Henry Spencer Ashbee

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Ashbee in 1889

Henry Spencer Ashbee (21 April 1834 – 29 July 1900) was a book collector, writer and bibliographer. He is notable for his massive, clandestine three-volume bibliography of erotic literature published under the pseudonym of Pisanus Fraxi.[1]


Ashbee was born in Southwark, London, the son of Robert and Frances Ashbee (born Spencer). He became the senior partner in the London branch of the firm of Charles Lavy & Co.[2] He travelled extensively during his life, including Europe, Japan, and San Francisco, collaborating with the architect Alexander Graham[3] on Travels in Tunisia, published in 1887.

Ashbee married Elisabeth Lavy[4] in 1862. Elizabeth (1841–1919) was the daughter of Edward Otto Charles Lavy,[5] who founded the Hamburg firm in 1838.[6] Elizabeth's brother Charles Lavy (1842–1928) inherited the firm and became a politician in Germany.

The Ashbees had one son, Charles (the designer Charles Robert Ashbee, born 1863), and three daughters.[7] His family life grew unhappier as he aged.[8] As he became more conservative, his family followed the progressive movement of the era. "The 'excessive education' of his daughters irritated him, his Jewish wife's pro-suffragism infuriated him, and he became estranged from his socialist homosexual son, Charles".[9] Henry and Elisabeth separated in 1893.[7] Henry Spencer Ashbee is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery.[citation needed]

Book collection[edit]

Ashbee's book plate, designed by Paul Avril

Ashbee was an avid book collector, with perhaps the world's most extensive collections of Miguel de Cervantes and erotica. Influenced by a friendship with the Belgian diplomat Joseph Octave Delepierre, his erotica collecting proceeded with purchases in Amsterdam, Brussels, and Paris.[10]

Ashbee was a part of a loose intellectual fraternity of English gentlemen who discussed sexual matters with an openness that was at odds with Victorian mores; this fraternity included Richard Francis Burton, Richard Monckton Milnes, Algernon Charles Swinburne and others. He also amassed thousands of volumes of pornography in several languages. He wrote on sex under the pseudonyms "Fraxinus" (Ash) and "Apis" (Bee) and sometimes combined them as "Pisanus Fraxi".

Ashbee's will left his entire book collection to the British Museum, with the condition that the erotic works had to be accepted along with the more conventional items. Because the trustees of the Museum wanted the materials related to Cervantes, they decided to accept the entire bequest but not without some reluctance. The trustees were allowed to destroy any of the books if they already had a duplicate, but in the event went much further and destroyed six boxes "of offensive matter which is of no value or interest whatsoever" including cheaply produced Victorian erotica.[11] The remainder of the erotic works formed the core of the Private Case which were kept hidden from readers in the British Library for many years; they include a work by William Simpson Potter.[12] (See also Secretum).


Ashbee's most famous works were his three bibliographies of erotic works:

  • Index Librorum Prohibitorum: being Notes Bio- Biblio- Icono- graphical and Critical, on Curious and Uncommon Books, by Pisanus Fraxi. London, privately printed, 1877. (The name is borrowed from the Catholic Church's list of banned books, Index Librorum Prohibitorum). Translation: A Catalog of Books which should be Prohibited. A facsimile edition was printed in 1960 by Charles Skilton Ltd., London, "limited to 395 copies" (p. 543). In at least the facsimile, the title page reads "Index Librorum Prohibitoru" [the final "m" is missing]. (Charles Skilton was the publisher of the Billy Bunter series of school stories.)
  • Centuria Librorum Absconditorum: being Notes Bio- Icono- graphical and Critical, on Curious and Uncommon Books. London, privately printed, 1879, online. Translation: A Hundred Books that should be Hidden.
  • Catena Librorum Tacendorum: being Notes Bio- Icono- graphical and Critical, on Curious and Uncommon Books. London, privately printed, 1885, online. Translation: Further Books which should not be mentioned.

