Bedlam: A Historical Perspective of England’s First Institution for the Mentally Ill.


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Asylum, by Francisco de Goya,

As a historical novelist, a great deal of time is spent on research to ensure accuracy of a time period as well as to enhance or embellish descriptive narrative and even character dialogue for the reader.  One of the things that fans of Jane Austen love so much about her writing (apart from the story and unique, vivid characters) is that, as a reader, you feel transported back to Regency England. Miss Austen provides keen insight into various details of her time period, including the landscape of England, travel, restrictions of society, class, culture, fashion, politics, and even the military. [Pictured: The Madhouse by Francisco de Goya, 1812-1819, Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid.]

I am a firm believer in providing as accurate and visual a picture of the time period for my books as possible. And I love doing research. But sometimes a writer playing detective by delving into the past can come upon historical research that proves more upsetting than they’d anticipated. For example, while researching an important backstory element for my upcoming novel, Between the Shadows, I found myself venturing into dark, frightening territory.

plague-hospital-1800 de goya

I soon realized the book I was creating was not a ‘happily ever after’, formula romance but evolving into a Gothic thriller about a courageous young woman who must not only embrace who she is, but realize her destiny. For faithful readers of my work, there is a romantic element that develops over the course of the series, but it is not the focal point of the book. [Pictured: Plague Hospital by Francisco de Goya, 1800, Private Collection]

Enduring love, although something humans all desire, cannot be forced or contrived. Emotion and trust must develop as an individual develops and comes to accept themselves. Truth is, no matter the time period, life can be difficult. For someone impoverished or without protection, especially a woman in the early 19th century, it could be bleak and brutal. Someone once told me that the key to writing a book that kept the reader enthralled was to put your character up in a tree (so to speak) then throw rocks at it. Obstacles. Challenges. Danger. Whether real or imagined, what happens to the character should be compelling, riveting.

Just like life in the 21st century, how we deal with illness, struggle, dangers, the oppressive challenges and risks, or seemingly hopeless heartache, can either conquer our spirit or make us stronger. I must admit, I relate more to characters that are not only searching to find themselves but challenged on their journey. As a reader, you want them to succeed, to have hope, and find love, acceptance, and happiness. The harder you must fight for something, physically and/or psychologically, the greater the victory.

More than anything the protagonist in Between the Shadows wants to find acceptance, love, and be free of her personal demons. But in order to achieve that she must face one life-threatening challenge after another, not knowing who to trust, and all the while haunted by her greatest fear–the ticking clock of Bedlam.

So, today I would like to share with you some of the research I have learned about this facility and its tragic history.

Since its beginning in 13th century London, Bethlem Royal Hospital has been known by many names.  In 1247, it was used as a priory for the sisters and brethren of the Order of the Star of Bethlehem. Located in Bishopsgate, it was called Bethlem.  In 1330, Bethlem changed from a priory to a Royal hospital controlled by the City of London. It should be noted that mentally ill patients were not allowed at this time.


In 1337, Bethlem first admitted mentally ill patients. In time, the only patients admitted to Bethlem were mentally ill. Nicknamed Bedlam, a word which means disorder, mayhem and chaos, the facility soon became synonymous with cruel and barbaric treatment of the poor souls confined within its walls. [Pictured: 19th century restraining device.]

In the early 1500s, there were 31 residents called inmates housed at Bethlem. It wasn’t until 1700 when these mentally ill individuals were finally referred to as “patients”. Let’s just pause a moments to think about this absurd milestone. It took the administration of this so-called hospital exactly 363 years to reconsider and change what they called the people under their care. In fact, it can readily be said that the progression of proper psychiatric care for the mentally ill at the hospital moved at a snail’s pace.

Plan of the first Bethlem - Public Domain

Pictured is a map from the 16th century showing the layout of Bethlem Royal Hospital in Bishopsgate. The facility had a church, courtyard, some stone buildings, and even a garden. However, the 31 inmates at Bethlem at that time saw little (if anything) of its courtyard or garden. Most spent their days and nights in some form of restraint, imprisoned in a dank, bitter cold environment that offered little hope for compassion or any type of comfort.

A few non-violent patients were allowed to leave the premises and even given a license to beg. However, patients considered dangerous or violent were left manacled, often unclothed, and chained to the stone floor or wall…day and night. The so-called logic for why they were left unclothed was that it “made no sense to clothe them because they would often tear their clothing in fits of temper”. (I daresay anyone manacled and chained to a wall 24-hours a day would likely tear at their clothing for no other reason than desperate frustration.)  

Restraining Bed - Crib - Bedlam

As to the requirements for a person being admitted to Bedlam, all it took was someone’s word against you. It didn’t matter whether you were being labeled by a physician, family member, acquaintance, or stranger. There was no innocence until proven guilty, no examination or medical diagnosis. And this criteria for admission to the hospital was something that continued  Imagine the corruption of someone wanting you out of the way, and committing you to this asylum. In fact, when commenting about the five years he spent committed to Bedlam, playwright Nathaniel Lee said, “They called me mad, and I called them mad, and damn them, they outvoted me.” [Pictured: Restraining Bed or Crib preventing patient from any movement.]

