Knocker-Ups have been around since Victorian England for a variety of reasons. Simply put, these individuals were hired to physically wake people so they could make a living by not having to work any other social job. They would do this by waking people up from sleep with either loud noises or physical force and demanding payment. The term ‘knocker-up’ came about when two words, ‘ knock’ and ‘up,’ were combined to create a word that would represent the action of waking someone up by either hitting or knocking on their door. The pay these individuals received was often in the form of beer, tips, or money.
There are many documented accounts of people who lived this lifestyle. It wasn’t until the early 1800’s that this line of work became frowned upon by lawmakers as a public menace, which eventually caused the occupation to disappear into history. The profession of being a Knocker-Upper was seen as a lucrative occupation, and many people chose to have this be their sole source of income for decades. Back when the profession was most prominent, the basic way to wake someone up and demand payment would be to knock loudly or up on their door in order to get their attention and then request payment from them. If the person didn’t pay, they would often use physical force in order to wake them up by hitting them with sticks or using loud noises that could be heard all over the neighborhood. Not only did this cause widespread annoyance, but it also encouraged violence and crime.
There were two different ways of being a Knocker-Upper, depending on your gender. If you were female and wanted to become a Knocker-Up, in Victorian England, it was very common for them to dress up as men to do their work. While this is not entirely common nowadays, many female Knockers-Uppers still work during this time. If you were a male Knocker-Up, then there was not an option for you to dress up as a female, and in most cases, if you were caught by the police dressed as a woman, the punishment would be much harsher than if you were caught dressing like a man.
Many different people were able to become Knockers-Ups and not just men. Women also took on this occupation because they could apply their gender to provide a disguise when they were working. Women dressed up as men simply because the Victorian era’s gender roles were incredibly strict and discouraged women from doing any activities that would be seen as masculine. One of the main reasons why women would choose this profession is because they already have a good understanding of making traditional food like soups, desserts, pickles, and jams, which could be used to earn extra money from their clients without risking their reputation at home.
In order to become a Knocker-Upper, you had to first be sponsored by another Knockers-Upper who was already established in the community, which ensured that the person who was being sponsored would not be cheated by their employer. If someone wanted to become a Knocker-Upper, they needed two forms of identification, and then they were able to begin their career; one form of identification was a personal letter of recommendation, and the second was an advertisement, which was also expected to be signed by a Knockers-Upper who had been working for more than ten years. There were many different types of Knockers-Uppers that could be seen in the Victorian era. Some were just regular people who had nothing better to do and did this for the sake of money. Others were criminals who would use their low-level occupation as a cover-up to commit murder or other serious crimes. The most common groups of Knockers-Uppers, who would be seen throughout London at that period, were peddlers, street vendors, and costermongers.
During the Victorian era, in London, it was a popular practice to have Knocker-Uppers at work. Many people hired these people to help them wake up on time or even get someone to wake them up if they were late for an appointment. These people would receive the main form of payment for their job: beer, money, or tips. Many had a consistent job that allowed them to make a living off of their occupation and had no desire to pursue any other career opportunity aside from this one. Still, there were also many that did not have other employment options and turned to a Knocker-Upper as their only source of livelihood.