Mary Smith, knocker-up of Limehouse Fields.

I’m not one for watching much telly, but having spent a great deal of time in hospital wards and waiting rooms of late, one soon learns that the idiot lantern is the designated panacea to the whiling away of interminable hour after hour. At least on-ward you can switch the bally thing off, read a book or bash merry hell out of the laptop, but in waiting rooms the brain-rot that is Daytime TV is as good as any bottle of valium to send the assembled masses into a comatose state. Beats a cannula any day!

Anyway, the point I’m getting to is that a couple of weeks ago, one of those exciting (yawn) house makeover programmes was on where giggly couples buy a house (often a nice Victorian or Edwardian one, replete with oodles of charm and original local features intact) at auction. They then gut it completely (you know he sort of thing: strip out the original cast iron fireplace and replace it with an spaceship-silver Ikea one with white pebbles and a glowing aura ball ‘cos it’s trendy), it and turn the whole shebang into another uPVC double-glazed clone that could be plonked down on suitable foundations almost anywhere in the country.

Anyway, and I’m really getting there; in this particular edition one of the auctioned houses was in a mining village in Nottingham or Derby and still had a slate embedded in the brickwork by the front door upon which the miners used to write the time that they needed knocking up to start shift down t’mine (my wife is from the area, so I’m allowed to speak and write in the vernacular).

Anyway, and the crux of this story is looming larger now; in the East End, where life for the employed was forever balanced on a knife-edge, where unpunctuality could mean instant dismissal and a speedy spiral for them and their family into poverty, homelessness and destitution, those working unsocial hours, such as the market workers of Limehouse Fields, employed a knocker-up.

Mary Smith of Brenton Street (above), was paid sixpence a week per client to shoot dried peas at their bedroom window to get them up in the early hours of the morning.

Not too difficult to imagine her husky voice and rheumy eye cackling over a mid-morning teapot of gin with Betsy Prig and Sairey Gamp…

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