A Belfast Alarm Call
As a Doctor I have reason to visit the sick in their homes and several years ago, while paying a professional visit at the house of a small tradesman in the town of Belfast, I made the acquaintance of an interesting old woman, who had been employed by the tradesman to nurse his ailing wife. There are always people, especially among the female gender, who will never refuse to carry out a duty of care, especially if the person to be cared for is already known to them. This old lady, Mrs Waters, was one of those caring ladies that people can depend upon. Within a very few minutes we became good friends and she persuaded me to extend my visit for several hours, and when I eventually left the house I was as familiar with her life story just as if I had known her for many years.
I have told you that she was an interesting woman, and so she was. This was not immediately apparent from her appearance, and there was nothing that could be said to be attractive about her. Neither had she any refinement in her manner or the way in which she spoke but, she could be said to have been rather brusque and hasty in both word and action. Nevertheless, she possessed an irresistible power in the rapid glance of her large bright eyes. At first sight you might think that, from the haste which was evident in all her movements when attending to the needs of the house and family, she must be a harsh and unfeeling type of person. That would be a grave error, however, for she was really one of the kindest and most tender-hearted of women I have ever met. It didn’t take long for me to discover that she was actually a neighbour, and that she was a woman of independent means, which she had gathered together through her own hard-work. She had worked from an early age, and she had also taken great care of an invalid husband for many years and had managed to educate and provide a profession to her only son and child.
The old woman peaked my interest greatly and I decided that I would like to become better acquainted with her and the life she had led. Not being a man who was reluctant to ask questions I was soon able to discover quite a lot about her and her life. She was known in the community as a ‘knocker-up’, the duties of whom I will explain as we proceed. But, she was proud of what she had done and when asked about it she told me, “Not at all, my boy! I am not ashamed to tell you just how I came to be financially independent. Why should I be? An honest woman need not be afraid of anything!” she insisted. “I made it all, every penny of it, by knocking-up. Ay, and well you may look surprised, for I have an idea that you don’t know what ‘knocking-up is’, or if you do, you are wondering how I could save so much money from such a line of work. Now, I don’t mean to suggest that I had no other means of making money, for I started a shop after I began to knock up. However, every penny that I made by shop-keeping was spent in keeping my family in food and clothing, and when my son was put into business, some of my otherwise-made money went along with him. But, I can assure you that every penny that I put by, and the income on which I now live, was got by knocking-up.
“Sure, I know you are wondering how I, a woman, should ever gotten the idea making a living in this way, never mind actually setting out to do it. Well, if I’m going to be honest with you, I never thought of it at all. I mean that I did not invent such a job, for it was actually suggested to me and I was in too great a need to be fussy about what I did. Do you know, I believe that I was near the first, if not the very first who earned money by regularly knocking up. Either way, at the time that I began the job, I knew of no one else who was doing the same thing.
“The idea came to me in this way. My husband had been a delicate sort of man from the day we first met. And he was, God love him, as different from me in spirit and ways as summer is from winter. He had hardly a day’s work in him and I have often wondered what we should have done, or what would have become of us, had it been that I was struck down instead of him. But you see, God was watching over us. It was a good thing in many ways, indeed in all ways, that it was he who was afflicted, for if it had been me, what an ill-tempered and impatient creature I would have been.
“Now it was no illness that struck my man down, but something entirely different. It all happened like this, we had been married about six years, and our son was about four years old, when my man suffered a serious accident. He was working hard in the foundry and lifting a heavy weight when something seemed to snap or give way in his back. He was brought home to me between two men, and from that day until his death, more than fifteen years afterwards, he never did a stroke of work, the poor man!
“Aye, it was after this that the knocking-up scheme was suggested to me and I was glad of it. I had gone down to the foundry one Friday evening for the wee bit of pay which the owners had kindly allowed him to lift for a while, and I got to speaking with one of the men who was working there and had worked with my husband. He asked me about our welfare and I said to him that I believed I should be able to keep the roof over our heads, and that I was willing to do anything that would help me to achieve that. The, quite suddenly he said, “If you will knock me up at three o’clock every morning but Sunday, I will give you half-a-crown a week.” I laughed at first because I thought he was joking. But, when I saw that he was not joking, I quickly took up his offer because something told me that this might just be the beginning of something special.
“The reason why ‘knocking-up’ is so widespread nowadays is simply that people get so used to the alarm-clock that it fails to awake them. Even if it does awaken them, they are sometimes so sleepy that they drop off again before the alarm runs out. This was what had happened to the person who asked me to awaken him. He had lost many mornings work because he had over-slept. He worked in the designing office and told me that he could get more work done, and of a better quality of work, during the quiet hours of the morning than at any other time. This is what he said anyway, though afterwards another reason was given to excuse his habit of over sleeping. But, the man was anxious to be up at three o’clock. Well, I agreed to do the job and it was a good thing that I did because before a year had gone past I had thirty customers employing me to do the same job for them. of the like kind. Not for the same hour in the morning, or for the same amount of pay. For the most part these other requests were for a time between five and six o’clock.
