From the knocker-upper to the pinsetter… jobs consigned to history

What a way to make a living! From the pea-shooting knocker-upper paid to wake up sleeping Victorians to the bowling alley pinsetter who replaced the skittles… jobs consigned to history by changing times or technology

  • Knocker-uppers, who were often women, would use a peashooter or a long stick to alert likes of dock workers
  • Pinsetters would restore bowling pins to upright positions in bowling alleys before machinery replaced them
  • Rat-catchers – the forerunners to the modern pest control man – were once common in Britain and elsewhere 

Before smartphones and even the humble alarm clock existed, people needed other ways to make sure they got up in time for work. 

Knocker-uppers, who were often women, would use a peashooter or a long stick to alert workers very early in the morning. 

The role is among many jobs that were once common but which now no longer exist. 

Other jobs that are now a thing of the past include the bowling alley pinsetter, who, in the years before the machinery that is used today, was tasked with restoring pins to an upright position after they had been knocked down.

Below, MailOnline has shed more light on nine roles that are now a thing of the past. It is the latest glimpse into Britain’s past, after we shed light on Victorian mugshots and insane asylums. 

Knocker-ups – replaced by alarm clocks… and then the smartphone 

Before the age of alarm clocks, workers who had to be up early needed a way of waking up on time. 

Knocker-ups, or knocker-uppers, were particularly common in the north of England, where there were thousands of factory workers who started their shifts very early in the morning. 

They were also common in London, where dock workers kept unusual hours due to the fact they had to take note of inconstant tides.  

Knocker-ups were also common in London, where dock workers kept unusual hours due to the fact they had to take note of inconstant tides. Above: Knocker-up Mrs Molly Moore uses a peashooter to wake people up in Stepney, East London

Knocker-up Charles Nelson is seen at work in Hoxton, East London in 1929. At the time, he had been working in his role for 25 years

One famous knocker-up was Mary Smith, who charged sixpence to wake up industrial workers in East London. Rather than using a more common long stick to bang on bedroom windows, she had a peashooter. 

A famous image shows her at work in Limehouse in 1927.  

In 1916, the Daily Mail reported how knocker-ups were getting extra pay due to the First Word War

In 1916, the Daily Mail reported how knocker-ups were getting extra pay due to the First Word War and the need for the likes of munitions workers to be awake early. 

The report read: ‘The “profession” is a very important one in Lancashire towns, the function of the “knocker-up” being that of awakening workers early in the morning. 

He “knocks up” by means of a long rod with a strip of wire at the end, and rattles at the appointed window until the drowsy worker signals back. 

The paper quoted a knocker-up who told how workers were sending orders to be woken up at times that would have made them ‘dizzy even to think about’ before the war. 

Knocking up is referenced in Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations. Main character Pip noted how Mr Wopsle ‘being knocked up was in such a very bad temper…’.

With the spread of affordable alarm clocks, knocking up died out in most places by the 1940s and 1950s. 

But it did continue in pockets of the industrial north of England until the early 1970s.   

Railway knocker-up Doris Weigand is seen making a call to a home on May 31, 1941. She was employed to tell railway drivers and firemen that they were needed to work a shift at short notice. At the time, phones were not common in working class households


Knocker-up William Crompton is seen at work in Bolton in 1939. He had been working for 53 years, waking factory workers up every morning. His work had initially survived the introduction of cheap alarm clocks. Amazingly, Mr Crompton was himself woken every morning by an alarm clock – at 3.45am

Before the age of alarm clocks, workers who had to be up early needed a way of waking up on time. One famous knocker-up was Mary Smith (pictured in 1926), who charged sixpence to wake up industrial workers in East London. Rather than using a long stick to bang on the windows, she had a peashooter

Rat-catchers – replaced by the modern pest control man

Rat-catchers – the forerunners to the modern pest control man – were once common in Britain and elsewhere. 

During the Victorian era, when London was infested with disease-carrying rats, catchers were in high demand.

Many young people, including children, became rat-catchers. The animals were either captured alive and sold as pets, or poisoned.

One famous rat catcher was Jack Black, who also dealt with moles and was famous for his homemade uniform of a topcoat, waistcoat and breeches. 

He also wore a leather sash that displayed cast-iron rats and claimed to be the Queen’s official rat-catcher. 

Rat catchers – the forerunners to the modern pest control man – were once common in Britain and elsewhere. Above: A rat catcher is seen with the results of a day’s work on the track at Euston Station in central London in 1939

Rat catchers also worked for the London Underground, catching the rodents that scurried along tracks and platforms. 