After 1557, the management of Bethem Royal Hospital was transferred to the Governors of Bridewell. A Keeper was given the sole responsibility of managing the facility on a day-to-day basis. This Keeper received payment from parishes or the relatives of inmates. Consequently, the extent of care, comfort, or consideration that might be given to an individual was dispensed based on how much payment, if any, the Keeper had been given. For those poor souls without friend or family, one can only imagine the cruelty imposed.

To get a better perspective on how foul the facility was at this time, apart from the horrific treatment given to its patients, an inspection in 1598 revealed terrible neglect of the hospital’s cesspit, known as the “Great Vault”.  Mind you, this was just one of the areas cited as being in deplorable condition at that time. In the midst of this rotting, stinking facility, there were 20 patients housed there. One poor soul had been there for over 25 years.

Microcosmographia,_Crooke,_1615_-_0003_Cropped Public Domain

In 1619, the Governors’ appointed Keeper, Thomas Jenner, was replaced by Helkiah Crooke, who not only had the ‘favor’ of King James I, but was the author of a book on anatomy entitled, “Microcosmographia: a Description of the Body of Man [pictured]. Yet despite Crooke’s monarchy approved title as Keeper-Physician, he did not provide medical care. Rather, he continued the hospital’s mismanagement and was rarely present at the facility. In addition, he embezzled funds whilst the inmates were starving.

Despite all the allegations against Crooke, it wasn’t until King James I had died and Charles I became king that an official investigation into the Keeper-Physician was made. Ordered by King Charles I, the investigation exposed the outrageous behavior of Crooke, and also revealed that the hospital steward had been stealing goods (such as clothing) donated to the hospital and food intended for the inmates. What the steward didn’t keep for himself, he had the audacity to sell to the inmates. Once again, those who didn’t have money or anything to ‘trade’, went hungry. Needless to say, Crooke and the steward were dismissed.

In 1634, the day-to-day management of the hospital changed. Instead of the Keeper-Physician, the facility had three highly educated, medically trained individuals to oversee daily operations. An apothecary, non-resident physician, and a visiting surgeon were hired by the Governors. Although it seemed the Governors were concerned about the operation of the hospital, the physical neglect, abuse, and often bizarre treatment within its walls continued.

Outside its walls, the hospital became the object of public scrutiny, too. Among the constant complaints from citizens living nearby was noise “hideous and great” echoing from gaping windows that held no glass, the foul stench of human excrement that permeated the air from the ‘Great Vault’, and the unsightliness of decaying buildings. Yet despite the ongoing neighborhood protests, it took almost 100 years for something to be done.

Bethlem Hospital designed by Robert Hooke

In 1675, the inmates of Bedlam were relocated to Moorfields, situated outside the city proper. Robert Hooke (a noted scholar, inventor, polymath, and architect befriended and influenced by none other than the great Christopher Wren) designed the hospital’s impressive new buildings.

The Court of Governors continued to elect the trained medical staff, but appointments were based less on qualifications and more on social connections. Nepotism would also play a major factor. In 1728, James Monro was given the salaried appointment as Bethlem’s physician, and had total control of the facility and its daily treatment of patients. His appointment began a 125-year dynasty of his family holding this position.

Patients were divided into two groups, the curables and incurables. However, wards to separate these two groups of patients from one another was not implemented until 1725-34. And since the incurables were often dangerous, consider the poor, frail, and frightened individual being placed alongside them without any intervention or protection.

Inmate at Bedlam

One might think that by the 18th century, compassion and genuine concern for the ill-treatment of these patients at Bedlam might have become more prevalent. After all, some of these people must have had families. For those that did not, surely the church felt it their Christian duty to see to the poor and ill. However, such compassion was not the case.  Instead people found a twisted form of entertainment by going to see the “Show of Bethlehem”.  For a penny, they gained admittance into Bedlam so they could stare and laugh at the poor souls held captive there. For the more cost-conscious citizen, entry was free on the first Tuesday of each month. 

Because madness was often considered a sign of ‘moral weakness’, there were other citizens who visited the hospital to impress upon reckless family members what terrible fate awaited them if they continued their immoral living. 

People came to stare at the ‘curables’ and ‘incurables’ of Bedlam by the thousands.  In 1814 alone, 96,000 people came to “visit” Bedlam. Ironically, at this time, King George III was also being treated, albeit privately, for madness. Still, the depraved conditions and horrendous treatment of the mentally ill continued. Not only did they suffer frightening treatment for their illness, they were subjected to mocking and cruelty by the public. 

Bethlem Hospital - St. George's Fields

In 1815, after 140 years in Moorfields, Bedlam was relocated to St. George’s Field in Southwark. The architecture designed by James Lewis included an annexed library and a ballroom. In addition, steps had been taken to address how patients should be treated. They were now called “unfortunates”; one must assume it seemed a more compassionate term of the time. Men and women were housed in separate wings, but they could gather together in the evenings to listen to music and even dance in the ballroom. One must assume that those patients allowed to do this were more controlled in their behavior. At chapel, however, patients were separated again.