The Index was arranged alphabetically by title, the Centuria and Catena by subject. Ashbee includes plot summaries of the works listed, with liberal quotations. Of particular note are the 300 pages of the "Centuria" devoted to anti-Catholic pornography.[13] Initially only 250 copies of each volume were printed.[14][15][16][17]

Ashbee is suspected to be "Walter", the author of My Secret Life, a lengthy sexual memoir of a Victorian gentleman.[18]


Ashbee was the subject of a 2001 biography by Ian Gibson, The Erotomaniac.

A character based on Ashbee is central to Sarah Waters's award-winning novel Fingersmith (2002): a man obsessively collecting and indexing pornography and works about human sexuality, in an atmosphere of oppressive Victorian hypocrisy.[19]

Ashbee is No. 1 on Time Out's "Top 30 chart of London's rudest writers... the authors we feel have contributed the most to our understanding of the city's complex sexual psychology..."[20]


  1. ^ Holmes, Rachel (25 February 2001). "Sexual intercourse began in 1863..." The Guardian. Retrieved 9 June 2017.
  2. ^ Marcus, Steven (1969). The Other Victorians: 36
  3. ^ Alexander Graham, Dictionary of Scottish Architects #203588
  4. ^ Ashbee, Felicity. Janet Ashbee: love, marriage, and the arts & crafts movement, Syracuse University Press, 2002, ISBN 0-8156-0731-8, p.15 (photograph of Elisabeth Ashbee by Frank Lloyd Wright)
  5. ^ "Janus". University of Cambridge. Retrieved 14 January 2019.
  6. ^ "Stolpersteine in Hamburg | Namen, Orte und Biografien suchen". stolpersteine-hamburg.de. Retrieved 14 January 2019.
  7. ^ a b A. James Hammerton, "Cruelty and companionship: conflict in nineteenth-century married life", Routledge, 1992, ISBN 0-415-03622-4, pp.144–145
  8. ^ Hammerton, A. James (1992). Cruelty and companionship: conflict in nineteenth-century married life. Routledge. pp. 117–121. ISBN 0-415-03622-4.
  9. ^ Rachel Holmes, "Sexual intercourse began in 1863..." a review of Gibson's biography, The Observer, 25 February 2001
  10. ^ Chambers, David. "Ashbee, Henry Spencer". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/737. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  11. ^ Chambers, David. 'Ashbee, Henry Spencer (1834–1900)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition, May 2008, accessed 23 October 2011.
  12. ^ Douzinas, Costas, Nead, Lynda, eds. Law and the image: the authority of art and the aesthetics of law, University of Chicago Press, 1999, ISBN 0-226-56954-3, p.212
  13. ^ Marcus, Steven (1969). The Other Victorians: 34–77
  14. ^ Slade, Joseph W. Pornography and Sexual Representation: A Reference Guide, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001, ISBN 0-313-31519-1, p.107
  15. ^ Kendrick, Walter M. The secret museum: pornography in modern culture, University of California Press, 1996, ISBN 0-520-20729-7, p.71
  16. ^ Frayser, Suzanne G.; Whitby, Thomas J. Studies in human sexuality: a selected guide, Libraries Unlimited, 1995, ISBN 1-56308-131-8, p.615
  17. ^ Legman, Gershon (1964). The Horn Book: Studies in Erotic Folklore and Bibliography. New Hyde Park, NY: University Books. pp. 9–45.
  18. ^ Bullough, VL (2000). "Who wrote my secret life? An evaluation of possibilities and a tentative suggestion" (PDF). Sexuality and Culture. 4 (1): 37–60. doi:10.1007/s12119-000-1011-y. S2CID 144830385.
  19. ^ Forman, Ross G., "Governing Pleasures: Pornography and Social Change in England, 1815–1914" (review), Victorian Studies 45 (2003) 777–779 doi:10.1353/vic.2004.0015
  20. ^ O'Connell, John (28 February 2008). "Sex and books: London's most erotic writers". Time Out. Archived from the original on 10 April 2019. Retrieved 26 November 2015.