The alarm clock, an unusual profession which has disappeared because of… electricity!

The alarm clock, an unusual profession which has disappeared because of… electricity!
The alarm clock, an unusual profession which has disappeared because of… electricity!

THE knocker-up was a profession that appeared mainly in England and Ireland during the industrial revolution and consisted of waking people up using a stick. THE knocker upper (people responsible for waking up, often women or elderly people) mainly used bamboo to tap on the windows or a small, fairly heavy stick that they threw to reach the windows on each floor. Their job was to wake people up, for a few cents, so they wouldn’t be late for work. They didn’t leave until they saw that the person was wide awake.

The modern worker gets out of bed, groans and turns off the alarm clock. But industrial-era British and Irish workers used a different method of getting up each morning. In the 19th century and well into the 20th century, a human alarm clock known as a “knock-up” roamed the streets and roused paying customers to arrive for work on time.

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During the industrial age, people worked odd hours in mines or factories. They may have used alarm clocks: these had been invented in the mid-19th century but were still relatively expensive and unreliable. Mary Anne Smith Moore was the most famous: she woke up sleepers by throwing dried peas at her clients’ windows.

Wielding canes or pea shooters, touts became familiar figures throughout the United Kingdom. Many of them were older and had been waking people up professionally for many years; they often didn’t leave people’s homes until they were sure they were awake.

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One of them, Mary Anne Smith, became a beloved presence, accompanied by her trusty pea shooter, in the East End of London in the 1930s. John Topham, who took photos of Smith in action, remembers that “every morning, even on Sundays, she got up at three in the morning to knock on the windows of workers in the neighborhood, using a polka dot gun.” She charged sixpence a week and her nearest competitor was an old man three miles away who did the same job using a fishing rod to knock out the windows above.

The alarm clock knocks on the bedroom window with his long stick. ©Collectie SPAARNESTAD PHOTO

While this practice continued in some parts of the United Kingdom until the 1970s, it declined as alarm clocks and electricity became more widespread and affordable. Certainly, alarm clocks and smartphones that play music in the morning are simpler and more practical, but they have nothing to envy of waking up to the distinctive soft touch of Mary Smith’s pea shooter. Mary Smith’s daughter Molly is said to have been England’s last Knocker-up.

However, a question persists about these strange characters: if the knocker-uppers had the difficult task of waking up the whole village, how were they themselves awakened? Richard Jones, a London historian, gives us the answer by explaining that these human awakenings were “night owls” Who “Instead, they slept during the day, waking up around four in the afternoon.”

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