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The human alarm clock, Mary Smith: 30 years dedicated to those who couldn’t afford a mechanical alarm clock

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Alarm clocks are what wake most of us up before we go to work, but many wonder how people used to manage to do this before this device came along. The human alarm clock is the answer.

By the 1970s, in some areas, many workers were woken by a sound at their bedroom window. Out on the street, walking from house to house, there was always a figure wielding a long stick. The human alarm clock was a common sight in Britain, especially in northern cities where people worked shifts, or in London where harbour people worked unusual hours.

Paul Stafford, a 59-year-old artist tells how the human alarm clock used to come to every window with a long stick, and when it came, it would tap three or four times on the window and go on. While the standard tool was a long rod-like stick, other methods were used, such as soft hammers or even objects that shot peas.

However, the human alarm clock also had such an alarm clock. The latter were people who slept during the day and stayed up at night. One of the problems faced by people who woke other people up was that they had to make sure that workers did not wake up for free.

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When this practice began to become widespread business practice, they started ringing at customers’ doors, as Mrs. Waters, a human alarm clock in northern England, told an intrigued reporter for the Canadian newspaper Huron Expositor.

The human alarm clock found in England

Previously, a loud noise was used, so neighbours complained about it. To cope with the situation, they used long sticks to knock on the bedroom windows of guests loud enough to wake them up, but quiet enough not to disturb the neighbours.

The practice spread across the country, especially in areas where low-paid workers were forced to work shifts but could not afford their own alarm clocks. Charles Dickens was one of the writers who mentioned this in his works.

the human alarm clock
Mary Smith and her daughter were among the last people to practice this craft

Human alarm clocks were not only found in industrial towns. For example, Caroline Jane Cousins was known as Granny Cousins and was born in Dorset in 1841. She was Poole’s last alarm clock, waking up brewery workers every morning until 1918.

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Another woman with the same task was Mrs Bowers of Greenfield Terrace in Sacriston, County Durham. She with her dog represented a familiar sight. Every day she would get up at 1am and walk the streets to wake the miners from their first shift. She began her work during the First World War and continued for many years afterwards.

This ‘job’ was also practised in the family, so Mary Smith was the woman who used peas to wake her customers and was well known in East London. Her daughter, who bore the same name, followed in her mother’s footsteps. She is believed to have been among the last human alarm clocks in the English capital.

Even though electricity then began to spread, and the supply of affordable alarm clocks exploded on the market, the practice was still maintained in most cities until the 1940s and 1950s. In some industrial towns in England, the practice lasted until the early 1970s.

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