovereign) has alarms on their phones or watches and it’s hard to imagine a time when figuring out how to wake up on time was a problem. But today, let’s give a thought to those dedicated men and women who knocked us up before there was such a thing as an alarm clock.

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Margo Lestz


  1. Quite interesting! Never really thought about how people woke up on time in the “Olden times”. You always get me thinking!

    1. It is hard to imagine living without alarms. I set alarms throughout the day to remind me of so many things. We’ve come a long way! 🙂

  2. Another fascinating article, Margo. I had never thought about it. I love the interesting results of your research.
    I do hope all continues well with you in a very hot summer. It has been a windy wet winter here, but we are now having lovely summer days. Best wishes, Paula

    1. Thanks, Paula. It’s hard to imagine that waking up at a certain time was a new problem in the 19th century. But, every problem offers an opportunity. 🙂
      Our summer in the UK wasn’t one of our best. It was quite rainy and a bit cool (for me). But even at that, I’m not ready to say goodbye to it. Glad you are enjoying some nice summery days. I think we just have to take advantage of them whenever they come – no matter what the season. 🙂
      Take care, -Margo

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