The Rise of the Knocker Ups

Imagine a time when alarm clocks and smartphones did not exist, and people had to rely on other means to wake up on time. In industrial Britain, the answer to this problem came in the form of “knocker ups” – human alarm clocks who were employed by clients to ensure they woke up regularly at a particular time. These knocker ups used various methods to rouse their clients, from rattling sticks on windows to shooting peas through pipes. While they may not have been seen as integral to the industrial system, these women played a crucial role in waking up industrial workers and ensuring the productivity of the industrial revolution.


The profession of knocker ups emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, primarily in the industrial towns of Britain. Similar professions also appeared in other European societies during this time. In France, they were known as reveilleurs, while in Italian towns they were called hooters. However, the British and Irish knocker ups prided themselves on their more sophisticated and civilized methods of waking people, such as tapping on windows instead of sounding shrill whistles.

Extraordinary Women Knocker Ups

While most knocker ups were men, many women also played a significant role in this profession. Let’s explore the stories of some remarkable women knocker ups who made a lasting impact on their communities.

Mary Smith: The Pea-Shooting Knocker Up

Mrs. Mary Smith waking up her clients in London, 1931. Image credits: John Topman (1931); TopFoto

One of the most popular figures in Britain’s newspapers during her time of service, Mary Smith was known for her unique method of waking up her clients – pea shooting. Mary would regularly wake up at 3 AM to “knock up” local workers, charging them sixpence a week for her services. She was highly reliable and wouldn’t leave until she received confirmation that her clients were awake. Mary’s daughter, Molly Moore, continued her mother’s legacy by becoming one of the last knocker ups in Britain.

Mrs. Molly Moore (Mrs. Mary Smith’s Daughter) celebrated as a knocker up on the cover of a cigarette pack. Image credit: Bridgeman Images

Mary Filleroft: From Knocker Up to Money Lender

In Manchester, Mary Filleroft became a celebrated knocker up, making significant profits from her business. In fact, she transitioned from being a knocker up to becoming a money lender to industrial workers in her town. Mary’s success shows that knocker ups had the potential to become economically comfortable through their work.

Granny Cousins: The Grumpy but Dependable Knocker Up

Granny Cousins waking up her clients in Poole (Postcard) Photograph by Harrie Belbin. Image credit: Courtesy of Dorset Life

Caroline Jane Cousins, better known as Granny Cousins, worked as a knocker up in Poole, Dorset, until 1918. While her clients appreciated her dependable service, they often found her demeanor grumpy, earning her the nickname “Granny Cousins.” Granny Cousins carried a whistle with her for safety, as she walked alone in the streets of Poole in the dead of night. If she encountered any dangerous situations, she could attract patrolling police with her whistle.

Mrs. Waters: The Accidental Knocker Up

Mrs. Waters of Leeds stumbled upon the knocker up profession by chance when acquaintances offered her half a crown to wake them up daily at 3 AM. Within five years, she had gained at least ninety-five loyal customers. Mrs. Waters believed that knocker ups were superior to alarm clocks because they ensured their clients were out of bed before leaving, unlike alarm clocks that could easily be turned off.

The Crucial Role of Knocker Ups

The work of knocker ups was essential in the industrial revolution, as they linked the everyday lives of factory workers to the productivity of industrial systems. If knocker ups failed to wake up their clients on time, workers could face fines for arriving late, and the productivity of industries would suffer. While men constituted the majority of knocker ups, women were able to participate on equal terms in this profession, unlike many other industrial jobs of the time.

Although we have highlighted some well-known women knocker ups, many others remain invisible to history, appearing only as entries in British censuses. Names like Sarah Weilding, Mary Lever, Mary Ann Cheetham, Mary Mackay, Charlotte Shepheard, Mary Shapely, Mary Weedall, Rose Ann Hunt, Mary Murphy, Elizabeth Timperley, Ann Gray, Mary Nichols, and many more can be found in census records. Unfortunately, the stories of their lives, their work, and the people they woke every morning have been lost to time.

The knocker ups may have been overlooked as mere auxiliary workers, but their contributions to industrial Britain were invaluable. They ensured that workers woke up on time, keeping the wheels of industry turning. These women played a vital role in the daily lives of industrial workers, and their stories deserve to be remembered and celebrated.

Note: This article is based on historical records and accounts of knocker ups. While the specific details of their lives may vary, their overall significance remains unchanged.

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