Unfortunately, contrary to the ballroom dancing privilege (which might have been done more for public relations purposes than the welfare of the individual), neglect and inhumane treatment of the “unfortunates” continued. The same year the hospital moved into its grand new building in Southwark, a report of Bethlem Royal Hospital proved it was still Bedlam inside.  According to one Dr. Connoly (in his report to the House of Commons), he saw:  “patients each chained by one arm or leg to the wall, each wearing a sort of dressing gown with nothing to fasten it. Many women were locked up naked with only one blanket”.  “Sleeping cells were either exposed to the full blast of cold air or were completely darkened”. Patients diagnosed as incontinent were kept in the damp, dark basement with nothing but straw on the floor.  A year later, in 1816, glass was installed in the window, although not glazed. A new wing for the criminally insane was also built in 1816, where 45 men and 15 women were secured.


At the Parliamentary Committee on Madhouses, a proponent for “lunacy reform” named Edward Wakefield provided crucial testimony. Having toured Bethlem several times to review how patients were being treated, he cited the “thuggish nature of asylum keepers”. Methods of threatening, intimidating, and punishing patients was considered viable treatment for their illness. Shock treatments such as ‘cold bathing’ were also implemented whereby the patient would suddenly drop (without warning) through a trap door into ice cold water. The practice of confinement to various degrees also continued. Devices for confinement included feet and wrist manacles, an early form of a strait jacket, and a restraining bed (or crib) that more resembled a casket with bars where the patient could not move or even sit up.

A primary focus of Wakefield’s testimony was the care of a 55-year old American marine named James Norris. In 1800, the American had been detained at Bethlem on allegations of ‘lunacy’. Yet it wasn’t until 1814, when Norris was discovered in isolation as an ‘incurable’ in Bethlem Royal Hospital. Restrained to a wall by a mechanical device that made movement impossible, he was in frail health. Even worse, he’d been kept manacled on this iron device, alone, for ten years. The reason given for him being so severely restrained was that he’d been violent in the past. (Personally, being an American, far from home, and imprisoned in an asylum against your will might make anyone violent. Perhaps he wanted someone to listen to him, to believe him.) Ironically, when awareness of this patient was made known, six members of Parliament visited Norris. Each man stated Norris was rational, quiet, and capable of coherent and topical conversation. Based on Wakefield’s testimony and the illustration of Norris made public, he was finally released from his manacled restraint and isolation. However, the damage to his body and spirit had been done. He died, still a patient of Bedlam, a few weeks later.

As more and more evidence was given in 1816, and the severe degree of continued inhumane treatment of patients was brought to the forefront of public awareness, as well as Parliament, Thomas Munro, principal physician (and grandson of James Munro), resigned in June of that year.

Bethlem Royal Hospital continued onward, and still exists today. Situated on 270 acres in the London borough of Bromley, it strives to provide the most advanced and comprehensive level of quality care to patients.  Needless to say, with the passing of 768 years since it first opened as Bethlem Royal Hospital, education, technology, medicine, and measures to diagnose and understand mental illness has grown to great heights. And the compassionate, humane treatment for those suffering from this condition have also improved tremendously. Still, when one hears the word Bedlam, an undeniable turbulent undercurrent of its scarred and haunting history remains.

Thank you for stopping by. I appreciate the opportunity to share with you some of the information I have learned through research on this subject.  ~ AKB

For more information about the History of Bedlam, here is an informative and chilling video that addresses the men placed in charge of the hospital, and some of the patients held at Bedlam.







THE SENSE OF HONOR – Special Edition Reissue is Best-Seller in the UK and USA.


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secret passageway - The Sense of Honor - AKB  “Death will not silence me.”

This cryptic quote by the dying Earl of Bellewyck creates a whirlwind of trouble for CHRISTIANA TATUM, the mysterious heroine in THE SENSE OF HONOR. Accustomed to her private world of guarded secrets, hidden passageways, and life-threatening treachery, nothing and no one will stop her from protecting the people she loves–especially the words of a dying English lord

But what are the guarded secrets of ancient Bellewyck Abbey?  And why does DEVLIN RANDOLPH, Duke of Pemberton, personally investigate his newly inherited estate in disguise.

Well, if you are looking for some exciting summer reading that will take you on a journey filled with mystery, suspense, and a passionate romance against all odds — I have just the book for you.

I am delighted — make that “THRILLED” to announce that I have just released a Special Edition version of THE SENSE OF HONOR, exclusively with Amazon.

For those who do not know, THE SENSE OF HONOR was my debut novel as an author and won numerous awards, including the prestigious Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery and Romantic Suspense. It was also voted #109 of the 1001 BEST BOOKS EVER WRITTEN by the wonderful readers of Romantic Times Book Reviews.  And now that I have my firstborn book back in my personal keeping, I thought it deserved a special reissue.

I am also pleased to announce that this Special Edition release (including never before published material)  is an Amazon Best-Seller on two (2) lists in the United States, and three (3) lists in the United Kingdom, including a Top Ten Bestsellers in the UK for Regency Historical Romance (Kindle and Book), and is a consistent Bestseller for Romantic Suspense in the UK.

