The modern worker rolls out of bed, groans, and turns off an alarm clock. But industrial-era British and Irish workers relied on a different method for rising each morning. In the 19th century and well into the 20th, a human alarm clock known as a “knocker-up” (knocker-upper) would trawl the streets and wake paying customers in time for work. Armed with sticks—or, in the case of Mary Smith, a pea shooter—they tapped on windows or blasted them with dried peas.
During the Industrial Age, people toiled at unusual hours in mines or factories. They could have used alarm clocks—adjustable versions had been invented by the mid-19th century. But they were still relatively expensive items, and unreliable ones, at that.
Whether they wielded rods or pea shooters, knocker-ups became familiar presences throughout the United Kingdom. Many of them were older, and woke people up professionally for many years—they often wouldn’t leave people’s houses until they were sure they were awake.
One of these characters, Mary Anne Smith, became a beloved presence—along with her trusty pea shooter—around London’s East End in the 1930s. John Topham, who snapped photos of Smith in action, remembers “every morning but Sunday she would rise at three to ‘knock up’ local workers—using a pea shooter. She charged sixpence a week and her nearest competition was an old man three miles away who did the same job using a fishing rod to tap on upstairs windows.”
Smith was known for the rapping, clacking sound of her peas against windows and doors. In the children’s book Mary Smith, she’s depicted as waking up everyone from fishmongers to the mayor. She was often seen “beating her mats on the street, calling out greetings to her neighbours,” and offering people, Topham included, a cup of tea. Later on, Smith’s daughter, also named Mary, took up the pea-blasting practice in her stead.
Of course, the knocker-up line of work meant dealing with grumps who didn’t want to get up. In 1878, a Canadian journalist writing for The Huron Expositor interviewed a well-known knocker-up, Mrs. Waters. She recalls that “a surly or hot-tempered fellow would growl or knock things about as he came to the window to reply, and his responding rap would sound as peevish as possible.” By contrast, the good-tempered risers were cheery presences: “You could hear from his very tread that he was grateful even, and his reply tap sounded quite musical, and when he spoke and bade you good morning, it was really encouraging.”
While the practice continued in some parts of the United Kingdom until the 1970s, it waned as alarm clocks and electricity became more widespread and affordable. Sure, beeping alarm clocks and smartphones that play morning music are simpler and more convenient. But they can’t match being awoken by the soft, distinctive tap of Mary Smith’s pea shooter.
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