'Boggart Knows No Rest!' Supernatural Pranksters in Lancashire
Ellen Walkingshaw | University of Hertfordshire
Tread softly, for this is the Boggart's clough; and see in yonder dark corner, and beneath the projecting mossy stone, where that dusky sullen cave yawns before us, like a bit of Salvator's best, there lurks the strange elf, the sly and mischievous Boggart. Bounce! I see him coming…
- John Roby (1793-1850)
Introducing the Boggart
Let me introduce you to the boggart, one of Northwest England’s most fascinating (and bothersome) supernatural creatures. The foremost contemporary expert on this otherworldly prankster is historian and folklorist Simon Young, who defines boggart widely as being ‘any ambivalent or evil solitary supernatural spirit’, which may include ghosts, fairies, demons or will o’ the wisps. The term was used in this more general sense into the nineteenth century, where Roby's story originates; however, the main character in this narrative is more of a house spirit akin to the border Brownie.
Tracking down the origin of boggart narratives is tricky as they were primarily transmitted orally. Those that were written down were gathered by folklorists who often came from outside the communities they were studying, and had a habit of 'borrowing' tales from each other. One such tale was related by John Roby (1793-1850), a banker, poet, and writer who, in 1829, published his influential Traditions of Lancashire, a collection of Lancashire folklore. This included his version of what Young refers to as the 'flit legend’, a widespread Northern boggart narrative involving a family tormented by a boggart until they threaten to ‘flit’ (leave), at which point it suspends its pranks. Roby's narrative contains many elements of wider nineteenth-century North-West boggart folklore, making it the perfect introduction to this fascinating creature.
A Joke Too Far
"Weel laughed, Boggart, thou'rt a fine little tyke, I'se warrant, if one could but just catch glent on thee," said Robert, [...]
No sooner had they got fairly to sleep than they were roused by the small shrill voice in their room shouting out, "Little tyke, indeed! little tyke thysel'. Ho, ho, ho! I'll have my laugh now—Ho, ho, ho!"
The trouble all began for the Cheetham family while they were enjoying telling tales around the hearth on a winter’s evening in their farmhouse. On such occasions, ‘a small shrill voice was heard above all the rest, like a baby's penny trumpet, joining in with the laughter’, always remaining out of sight. One evening, Robert, the Cheethams’ youngest son, jokingly referred to the laughing boggart as ‘a fine little tyke’, to which the boggart took great offence and proceeded to launch many nights of torment upon the poor child.
Boggart Knows No Rest!
this strange laughter was not necessary to prevent little Robert from further sleep, as he found himself one moment seized by the feet and pulled to the bottom of the bed, and the next moment dragged up again on his pillow. [...] The night, instead of being the time for repose, was disturbed with screams and dreadful noises, and thus was the whole house alarmed night after night.
The bulk of boggart disruptions occurred at night, another trait that boggarts and more conventional ghosts have in common. When the dawn rose after a night of continual torture at the hands of the angered boggart, Robert and John initially exclaimed with joy, ‘We'st now ha' some rest, perchance,’ only for a familiar little voice to chirp in, ‘rest! — what is rest? Boggart knows no rest’. Although incorrect in this specific instance, the brothers' expectation that the boggart would relent in the morning reflects a more general perception that boggarts were mostly nocturnal. According to W. Langley Roberts' version of the flit legend, the boggart's tricks started ‘as soon as ever the clock in the kitchen had struck the hour of midnight,’ and the Lancaster Gazette (1851) records a boggart disturbance near Carnforth that happened ‘shortly after the witching hour of night’ (depending on the area, the witching hour is believed to occur between midnight and 3 am, or 3 am and 4 am).
Many journalists and folklorists started to blame boggart sightings on inadequate lighting during the nineteenth century. A reporter for the Preston Chronicle introduced their boggart report in 1866 with the phrase ‘In the days of our grandfathers before gas-lights were introduced’, and Joseph Lawson remarked in 1887 ‘If we consider [...] the dark lamp-less streets and lanes, the very little light even in the houses, we may easily see what a flourishing time boggards [sic] would have’. The link between lack of lighting and supernatural belief has persisted into the twenty-first century, with historian Diane Purkiss attributing modern fairies' 'utter benign' behaviour to electric lighting and other advancements in technology which have eliminated ‘the terror of the lonely countryside.’ A cold, dimly lit bedroom, the place where one is most vulnerable, was, therefore, the perfect stage for a boggart’s pranks.
The children generally were marked out as objects of dislike by their unearthly tormentor. The curtains of their beds would be violently pulled to and fro,—then a heavy weight, as of a human being, would press them nearly to suffocation, from which it was impossible to escape.
It is no coincidence that the boggart tormented George Cheetham's children more than anyone else. In a time when infant mortality was so high, a child's cry would have been especially anxiety-inducing. Children are inherently unpredictable and vulnerable, particularly at night when they are not directly supervised. During the eighteenth century, up to a fifth of all babies died before turning one and up to a third before turning five. In Roby's narrative, the boggart stole the brothers' bread, threw things at them, pulled them around while they slept, and ‘if the younger ones were left alone but for a few minutes, they were sure to be found screaming with terror on the return of their nurse’. The victimisation of children in these boggart narratives may have reflected this anxiety around child mortality since children represented a place of powerlessness within the domestic space.