Set in Regency England, THE SENSE OF HONOR is a sensuous historical romance with mystery and suspense plot elements. Now available in Kindle format, the gorgeous print version will be released mid-August.

The_Sense_of_Honor_1_copy (1)

To purchase the Kindle version of this novel, visit: The Sense Of Honor – Special Edition “Kindle”.  Or visit my Author’s page at – Ashley Kath-Bilsky, Author –

I would like to thank all my dear readers in the United Kingdom and the states for their support and encouragement over the years.

This “Special Edition” release of THE SENSE OF HONOR also launches my personal line of “Timeless Historical Romance” novels as an Independent author.  So, please sign up for my mailing list by clicking the tab at the top of this website.  Or, check back to see what other books are available.

Remember, there is nothing like going on an exciting journey to the past within the pages of a book.

Happy Reading! ~ AKB

WHISPER IN THE WIND – A Time Travel Best-Seller on Amazon


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“Clocks slay time; time is dead as if clicked off by little wheels, only when the clock stops does time come to life.” ~ William Faulkner Image

Time is an amazing concept, isn’t it? We chase time. We run away from time. Moments tick by so quickly these days, especially if you have children, there are moments when we wish we had the power to make time stand still. Perhaps what I love about writing historical fiction is that I can make time stand still. Even better, I can transport my readers to another time, another place. And that is what WHISPER IN THE WIND is about.

Earlier this week, I announced on Facebook that my Historical Romantic Time Travel titled WHISPER IN THE WIND had been released in Kindle format. A few hours later, I received notification that it had made the Top 100 Best Seller List for Time Travel in Digital format on Amazon. Of course, the numbers and ranking change moment-to-moment, but to see the response it had already received in such a short time was amazing. And I hope after you’ve read this post, you will want to read WHISPER IN THE WIND, too.

WHISPER IN THE WIND is the first book in the Windswept Texas Romance series. It is the story of Molly Magee, a 21st century young woman and Jordan Blake, a former Texas Ranger and Pinkerton detective from the late 19th century. Yet, as the tag line for this book states, “Sometimes finding the love of your life is often just a matter of…Time.”

Here is the ‘blurb’ or description of the book from the back cover:

When Molly Magee is suddenly swept back in time, she finds herself in the Old West with gunslingers, high stakes gamblers, Victorian ideology toward women, and a Pinkerton detective named Jordan Blake. As she tries to understand what happened to her and find a way home, danger seems to follow her at every turn. Survival is a daily challenge, but it’s a hundred times worse when–to avoid answering questions from a persistent and seductive Pinkerton–she fakes amnesia. She soon realizes the biggest threat of all is the one Jordan Blake poses to her heart.

Jordan Blake has lost everyone he’s ever loved. As a Texas Ranger turned Pinkerton detective, Jordan has become a cynic about people and justice, and is ready to walk away from a life that has lost its meaning. He never knew that a prayer whispered in the wind would bring him an angel of mercy, and a love he’d never hoped to find.

From the open splendor of 1885 Texas to dark decadence and murder in New Orleans, Molly and Jordan learn that when fate takes a hand, finding the love of your life is often just a matter of…Time.

WHISPER IN THE WIND is a sensuous, unforgettable Historical Romance Time Travel. Now available at a special introductory price of $3.99 in digital format for Kindle. The EPUB version is also available on Nook.

With a stunning cover by Ramona Lockwood, beautiful interior illustrations by Elissa Marie, and a compelling, passionate love story that I believe will touch your heart. The print version of WHISPER IN THE WIND is also available at — and can be obtained by any bookseller if they do not have it in stock.

Please click on the Bookshelf page for links to purchases this book in the format you want.


With a sigh of frustration, Molly marched down the street. Stopping short, she turned to find him close at her heels. “Let me tell you something, Mr. Detective. Just because I had a weak moment this morning doesn’t make me a floozy. You know absolutely nothing about me, so stop assuming you do.”

“Did I say you were a floozy?” he asked in a low voice.

“Well, no.”

“No,” he repeated then shook his head. “I’m trying real hard to understand, Molly. You tell me you’ve lost your memory. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have my doubts about that. I’ll just have to take your word for it. But what I do know is you’re scared. And it would be easier for me to help you, if you told me why.”

Tears blurred Molly’s vision. “Let’s see. I’m in a strange place. I have no family, no home, and no income. It’s probably over a hundred degrees out today, and I feel like I’m wearing thirty pounds of clothing which, by the way, just happens to be twenty years out of date. The sheriff could care less if I live or die. And…well…as grateful as I am that you want to help me, you have a job and, like you said, your next assignment could come anytime. I need to be able to survive on my own and time isn’t on my side. So, yes, Jordan, I’m scared.”

He said nothing, but kindness and concern returned full force to his eyes and proved her undoing.

God, help me, I could fall in love with Jordan Blake all too easily.

The realization hit hard. She’d spent a lifetime dreaming about a man like Jordan Blake—strong, handsome, and solid as an oak. The kind of man you could depend on through thick and thin, loyal and true, compassionate toward those in need and willing to give his last dime if you needed it. He was also sexy as hell.

