Henry Spencer Ashbee

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Henry Spencer Ashbee (21 April 1834 – 29 July 1900) was a book collector, writer, and bibliographer, notorious for his massive, clandestine three volume bibliography of erotic literature written under the pseudonym of Pisanus Fraxi.


Ashbee was born in Southwark, London. He was by occupation a textile trader, the senior partner in the London branch of the firm of Charles Lavy & Co.[1] He travelled extensively during his life, including Europe, Japan, and San Francisco, collaborating with Alexander Graham on Travels in Tunisia, published in 1887. He was an avid book collector, with perhaps the world's most extensive collections of 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.[2]

Ashbee was a part of a loose intellectual fraternity of English gentlemen who discussed sexual matters with a freedom 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 collection to the British Museum, with the condition that the erotic works had to be accepted along with the conventional items. Because the trustees wanted the materials related to Cervantes, they decided to accept the bequest. The trustees were allowed to destroy any of the books if they had a duplicate, but in practice went much further and destroyed six boxes "of offensive matter which is of no value or interest" including cheaply produced Victorian erotica.[3] The remainder of the 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.[4]

Ashbee married Elisabeth Lavy[5] in Hamburg, Germany in 1862. They had one son, Charles (the designer Charles Robert Ashbee, born 1863), and three daughters.[6] His family life grew unhappier as he aged.[7] 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".[8] Henry and Elisabeth separated in 1893.[6] Henry Spencer Ashbee is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery.[citation needed]


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. London, privately printed, 1877. (The name is a reference to the Catholic Church's list of banned books "Index Librorum Prohibitorum").
  • Centuria Librorum Absconditorum: being Notes Bio- Icono- graphical and Critical, on Curious and Uncommon Books. London, privately printed, 1879.
  • Catena Librorum Tacendorum: being Notes Bio- Icono- graphical and Critical, on Curious and Uncommon Books. London, privately printed, 1885

The Index was arranged by author, 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.[9] Initially only 250 copies of each volume were printed.[10][11][12]

Ashbee is suspected to be "Walter", the author of My Secret Life, a lengthy sexual memoir of a Victorian gentleman.[13]


A character based on him is central to Sarah Waters's award-winning novel Fingersmith: a man obsessively collecting and indexing pornography and works about human sexuality, in an atmosphere of oppressive Victorian hypocrisy.[14]

Ashbee is #1 in 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..".[15]


  1. Steven Marcus (1969) The Other Victorians: 36
  2. Chambers, David. "Ashbee, Henry Spencer". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/737.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  3. David Chambers, 'Ashbee, Henry Spencer (1834–1900)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2008, accessed 23 Oct 2011.
  4. Costas Douzinas, Lynda Nead, "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
  5. Felicity Ashbee, "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)
  6. 6.0 6.1 A. James Hammerton, "Cruelty and companionship: conflict in nineteenth-century married life", Routledge, 1992, ISBN 0-415-03622-4, pp.144-145
  7. Hammerton, A. James (1992). Cruelty and companionship: conflict in nineteenth-century married life. Routledge. pp. 117–121. ISBN 0-415-03622-4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Rachel Holmes, "Sexual intercourse began in 1863..." a review of Gibson's biography, The Observer, 25 February 2001
  9. Steven Marcus (1969) The Other Victorians: 34-77
  10. Joseph W. Slade, "Pornography and Sexual Representation: A Reference Guide", Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001, ISBN 0-313-31519-1, p.107
  11. Walter M. Kendrick, "The secret museum: pornography in modern culture", University of California Press, 1996, ISBN 0-520-20729-7, p.71
  12. Suzanne G. Frayser, Thomas J. Whitby, "Studies in human sexuality: a selected guide", Libraries Unlimited, 1995, ISBN 1-56308-131-8, p.615
  13. 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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. 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
  15. John O‘Connell (28 February 2008). "Sex and books: London's most erotic writers". Time Out. Retrieved 26 November 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


  • Ian Gibson, "The Erotomaniac: The Secret Life of Henry Spencer Ashbee", London: Faber and Faber, 2001, ISBN 0-571-19619-5
  • Steven Marcus, "The Other Victorians: a study of sexuality and pornography in mid-nineteenth-Century England", Transaction Publishers, 2008, ISBN 1-4128-0819-7, chapter 2.
  • Henry Spencer Ashbee, also known as "Pisanus Fraxi", Index of Forbidden Books (written 1880s as Index Librorum Prohibitorum), London: Sphere, 1969.
  •  Seccombe, Thomas (1901). [https%3A%2F%2Fen.wikisource.org%2Fwiki%2FAshbee%2C_Henry_Spencer_%28DNB01%29 "Ashbee, Henry Spencer" ] Check |ws link in chapter= value (help). In Sidney Lee (ed.). Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement​. London: Smith, Elder & Co.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>