“I have no problem whatever in telling you what I earned at that time. Why should I? But let me first explain to you how I went on to grow my business, if I may call it a business. At the end of the first year, as I have said, I had thirty customers. Year by year this number of clients began to increase until, by the end of five years, I had upwards of eighty houses to go to. What is more, for the thirty years that I followed knocking-up after that, thirty-five years to be precise, I never fell below that number. Sometimes I had as many as ninety-five houses. Now, you are wondering what did they pay me for my services? All prices! When I managed to get a few more, early customers, in addition to my first one, I knocked him a shilling a week off because I didn’t think it was right to be still taking a half-a-crown. So, all those clients who were knocked up before four o’clock in the morning paid me eighteenpence a week, and those who had to be awakened soon after four were charged a shilling a week. Those clients who had to be aroused from five to six o’clock paid me from sixpence to threepence weekly, according to time and distance that I had to go. Of course, the greater number of customers were in the threepenny class.
“You might have a little trouble in seeing how I managed to get through so large a number of houses in so short a time, but I can assure you that I did. I also found out that a workable system was very much a needed thing to have, you may be sure of that. Then I discovered short-cuts to different neighbourhoods and streets, and I took care not to let the grass grow under my feet in keeping my business going. Another helpful talent that I had, of course, was an innate ability of rousing my employers quite quickly. Perhaps it was that my knock or ring or way of tapping windows was more effective than that of other ‘knockers-up’. Irrespective of all that, I managed to get through my engagements morning by morning. Now, of course, you are eager to find out what my weekly earnings were. Well, I’ll not keep you in suspense any longer, young man. For thirty years I never earned less than thirty shillings a week, though it was mostly thirty-five shillings and, when I had a good lot of far-away or very early customers, I could pick up as much as forty shillings in a week. You look unconvinced, but I assure you that what I am telling you is the truth. Two pounds a week for calling folks to their work, in the morning.
“Now, I’ll admit that I am not very strong or healthy as I once was, but how can a woman of seventy years be expected not to have some aches or pain after the life I have lived? But, in all those thirty-five years that I worked at the ‘knocking-up’, I never had what may be called a sick day. Dear God, sure I hadn’t got time to be laid up in a sick bed! I totally believe my early rising, and the exercise in the open air, kept me healthy. At those times when bits of cold did get hold of me, my spirit and attitude did much towards helping ward them off. Let me tell you, Spirit is everything! Did I go to bed during the day? Never! I could not afford the time for such luxury because I had my shop to take care of. You look a little surprised, but I have already told you that I kept a shop. At the time I didn’t know how long my husband might linger, and then I became so wrapped up in my poor lad’s future, for I was determined that he should be a doctor or a lawyer, or something smarter than a tradesman. Because I had such a good long day before me after my ‘knocking-up’, I decided that I would open a shop of some kind.
‘It took me quite a long time to decide upon what I should deal in. I had a natural dislike of giving credit, and as there are some things which women are not in the habit of buying on tick. In fact, when they need these items they never seem to think of asking for them on credit, and it was in such items that I decided to deal in. That is how I hit upon the idea of selling black-lead, blacking, brushes of various kinds, and even pots and pans. Surprisingly, I noticed that when a woman sent for such items she automatically sent the money to buy them. Furthermore, I realised that it would only take about ten pounds or so to get me started in this type of shop, and I saw that there would be little perishable stock or articles that would go out of fashion. An added advantage was the fact that the business did not need much learning or knowledge to manage it, and these were things which I did not have. So, it was in this way that I became a shopkeeper.
“In the beginning I was able to make my cottage do for my shop, using the bedroom and cellar as the warehouse. But, as the trade increased, I had to take the house next to the one I had, and made I made it into a shop and warehouse. Rent and taxes, you know, were not too heavy then. You know, I began this business after I had spent five years ‘knocking-up’ and only stopped about six years ago.
“I didn’t give up because I was tired of work. But, I saw that I had enough to live upon, and I now had no one belonging me to live for. My husband had been a long-time dead, and my poor son had also been taken from me. Did I sell my business? No, I did not sell either business. There was a poor man, a neighbour of mine, who was laid off his work and, as he had a large family, and his own shop was running from bad to worse every week, I just handed over the knocking-up to him. It has been a good thing for him, thank God. As for the other business, I just allowed my customers to spread themselves among other shops as they thought fit.
“You might wonder if I had made any bad debts the knocking-up business? Well, I will tell you there were not too many and, perhaps, less than you might expect. For one thing, I took pretty good care of my money, though it did take gathering in. I usually got paid on a Saturday afternoon and night. Some called and paid me as they passed my house and others left it with those appointed by me to receive it. One way or another, I got most the greater part of my money week by week. To those who began to be a bit forgetful in paying me, I just gave them the slightest hint that if they did not pay up that week-end I might forget to knock them up and let them overlie themselves now and again. This soon put the forgetfulness out of them, for they knew they would lose a deal more by being fined at the mill than they had to pay me for a whole week’s knocking-up. So, in all honesty, I had very few customers who did not pay up old scores. Of course, I am ignoring those whom I did not care to press for payment. These were often men with large families, or men who had had a fit of sickness or the like, or a poor delicate woman. But, let us pay no attention to that for they might have done the same by me.