“Molly, I know what it’s like to be lost and need a friend as if your life depends on it.”

“You do?”

“Let’s just say someone helped me a long time ago.” A faint smile touched his emerald green eyes. “And if it hadn’t been for that person, I wouldn’t be here today.”

“What happened?”

His eye color darkened, as if the memory still haunted him. Perhaps that was what they had in common. Painful, private secrets. Memories of a past that now shadowed their lives.

After a moment more of awkward silence, Jordan gruffly cleared his throat and looked up at the sky. “You’re sure right about this heat. It’s hot as Hades today. Let’s get you a room and some practical clothing. Then, we’ll see about finding you work.”

“I can’t let you do that.”

“I can.” He took hold of her elbow.

She refused to budge. “Jordan, I don’t want to embarrass you but, well, I know why you only had coffee for breakfast this morning. It was because you didn’t have enough money to buy a meal for both of us. Granted, I don’t know what a Pinkerton earns, but it can’t be that much. You’ve got expenses of your own. And, on top of everything else, we both know it isn’t proper.”

Seductive warmth shined in his eyes; in fact, they almost twinkled down at her. “Molly, for your information, I drank about two quarts of rotgut whiskey yesterday. Black coffee was just fine with both me and my belly. And as for things not being proper, well, the way I see it—you and I have been nothing but improper with one another from the moment we met.”

“I know, but—”

He put a finger on her lips to silence her. “I’m not some dirt poor cowboy, sugar.” Leaning down he whispered in what sounded like an authentic and very formal British accent. “Indeed, my dear Miss Magee, I am exceedingly wealthy.”

She frowned. “What happened to your Texas drawl?”

A slow grin curved his lips, the deep dimple on his left cheek more pronounced than ever.

“Does that mean you’re not going to tell me?”

The mischievous way he looked at her made her stomach flip-flop. For a moment she thought he might even kiss her. Instead, he leaned forward and whispered against her ear. “I’ll tell you my past when you tell me yours.”


Thanks for stopping by, everyone. And I hope you’ll take the time to check out WHISPER IN THE WIND today. ~ AKB

HOGMANAY – New Year’s Eve in Scotland


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Today I have been counting my blessings from the passing year, and preparing to welcome the New Year following the traditions of Hogmanay and my Scots heritage. Each year I am asked by friends about Hogmanay and its customs, and this year is no different. So, for those of you unfamiliar with Hogmanay, I’ve decided to post an excerpt about Hogmanay from an article I did last year about how various cultures celebrate New Year.


Meaning the “last day of the year”, Hogmanay is an old, much loved custom in the highlands of Scotland. It dates back to the celebration of the Winter Solstice among the Norse yet also encompasses Gaelic customs used at Samhein. Much of Scotland’s traditions and customs are often intertwined with those of the Norse. When one remembers many people of Scots heritage are descendants of Vikings who crossed the North Sea to invade Scotland, it is not surprising in the least to see Norse influence still in existance in the culture and traditions of Scotland.

The customs practiced at Hogmanay begin at dawn on New Year’s Eve. After a small breakfast, Scottish homes undergo the ‘redding’. They are cleaned from top to bottom until spotless. Items are then placed about to convey what you would like to have happen in the New Year, i.e., coins for prosperity and symbols for health, love, and protection. For example, a piece from the sacred Rowan tree would be situated above your door as a token of good luck. Bits of Holly are used to keep away mischievous faerie folk,whilst Mistletoe was placed to ward away illness. Other bits of nature utilized for their ‘magical’ attributes are wood from the Yew and Hazel tree. This ancient traditions stems from the belief that placing pieces from these trees inside your home on Hogmanay would protect both the home and those who dwelled within.

When the clock strikes midnight, windows and doors are opened to welcome the New Year, and a feast is set for all to enjoy. And I mean “all”. No one is turned away. And since it is a tradition for adults to go door-to-door singing or shouting Hogmanay, quite a crowd could be expected…which brings me to the Scots tradition of “first footing”.


Basically, first-footing is the first person who crosses your threshold after midnight on New Year’s Day. Traditionally, he or she should come bearing gifts such as: salt, shortbread (yum!), whisky, and a black bun (the dense, rich Scottish fruitcake). Another one of my favorites is the Clootie Dumpling (pictured below), a dessert pudding made with flour, sugar, sultanas, currants, spices, and treacle. The gifts are supposed to bring luck to the house and family in the New Year. Naturally, in return, food and drink are offered.

Cloutie Dumpling

It can become quite the Céilidh or party as everyone who wants to be the first-footer shows up and you have a house full of guests – and lots of delicious goodies. Oh, and if a tall, dark (preferably handsome) man is your first-footer, needless to say that brings the best luck of all! Makes you wonder if whomever invented this tradition was a romance writer, doesn’t it? On the other hand, should a fairhaired man show up on your doorstep, the luck may not be so good, as they are a reminder of the Viking invaders. Hmmm.