In 1903, the Daily Mail reported how a royal rat-catcher was set to be appointed to cope with an infestation of rodents at Windsor Castle and other royal properties. 

In 1910, a Daily Mail reporter accompanied rat-catchers in Suffolk as they went about their work.

The report read: ‘I have tramped afield with them, watched them, and talked with them, and not one ratcatcher have I found who will give away the secrets of his poison.

‘Each, to his own mind, possesses the golden specific for the extermination of vermin.’  

Rat catchers also worked for the London Underground, catching the rodents that scurried along tracks and platforms

During the Victorian era, when London was infested with disease-carrying rats, catchers were in high demand. Above: An illustration of a rat-catcher at work in London’s sewers in 1849

Pinsetter – replaced by a machine

Before the days of automation, someone had to pick bowling pins back up when they were knocked down at bowling alleys. 

Photos show young men and women at work as pinsetters in the first half of the 20th Century. 

The job had more or less died out by the early 1950s, when automatic pinsetting became common place after the invention of the technology in the 1940s. 

Pinsetters had to be careful that they were not hit by flying pins or an errant bowling ball. 

Before the days of automation, someone had to pick bowling pins back up when they were knocked down at bowling alleys. Above: A young woman working as a pinsetter at a bowling alley, California, mid 20th century

Cigarette girl – declined as the health dangers of smoking became more apparent

Cigarette girls were a feature at bars and clubs from the 1920s onwards. 

Glamorous images show them wearing trays stuffed full of cigarette packs as they advertised their wares to customers sitting at tables in venues. 

The trays would often be branded with a well-known tobacco manufacturer, such as Philip Morris. 

Cigarette girls were a feature at bars and clubs from the 1920s onwards. Glamorous images show them wearing trays stuffed full of cigarette packs as they advertised their wares to customers sitting at tables in venues

Cigarette girls also featured at sporting events, which were dominated by tobacco advertising. 

The sight of glamorous women selling cigarettes declined from the 1950s as tobacco machines replaced them and attitudes about smoking shifted amid a deluge of evidence about its health dangers.

The role was dealt a further death blow with the banning of the promotion of cigarettes in many countries across the world.  

Mary Brian, the Hollywood actress, in costume as a cigarette girl in 1928. Cigarette girls also featured at sporting events, which were dominated by tobacco advertising

Scissors grinder – declined as scissors and other tools became cheaper

Scissors grinders were once common in Britain and elsewhere around the world. 

They would travel door to door to sharpen scissors, knives and other tools using a sharpening wheel that they carried with them.

When grinders were coming to an area, they would often publish a notice in the local newspaper. 

In 1911, the Daily Mail reported the case of a scissors grinder who had made a £20,000 fortune after working hard enough to run a grocer’s shop and off-license, which he then bought outright along with adjoining houses. 

Scissors grinders were once common in Britain and elsewhere around the world. They would travel door to door to sharpen scissors, knives and other tools using a sharpening wheel that they carried with them. Above: A scissors grinder at work in Brittany, France, in 1901 

More than a decade earlier, in 1897, the paper told about a ‘needy knife grinder’ who was put in prison after initially charging ‘twopence’ to sharpen a pair of scissors but then demanding a fee that was 750 per cent higher. 

As technology improved, grinders would use electric tools and work from the back of a truck. 

But the ability to make a living from the profession declined from the mid 20th century onwards, as scissors and other tools, as well as sharpening devices, became far cheaper.


In 1911, the Daily Mail reported the case of a scissors grinder who had made a £20,000 fortune after working hard enough to run a grocer’s shop and off-license, which he then bought outright along with adjoining houses. More than a decade earlier, in 1897, the paper told about a ‘needy knife grinder’ who was put in prison after initially charging ‘twopence’ to sharpen a pair of scissors but then demanding a fee that was 750 per cent higher

Woodcut engraving depicting a woman handing her scissors to a man who is using a scissor grinder

Lift operator – disappeared as lift technology improved

Although still present in plush hotels and some apartment buildings, lift operators have largely disappeared. 

They were once common on the London Underground, before the introduction of automatic lifts with buttons pushed by users made their role largely redundant.

Nearly all elevators had operators until the 1950s. They were needed to guide the car on its journey because they did not stop automatically with the floors. 

Now, the site of a staff member operating a lift is very rare in all but the most exclusive buildings.  