“Aye, now there is a good chance that a knocker-up will find out what sort of tempers their customers have. God knows that I soon came to know who the surly ones were, and who were pleasant folks, or who were short-tempered and who had good patience. You know, when knocking-up began to be a regular trade we used to rap or ring at the doors of our customers. But there soon arose two objections to this way of rousing them. One objection came from the public, and the other came from the knockers-up. The public complained of being disturbed, especially if sickness was in a house, by our loud rapping or ringing; and the knocker-up soon found out that while he knocked up one who paid him, he knocked up several on each side who did not pay. It did not take us long to invent the fishing-rod-like wands which are now in use. Aye indeed, the knocker-up has a wand of office, and I was among the first who adopted these rods. With these wands we would give a few taps on the bedroom window, which no one hears but those who should.
“I will tell you that a surly, or hot-tempered customer, would growl or knock things about as he came to the window to reply, and his responding rap would sound as peevish as possible. But a good-tempered man was always quite pleasant and cheering to get out of bed, for you could almost hear from his very footstep that he was grateful, and his reply-tap sounded quite musical. Moreover, when he spoke to you and bade you a good-morning, it was truly encouraging. I have even had occasions when I knocked some men up for nothing, just because it was pleasant to hear them, especially after you had had two or three of the other kind to deal with. There were others that I had given up knocking, for no other reason than that they were sulky or angry at being disturbed and generally unpleasant. I can recall one particular man on my rounds. He was a little, slender, ill-featured man, who always reminded me of a weasel, and he had to be up at five o’clock. But, the same man was fond of the drink, so he was not only difficult to awaken, but he never came to the window without indulging in angry mutterings, which were not always the sort of things you needed to hear at that time in the morning. He was one of my shilling-a-week customers and paid regularly. But I was so pissed-off by his lousy temper and insulting ways, that at I finally gave him the elbow as a bad job.
“Surely, you would agree that a ‘knocker-up’ really deserves the gratitude of his customers and should not think that we are well compensated when we get his money. They should not forget that we have to be out of our warm beds in all sorts of weather and cannot allow a bit of a sniff or a tooth-ache to keep us at home. But, the customer can sleep on the whole night through, in peace and contentment, because they know that they will hear the wakening taps on their window at the right time. Surely, there is no person that can think that a ‘knocker-up’ is a selfish man, or even a selfish woman. No money is so well spent as that which is paid to the ‘knocker-up’ and I believe most who pay the money think the same.
“For several years I ‘knocked-up’ two young women who were sisters. They had been left orphans when they were very young, but the poor things stuck together, went to the mill, saved their wages, and finally were able to take and furnish a room. They got me to knock them up, for they kept their own little spot clean and tidy, mended their own things at night, and they went to bed tired and often late, which caused them to sleep heavily. Well, as I’ve said, I knocked them up for years and they would not let me do it for nothing. No, not even now and again. One or the other of them always had a “Good-morning,” or “How are you this morning, Mrs McNamee?” in a low kind tone for me. And about once a quarter they would invite me to spend a Sunday evening with them and take a cup of tea. Let me tell you, if any people were grateful for what I did for them, it was these girls.
“Now, I suppose you want to know how and when did I get my sleep? Well, I’ll tell you. I always went to bed at nine o’clock every night, except Saturdays. Of course, because I had an exhausted body and a contented mind, it didn’t take me very long in dropping off to sleep. And I was up again at half-past two exactly, for my first customer lived a good twenty minutes’ walk from my house, and you know he had to be awakened at three o’clock. Well, for some time I had no one else to arouse until four o’clock, so I used to come home again. Before I went out in winter I would build the fire up with ‘slack’ and get myself a cup of tea. But, in summer I would let the fire go out, and would not light it again until I came back from the early customer. Then I always made my poor husband a cup of tea, after which he slept better than he had in the earlier part of the night. You see it was he who had to awaken me, because being young and very active during the day, I slept soundly. What between him and the alarm, I never over-slept. No, not even once. But after I had been about six or seven years at the job, I got to awaken quite naturally. Indeed, it was well that I did, for when my husband died, I no longer had him to depend on.
“I can tell you also that the worst weather for any knocker-up is wet weather. Oh, it was try one’s patience, to say nothing of one’s health, to be pelted with rain and wind. Then when the streets were filled with snow and slush it was anything but pleasant. But, I always tried to think of the good I was doing for others and thinking that way proved to be a wonderful help. In fact, even a chimney-sweep or a street-sweeper could be happy in his calling if he only took such a similar view of his work. Why, we are all helping one another as well as earning our livings when we follow our vocation in life. But, I have to admit that it was an extra nice job to be doing on a fine spring or summer morning. I used to be happy all over on such mornings.
“Maybe you would like me to tell you something about my son. To tell the truth, I seldom feel like I want to talk about him because when I do talk about my dear boy, it has taken me many a day to get his image out of my mind.”
At this point I respectfully asked Mrs McNamee not to go on with the story, but she did. It was interesting and touching in some of its details, but since it is not relevant to this particular story I have decided not to include here.