Of course, no gathering would be complete without everyone raising a glass and singing Auld Lang Syne, the traditional New Year’s anthem written by the famous Scottish poet, Robert Burns. And lest you think I jest about the level of merriment and partying for Hogmanay, the day after New Year’s, January 2nd, is also a holiday in Scotland…no doubt a much appreciated day to recover from overindulgence.

Among the most popular traditions upheld today are the torchlight processions throughout the highlands. In Edinburgh last year you would have seen, “A bunch of noisy, hairy Vikings and Scottish highlanders, dragging a Viking warship, lead a 15,000 strong crowd bearing flaming torches” as they walk (along with some pipers)from historic Parliament Square on the Old Town’s Royal Mile, down the Mound, along Princes Street and Waterloo Place, and up to the ancient Edinburgh meeting ground Calton Hill. Phew! Talk about a hike! Most cities, towns and villages in the highlands will have a torchlight procession, which culminates with everyone igniting a roaring bonfire and usually features a grand fireworks display.

hogmenay-bonfire-l_1213484iThe bonfire itself has a long history and great importance at Hogmanay. It represents everything from the Sun and the driving away of evil spirits, to how light will always conquer the darkness, and the belief that the bonfire will secure happiness and luck in the New Year. The bigger the bonfire, the better the luck. In fact, great care has always been taken to ensure the bonfire would not go out. Since everyone in the towns and villages would each carry a torch to light the bonfire, certain sure that the tradition must be upheld by the entire community, it would be a terrible omen of bad luck should the bonfire go out before sunrise.

Although I sadly cannot be in my beloved highlands this Hogmanay, the spirit and customs of this special day remains with me and my family. As we draw ever closer to the threshold of the New Year, I hope it is filled with health, happiness, love, peace and prosperity for us all. And may your first guest in the New Year be a tall, dark-haired, handsome man wishing you Happy New Year in Scots-Gaelic with, Bliadhna mhath ùr!

So, Slainte everyone and since I dare not forget my Irish ancestors, here is a very appropriate Irish blessing for Hogmanay (or any day in the New Year). “May your troubles be less, your blessings be more, and nothing but happiness come through your door.” ~ AKB

“The Graveyard Quilt”

There are many ways to pass family history down from generation to generation.  For some, it is the old Family Bible.  For others, it could be an oral history from a grandmother to her grandchild, or boxes of mementos and old photographs tucked away in an attic.  Well, I just read a fascinating article in my monthly DAR magazine about “The Graveyard Quilt”.  No, this isn’t a festive Halloween quilt to bring out each October.  In 1836, a woman named Elizabeth Roseberry Mitchell began stitching a quilt in memory of her two-year old son, John, who had just died.  In 1843, she added another son who had died at the age of 19.  What’s so unusual about her quilt is that it features a graveyard in the center; on the top is where the graveyard is located in Monroe County, Ohio.  At first, the macabre, almost Tim Burton look to it, made me sad.  I had never seen such a depressing looking quilt.  I wanted to learn why this woman chose such a depressing way to remember her family. 

Apparently, when the family moved to Ohio, she wanted to make sure that no one forgot where these boys were buried.  So, from a mourning perspective, Elizabeth used a talent she possessed to not only remember her deceased children but document family history for future descendants.  It became more than just a quilt, but a genealogical and historical artifact.  

As the family grew, Elizabeth felt the quilt had ‘design flaws’.  She started another quilt, using the original quilt top as a practice piece.  This practice quilt top now resides in the Highlands Museum and Discovery Center in Ashland, Kentucky.  The second, finished quilt (pictured below) is part of the Kentucky Historical Society’s Thomas D. Clark History Center in Frankfort, Kentucky.  To quote the article, “Together they are nationally known to be the only existing graveyard quilt top and quilt.”

I appreciate the love and sentimentality Elizabeth crafted into her quilt, although I must amit the method of keeping up the quilt bothers me.  You see, when a child was born into the family (a joyous occasion usually filled with happiness and hope for their future), a black, eight-sided coffin was immediately added to this quilt around the outer edge.  When death occurred, these coffins would be removed from that edge and reapplied into the graveyard area, located in the center.  The death date would also be embroidered.  I can see the practicality in having a set procedure for the family quit,  but it is rather gruesome…at least to me. 

On the subject of quilts, I LOVE quilts, and even took a quilting class years ago. I love the design, various materials and colors incorporated, as well as the definite talent and patience quilters have.  Unfortunately, I lack patience.  When I start something, I want to zip through it or I get bored.  So, not a quilter do I make!   However, my grandmother and great-grandmother made quilts all the time.  I recently found a letter from my great-grandmother to my grandmother written in pencil during the Great Depression where she mentioned how hard it was to come by cotton and material for her quilting projects.  So, she was going to make a wool quilt for one of her sons.  I also have some quilt tops that were projects my grandmother worked on with her mother and her sisters.  I remember my mother pointing out to me material that had once been used in childhood outfits of hers or how ‘that fabric came from the kitchen window curtains”.  She could even identify what stitching belonged to her grandmother, her mother and each aunt.  Like the brush stroke of a great artist, she knew each person’s style.  The thing is, I knew by the way my mom talked about these quilts that this was more than a blanket, or bits of old fabric fashioned into a design.  A family activity between a mother and her grown daughters had become part of that family’s history…and the beginning of my interest in preserving family history.

