Children-hunting monsters are commonplace in folklore worldwide, serving both as a cautionary tale to ward children away from danger as well as a threat to cow them into obedience. In modern parlance they are known by the catch-all term ‘bogeyman’ but dig a little deeper and there are a myriad different names, forms and descriptions to be found. Given Lancashire’s deeply superstitious roots, it should come as no surprise that a unique take on the common tale is to be found in the county, an old fireplace tale designed to terrify wayward children into compliance.
Known variously as Rawhead, Bloody Bones, Tommy Rawhead or Rawhead and Bloody Bones, tales of a child-eating creature lurking in the dark places of Lancashire were a common part of childhood folklore. Some versions of the story pin the rawhead as a malignant water creature, similar to its fellow Lancashire folklore creation Jenny Greenteeth. Lurking below the surface in murky ponds and flooded gravel pits, he waits to drag the unwary down into the depths to feast on with his long, sinewy arms. As with Wicked Jenny, the genesis of this particular myth seems obvious; to ward children away from the dangers of open water and duckweed-choked ponds.
The more common version of the story, however, is arguably far more frightening. This version of the creature, as well as the most long-winded name, is recorded in an old English nursery rhyme, now largely forgotten but once commonplace in the North West.
Rawhead and Bloody Bones
Steals naughty children from their homes,
Takes them to his dirty den,
And they are never seen again
This most well-known version of the rawhead lairs in the dark and forgotten corners of houses, with the space under staircases a particular favourite. Peering into the gaps between the steps or through the keyhole, children may catch a glimpse of a filthy, hunched figure, hunkered down on a pile of child-sized bones. Blood trickles down his face from the raw and bloodied scalp that gives him his ominous name. Meet his eye, and strong hands will flash out, snatching the unfortunate victim and dragging them away to be devoured, their bones being added to the growing pile. Further, children using bad words or disobeying their parents risked drawing his ire, and he would venture forth from his dark corner in search of the culprit.
The oldest recorded reference to ‘blooddybones’ dates back to the pamphlet Wyll of Deuyll, published in approximately 1548. The author and Jesuit John Rastell first writes of the ‘raw head’ in 1566. The philosopher John Locke noted their use as a means to subjugate children in 1693. However, many researchers consider the rawhead a lost tale, with vague references to his various names remaining across surviving literature but the core of the story having been largely forgotten.