Although still present in plush hotels and some apartment buildings, lift operators have largely disappeared. They were once common on the London Underground, before the introduction of automatic lifts with buttons pushed by users made their role largely redundant. Above: A lift operator at a store in London in 1927 

A smiling lift operator is seen waiting to welcome passengers inside his car in a building in 1930. It is not clear which country the image was taken in

Two female lift operators on duty beside the lifts at Swan & Edgar’s department store in London in 1916, during the First World War

Leech collector – fell out of favour as bloodletting practice became less popular

In the 19th century, there was growing demand for leeches to cater to the practice of bloodletting. 

Doctors at the time believed that releasing blood from the body, through leeches or other means, could prevent or cure some diseases. 

Leeches, which can consume up to five times their own weight in blood, were therefore collected in large numbers. 

Professional leech collectors would use inventive means to get hold of the worms, including using their own legs to attract them. 

The demand for leeches was so great that the species of leech used for medicinal purposes nearly became extinct.

Collectors worked in warmer months of the year, when leeches were most active.  

Although bloodletting became less popular in the late 19th century as medical knowledge progressed, leeches have continued to be used by doctors to help tissue grafts heal.  

In the 19th century, there was growing demand for leeches to cater to the practice of bloodletting. Doctors at the time believed that releasing blood from the body, through leeches or other means, could prevent or cure some diseases

Rag and Bone man – declined from the 1950s onwards

Rag and bone men were once a common sight on streets in Britain and elsewhere. 

They made a living from collecting objects such as rags and pieces of metal – as well as bones – and then selling anything that proved to have some value.

The profession was famously highlighted in the 1970s sitcom Steptoe and Son, which told the stories of father and son Albert and Harold, who were both rag and bone men.

Rag and bone men would travel through the streets of cities, towns and villages with a large bag or cart that contained their possessions. They were also known as bone grubbers, bone pickers or rag gatherers. 

Rag and bone men were once a common sight on streets in Britain and elsewhere. Above: A rag and bone man seen with his cart in London in 1930

They made a living from collecting objects such as rags and pieces of metal – as well as bones – and then selling anything that proved to have some value. Above: A rag and bone man in the East End of London in the 1960s

In the 19th century, a rag and bone man could sell white rag that had been cleaned and dried for between 2 to 3 pence per pound. 

Old bones could sell for a similar price and were used to make soap, as well as handles for cutlery, toys or ornaments. 

Whilst traditional rag and bone men are now a thing of the past in Britain – having dramatically declined in number from the 1960s onwards – their modern-day equivalents, such as dealers in scrap metal and other ‘waste’ products, are still thriving.  

Child chimney sweep – condemned to the history book through legislation

Before legislation in the 1870s banned the practice, children were frequently sent up chimneys in Britain to clean them. 

After the Great Fire of London, building codes were changed to make chimneys narrower, meaning that only children could fit up them.  

Clogged chimneys needed to be cleaned because of the fire risk that they presented. Children were taken in by adult sweepers to work for them, but many were treated terribly.

The children were not given anything to protect them, such as a mask or special clothing, and many were injured by the horrific work. 

One chimney sweep, Robert Blincoe – is thought to have formed the inspiration for Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist. 

He was sold aged six, as a ‘climbing boy’ to a chimney sweep in London and forced to scale chimneys that were just 18 inches wide. 

Before legislation in the 1870s banned the practice, children were frequently sent up chimneys in Britain to clean them. Above: A chimney sweep, his face blackened with soot, leans against railings outside an office. Illustration by the English engraver and printmaker George Baxter

After several months, Blincoe was returned to the workhouse. At the age of just 7, he was then sent to a cotton mill near Nottingham to work as a ‘scavenger’ – crawling under machines to pick up bits of cotton. 

Master sweeps would often light a fire under their charges to make them climb faster. Many boys and girls ultimately fell to their deaths.  

In 1788, an Act of Parliament mandated that sweeps’ apprentices should be at least eight years old, but the regulations were not enforced. Children as young as four are known to have been sent up chimneys. 

In 1834, the Child Chimney Sweeps Act then outlawed the apprenticing of any child younger than ten. And no child could actually be sent up a chimney until they were 14. 

A revised act in 1840 raised the minimum apprenticeship age to 16, but again the rules were largely ignored due to the difficulty of enforcement. 

It was not until 1875 with the Chimney Sweepers’ Act that the practice of sending children up chimneys came to an end. It required sweeps to be licensed and made it the duty of police to enforce all previous legislation. 

An illustration showing a child chimney sweep crossing the road in front of Blackfriars Bridge, with St Paul’s Cathedral in the background 

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