For over twenty years now, I have been researching family history, thrilled when I come upon an old photo, a piece of documentation about an ancestor, or a hand-written letter from my great-grandmother that gives so much insight into ‘who’ she was as a person.  For anyone doing genealogical research, you run into so many road blocks that it can be discouraging. It saddens me to think of the artifacts and records destroyed over time, sometimes deliberately.  Let’s just say, don’t bring up the name General Sherman in my presence! 

So, searching for any article of family history becomes a personal quest.  Finding what I like to call a “puzzle piece” is more than just a reward for the hard work that often took years to find.  That piece becomes almost sacred because it helps to complete the family picture, and even moreso when it is something that was held or crafted by an ancestor.  

Apart from the artwork and design of quilts, there is often a family legacy in the finished project.  For me, it is the visual I still get of my grandmother, her sisters, and my great-grandmother all sitting around together and sewing a quilt while their children play outdoors.  I picture them laughing and talking about life and their families.   It is MY connection to that moment in time and I feel even more a part of them.   So, when I read about The Graveyard Quilt, although my initial reaction was the sadness involved by picturing this woman sitting down and adding cloth coffins, I also admire her passion to preserve the history of her family.  Granted, the procedure she followed would have been too emotional and fatalistic for me.  There is no way that when a child was born in my family, I would have felt right about making a cloth coffin for them to put on the family quilt.  BUT, for Elizabeth Roseberry Mitchell, her initial process of mourning became a passionate desire to maintain family history and remembrance of all  who passed on in her family…and it was done perhaps the only way she knew how — through quilting.  The end result, family history was preserved.   

After 174 years, though quilters today may be impressed by Elizabeth’s “traditional layout of a center medallion surrounded by blocks of alternating 8-pointed stars and black printed fabric”, for anyone who has spent hours and years searching for one clue about their ancestors, “The Graveyard Quilt” (macabre as it may seem) is a tangible artifact and sacred history for any descendants of Elizabeth Roseberry Mitchell — as well as an example of an unusual and innovative way to document a family tree.

NOTE:   The above represents personal opinions of Ashley Kath-Bilsky based on an article entitled, “The Graveyard Quilt” by Gaylord Cooper, featured in American Spirit Magazine, Daughters of the American Revolution, September/October 2010

“Still round the corner there may wait, A new road or a secret gate, And though I oft have passed them by, A day will come at last when I, Shall take the hidden paths that run, West of the Moon, East of the Sun.” ~ J.R.R.

"All who wander are not lost." ~ J.R.R. Tolkien

On this day (Sep 2) 1973, J.R.R. TOLKIEN, the man considered by literary circles to be the ‘Father of Modern or High Fantasy Literature’, died at the age of 81.  Born in South Africa on 03 Jan 1892, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was raised in England and graduated from Exeter College at Oxford in 1915.   After serving as a  Second Lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers during World War I, his first job as a civilian was working on the history and etymology of words of Germanic origin for the Oxford English Dictionary.

In 1920, he became the youngest professor at the University of Leeds, where he produced a Middle English Vocabulary. In addition, while working with E. V. Gordon, he created a definitive translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (which became an academic standard for many years).

In 1925, Tolkien returned to Oxford as Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon, a position he held from 1925-1945.  During this time, while grading exams, a distracted Tolkien wrote something across the top of a paper.   The single line, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” not only inspired but would eventually become  “The Hobbit”, a novel published in 1937.

In 1945, Tolkien was appointed Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University.  Between 1954 and 1955, he wrote a sequel to The Hobbit entitled, The Lord of the Rings.  Also set in the fictional Middle Earth, the trilogy followed the adventures of a noble hobbit named Frodo Baggins who, joined by companions, a wizard, and various races living in Middle Earth, embarked on a quest to destroy a powerful and evil ring which could destroy everyone and everything.

“The Lord of the Rings,” Tolkien admitted, began as an exercise in “linguistic esthetics” as well as an illustration of his theory on fairy tales.  Then the story itself captured him.

The Lord of the Rings became a best-selling classic and has been adapted for radio, television and film, as well as video games and music. In December 2001, director Peter Jackson brought the trilogy to the big screen, subsequently earning a total of 30 Oscar nominations for all three films, and winning 17 Academy Awards including the Best Picture award for the final installment, Return of the King.

Married to Edith May Bratt on 22 Mar 1916, Tolkien and his wife would have four children. A devoted husband and father, he was also a close friend to C.S. Lewis, whom he first met at Oxford. In May 1927, Tolkien enrolled Lewis in a club called ‘Coalbiters’, which read Icelandic sagas in the original Old Norse.

In his later years, the increasing fame from his work made the quiet, academic Tolkien uncomfortable. Repeatedly approached and contacted, he was forced to remove his name from the public directory and moved with his wife to Bournemouth. A devout Roman Catholic with Conservative political views, he disliked his work being referred to as a cult phenomenon or any inference that he was a ‘cult figure’ himself.

