Imagine that you’re working at a British factory in the 1880s. Your inevitably grueling shift starts at 7 a.m. sharp, and your old-timey boss is going to throw a fit if you’re late. “Alarm clocks” are for those rich folks, so you need a more affordable means of waking up. The solution? Call a knocker upper, a person whose job it was to serve as a human alarm clock.

Yes, we’re going to say “knock up” a lot here. Get all your laughing out of the way now.

Knocker uppers were a common sight in British industrial areas. They would walk up to clients’ windows and knock a few times to stir them from their slumber. Most of them used long poles and would tap just enough times to wake a person before moving on to their next client. Some even used pea shooters for the job. 

Most of those who earned the title of knocker uppers were older men or women or people who already spent time making patrol rounds like police officers. Clients paid them weekly for their knocking-up services, and the pay was not particularly great.

They did have tricks to their trade, though, to optimize the amount they could make. Clients needed to be woken up at different times, and earlier knocks fetched higher prices. A knocker upper might try to optimize their daily route with clients in the same area. Knocker uppers would even trade clients with one another to make the routes make more sense. Never underestimate an old woman with a pea shooter. 

She might have more of a scheme than you expect.

Knocker uppers also developed helpful systems to keep track of the homes of their clients. They marked sidewalks with chalk and indicated the times that they needed to get to a home. Sometimes they even put up signs on client homes that doubled as advertisements for their services.

With all of their little tricks to get the most of their knocking, knocker uppers sometimes encountered a problem. They were too good at knocking up. When you knock on someone’s windows, you might accidentally wake up people other than your intended clients. This meant that some people were getting knocker-upper services for free, and that was NOT okay. To combat this, the ever-innovative knocker uppers devised methods to be loud enough to wake the client but quiet enough to not disturb anyone else. No free alarms out here!

Britain continued to have knocker uppers into the 20th century, but they lost popularity in the 1940s and 1950s. Alarm clocks became more accessible, and they were more practical than paying someone to knock on your window. Even with this decreased popularity, some knocker uppers continued until the 1970s before the occupation phased out. In honor of the crucial services provided by these human alarm clocks, enjoy this tribute song to the knocker uppers that kept Britain awake and running.

Top Image: Wiki Commons

Discover the History You Missed...

and so much more! One Cracked Fact delivers one new story from the worlds of history, science and pop culture, directly to your inbox every day. Sign up now!

Forgot Password?