Boggart under the Stairs
Heavy steps, as of a person in wooden clogs, were at first heard clattering down-stairs in the dead hour of darkness
While the boggart’s pranks took place all throughout the house, Roby did hint at one particular dwelling place:
‘the stairs ascended from the kitchen, a partition of boards covered the ends of the steps, and formed a closet beneath the staircase. From one of the boards of this partition a large round knot was accidentally displaced; and one day the youngest of the children, while playing with the shoe-horn, stuck it into this knot-hole.[...] the horn was ejected with surprising precision [...] and struck the poor child over the ear.’
The stairs and the closet — two common boggart lairs — are combined here. Simon Young cites several instances from his census of contemporary boggart belief of ‘Boggart Holes’ inside of homes. Young himself remembers the under-stairs cabinet in his childhood home being referred to as ‘the boggard-ole.’ Much like stairs, the closet or cupboard is a type of liminal space, a location for the withdrawal and display of valuable items. Domestic disorder can be hidden and restrained inside the cabinet while still being enticingly close to the house's common areas. The association with supernatural creatures and cupboards or closets has continued into the twenty-first century, as evidenced by media such as Harry Potter: the young wizard lives in the cupboard under the stairs, and JK Rowling’s boggart favours dark spaces and shadowy corners. Similarly, in Pixar’s Monsters Inc (2001), the closet door forms a boundary between the human world and the world of monsters, and the magical land of Narnia is first discovered by the Pevensies through a wardrobe. It is possible that Roby’s boggart in the cupboard was a reflection of broader Victorian concerns about upholding the appearance of domestic propriety by keeping anything deemed private or undesirable contained and out of sight, an anxiety which has remained with us today.
Help and Hindrance
The boggart was not always a disturbance, however. Sometimes he would help churn cream, or clean pots and pans, playing a similar role as the border Brownie. This aid did not come without conditions. Folklorist Charles Harwick summarised the North-West boggart’s philosophy as ‘one good turn deserves another’, thus if a servant ‘has secured his goodwill’, the boggart will take on ‘a large portion of his or her daily labour’. Like fairies, boggarts and other house spirits were prone to dramatic mood swings and had their own strict protocol to adhere to in order to prevent disruptions. The Hob Thross boggart at Millom Castle in Cumbria, for instance, required a bowl of porridge left out at night, but when a kind tailor made him a cape, worried for his safety in the winter, the Hob fled in the night to protect his anonymity. In Roby’s narrative, all it took was one poorly judged joke for the boggart to inflict nights of agony on the brothers.
This torment did eventually come to an end, however. Exhausted from many sleepless nights, farmer Cheetham and his wife and sons resolved to move house. While they were packing the last load of furniture, they met a neighbouring farmer, who asked them why they were leaving. Farmer Cheetham explained:
‘that wearyfu' Boggart torments us soa, we can neither rest neet nor day for't. It seems loike to have a malice again't young ans,—an' it ommost kills my poor dame here at thoughts on't, and soa thou sees we're forc'd to flitt like.’
Before he could go on further, that all-too-familiar shrill voice piped in ‘Ay, ay, neighbour, we’re flitting you see’. The boggart had lodged itself inside a churn in the furniture wagon, clearly intent on accompanying the family to their new residence. ‘Od rot thee!’ George exclaimed, and quickly decided that he would rather be tormented in his old house than a less convenient one. It seems this incident shook the boggart, who, now aware of ‘the insecurity of his tenure’ toned down his pranks, leaving the Cheethams in (relative) peace.
While boggart tales slowly declined throughout the nineteenth century, their mischievous legacy can still be found today in place names, such as Boggart Wood in Bradford and Boggart Hill in Leeds, and in fantasy media including Harry Potter, The Spiderwick Chronicles, and The Wardstone Chronicles. The boggart has not flit yet!
Louise Imogen Guiney, Brownies and Bogles, (D. Lothrop, 1888) - Gutenberg.
James McKay, ‘The Evolution of East Lancashire Boggarts’, Transactions of the Burnley Literary & Scientific Club, Vol.6 (1888), pp. 113-127.
John Roby, Traditions of Lancashire and Other Relevant Material for Folklore, (1829-1831).
Simon Young, The Boggart Sourcebook (Exeter: Exeter Press, 2022).
Simon Young, 'Public bogies and supernatural landscapes in North-Western England in the 1800s', Time and Mind, Vol. 13(4) (2020), pp. 399-424.
Ellen Walkingshaw is currently writing her thesis on boggarts and other domestic spirits as part of the MA Folklore Studies at the University of Hertfordshire. She has loved all things magical ever since she was a child, and after researching early mediaeval popular magic for her BA Theology and Religion thesis (University of Oxford) she fell headlong into the rabbit hole of folklore and magical history.