On 01 Jan 1972, Tolkien was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the New Year’s Honour’s List by Queen Elizabeth II. On 28 Mar 1972, he received the insignia of the Order at Buckingham Palace.

An obituary, published in The New York Times on 03 September 1972, referred to Tolkien as the “Creator of a World”, stating, “John Ronald Reuel Tolkien cast a spell over tens of thousands of Americans in the nineteen-sixties with his 500,000-word trilogy, “The Lord of the Rings,” in essence a fantasy of the war between ultimate good and ultimate evil.”  

Perhaps the best epitaph for this man is: ” A linguist, scholar, and author of “The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien ws a gentle, blue-eyed, donnish-appearing man who favored tweeds, smoked a pipe and liked to take walks and ride an old bicycle.”  

For me, he was an endearing storyteller whose likeness and personality I always see in one of his characters. A kind and gentle wizard known by different names to different people.  Stormcrow.  Mithrandir.  Gandalf.   Or, Tolkien.   They are one and the same to me…and perhaps other fans as well.

18th Century Child Labor in England and The Mills and Factory Act of 1833

On this day (Aug 29) 1833, the Mills and Factory Act was passed in England, establishing measures for improving the “Health and Morals” of child laborers. The Act was the first effective legislation empowering national inspectors with unlimited and unannounced entry into factories. Among the important changes made we…re: No one under the age of 9 years old could be employed. Children ages 9-12 could work no more than a 48-hour week. Teenagers could work 68-hour weeks. Provisions were also made for education and health, largely the result of testimony given by young workers before a Parliamentary committee investigating violations of earlier Acts.

Although the concept of child labor and regulations like these are offensive to people today, one must remember that in 1833, child labor was extensive. For years, orphans had been placed in workhouses rather than forced to live on the streets. Children from poor families were often sent to workhouses as well. Their plight was often featured in literary works by Charles Dickens. William Blake’s poem, “The Chimney Sweeper” (1789) told the story of a small child whose father sold him to a workhouse after the death of his mother, and who was then forced to train as a chimneysweep. Sadly, children aged 4-5 were often sold to clean chimneys due to their small size.

Consequently, the Mills and Factory Act was the beginning of strict regulations that brought about changes both socially-conscious authors would have not only welcomed, but supported.

 “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.” ~ Charles Dickens

“Where is Scudder’s book?” I cried to Sir Walter. “Quick, man, I remember something in it.” He unlocked the door of a bureau and gave it to me. I found the place. “Thirty-nine steps,” I read, and again, “Thirty-nine steps — I counted them — High tide, 10.17 p.m.” The Admiralty man was looking at me as if he thought I had gone mad. “Don’t you see it’s a clue,” I shouted….” ~ John Buchan (The Thirty-Nine Steps)

On this day (Aug 26) 1875,  lawyer-politician-writer JOHN BUCHAN was born in Perth, Scotland. After a brief career in law, Buchan began writing fiction while also pursuing a political and diplomatic career.   Although he wrote many genres, Buchan is best known for his spy adventure novels, including the first “Richard Hannay” book entiitled, THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS, published in 1915.   He continued to write Hannay novels in his spare time, working full-time in the British Army ‘Intelligence Corps’.  In fact, Buchan is credited with starting the kind of espionage thrillers (which he called “shockers”) that would eventually lead to such characters as James Bond.

Although not as sexy as a James Bond novel, THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS featured “a galloping plot, a supervillain of malignant evil, flurries of deceptioin and deduction, and a pipe-smoking Richard Hannay doing his best for Club and Empire, though bottled as a pickled herring from the start and doomed with just twelve hours to go.”

John Buchan died in 1940 at 64, by this time the titled Lord Tweedsmuir of Elsfield and Governor-General of Canada. His son, William, was also an author, and his grandson, James Buchan, recently published his sixth book, the critically acclaimed novel entitled, “The Persian Bride”.

“I’m just going to write because I cannot help it. ” ~ Charlotte Bronte

On this day (Aug 24) 1847, Charlotte Bronte (using the pseudonym of Currer Bell) sent her manuscript of JANE EYRE to her eventual publisher, Smith, Elder & Co., in London. The manuscript had been rejected five (5) times already. Although Bronte might have been discouraged, she was not ready to accept Wordsworth and poet laureate Robert Southey’s advice that, “novel writing wasn’t the proper pasttime of a lady”. The sixth time proved a charm. Smith, Elder & Co., published the novel and it was an immediate and somewhat controversial hit.

Ashkath Productions Ltd.


30 April 2009

I am very pleased to announce Ashkath Productions, Ltd., a privately held company focused on developing and producing independent projects for film and televsion.  This venture will enable me to continue writing as a novelist of historical fiction, as well as pursue my interest in film as a screenwriter and producer.   Just one of the exciting  projects now in development is a sci-fi adventure fantasy based on a trilogy I penned several years ago that I feel would be better served as a feature film.    Although the majority of our projects will be written by myself,  Ashkath Productions also looks forward to working with other talented writers, as well as collaborating with other film production companies in an effort to bring original and exciting new works to the screen.