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Henry Spencer Ashbee,
aka Pisanus Fraxi,
traveler, bibliophile,
and eroticist, 1889.


The Private Case when it was shelved in the Arch Room of the British Library with fabulous
incunabula. This photograph was first published in the Daily Mirror, January 4, 1968,
accompanying an article entitled “Behind Locked Doors . . . The Bluest Room in Britain.”



Two salacious items
promising readers “a
strange jungle of
twisted emotions” and
“the bestiality of animal
lust and forbidden


David Gray

Pornotopias and Pornocopias


          The British Library has suspended nine of its staff for allegedly downloading
          pornographic material from the Internet.
                    The Times
(London: December 11, 2002)

Why did they bother? Those lucky folk had one of the world’s most fabulous
storehouses of porn right in their offices, if not actually at their eager
fingertips. (Why do librarians have such a dull image?—with their access
to knowledge and aptitude for processing it, I’ve often considered them
among the most erudite and pervy people I’ve ever met.) The British
Library’s collections are graced— or littered, depending on your point of
view—with a stupendous quantity of erotica among their thirteen million
catalogued items. Such is the quantity and quality that the choicest items
have a division of their own, the Private Case, a collection of high-end
erotica and plain smut that would gratify the most discerning pornophile.
          But why collect it at all? For one: demand, from scholarly devotees of
curiosa to old men in soiled mackintoshes, the lapidary attention of enthusiasts
never seems to abate. Moreover, the stuff just shows up at the door: as
a national copyright library the institution receives a copy of almost every
book and serial published in Britain and it has to go somewhere. If a civilization
can be judged by its prisons, perhaps our libidos may be judged by
our pornography, and there’s no shortage of evidence. Possibly most importantly,
the safeguarding of pornography respects our intellectual freedom;
refusing to collect, catalogue, and preserve such material makes moralists of
librarians—something at least nine staff members appeared keen to avoid.
          The exact date of the Private Case’s foundation is unclear; the earliest
item, Lucian Redividus’s Paradise Lost, or The Great Dragon Cast Out, was
acquired around 1841. The Private Case was initially simply a cupboard in
the office of the Keeper of Printed Books, Antonio Panizzi. By 1850 there
were twenty-seven books; by 1864, seventy-eight; by 1900 the collection
had swollen to include several hundred items. That year marked the receipt
of the Ashbee bequest, the largest acquisition ever for the Private Case.
Henry Spencer Ashbee (1834–1900), a textile merchant by trade, donated
a huge collection of printed materials to the Library, including 384 editions
of Don Quixote and around 1,000 of an “erotic or obscene nature.” The
author of three detailed and lavish erotic bibliographies (Index Librorum
Prohibitorum, Centuria Librorum Absconditorum, and Cantena Librorum
), Ashbee published them at his own expense under the nomde-
plume of Pisanus Fraxi. A true Victorian, Ashbee knew the benefits of
anonymity, while his ego and learning could not refrain him from lewd Latinate puns (fraxinus=ash and apis=bee). Estranged from his suffragettist
wife and socialist son, Ashbee was a model, if not cartoonish, hypocrite
lecteur—perhaps hypocrite auteur if he really was the author of A Secret
, a 4,200-page extravaganza of sexual compulsion and flagellation,
although Ashbee’s agonies were largely confined to correcting voluminous
proofs, not compliant match girls. Following the arrival of this huge influx,
the Private Case moved to the Arch Room, enjoying the company of the
library’s incunabula and other rare items. Amazingly, the library decided to
destroy six boxes of books mostly deemed duplicates, clearly a policy that
has not been continued: the collection now includes among its gems seven
copies of L’Alcibiade fanciullo a scuola, including a French edition of 1652.
This essay, by Antonio Rocco, Professor of Philosophy at the University of
Venice, is among the earliest classics of modern homosexual pornography;
the Professor devotes over a hundred pages to his enthusiasm for pederasty.
          The books consigned to the Private Case were not made available to
readers and, more importantly, they were not entered in the general catalogue,
effectively consigning them to oblivion. The first public disclosure of
the Private Case’s existence came in 1913 when E. S. P. Haynes published
an article in The English Review, entitled “The Taboos of the British
Museum Library,” reasonably demanding that a public institution make its
holdings available to its public and incorrectly claiming that the library’s
trustees were unaware of the collection and its management. Intending to
publicize the Library’s effective censorship and end it, the article had modest
success when forty-two works were moved to the general collection in
1914. Presumably, the Trustees’ concern abated with WWI, although the
collection continued to grow with a 1920 donation from the Earl of
Crawford. (The aristocracy proved generous donors to the collection: the
Marquess of Milford Haven gave a collection of erotica in 1963; as a friend of Stephen Ward likely he doubted the wisdom of owning such material in
the wake of the Profumo affair).
          The collection received a boost with the attention of Alfred Rose, a rich
bibliophile and certainly a man with definite powers of persuasion and energy—
he originally planned to publish a complete bibliography of erotica!
Exceptionally, Rose was not only permitted to see the confidential catalogue
of the Private Case in 1934, he was allowed to copy it. Rose subsequently
arranged to publish his copy along with a checklist of erotica from other
libraries including the Bodleian, Guildhall, Bibliothèque Nationale, and the
Vatican. The reaction of Pius XI to these revelations is unknown.
          Dr. Eric “Dirty Ding” Dingwall began voluntary work at the library in
1946 and was later appointed honorary Assistant Keeper. He, more than
anyone else, worked to improve and expand the Private Case. Using his own
money to purchase and donate works including the first edition of John
Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, “Dirty” was also a prolific
author, and his books include How to Use a Large Library, How to Go to a
, Artificial Cranial Deformation, and Very Peculiar People (the latter
excluded the author).

DAVID GRAY lives in New York. When he’s not researching or writing or designing, he enjoys deep-sea fishing, eating baked beans, reading catalogue raisonées, and drinking in the Baur au Lac. He is President of the Gilles de Rais Society.

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