Henry Spencer Ashbee

Henry Spencer Ashbee (21 April, 1834-29 July, 1900) was a book collector, writer, and bibliographer notable for his particular focus on sexuality.


Ashbee was born in Southwark, London, and was married in Hamburg, Germany in 1862. He was by occupation a textile trader. 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.

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 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 exploited a loophole to destroy some of the erotica, although some of the works are in the British Library, including a work by William Simpson Potter.

His family life grew unhappier as he aged. As he became more conservative, his family moved with the times and became more progressive. "The 'excessive education' of his daughters irritated him, his Jewish wife's pro-suffragism infuriated him, and he became tragically estranged from his socialist, homosexual son, Charles" (the designer Charles Robert Ashbee).


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

My Secret Life

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


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.


  • The Erotomaniac: The Secret Life of Henry Spencer Ashbee by Ian Gibson, London: Faber and Faber, 2001 (ISBN 0-571-19619-5)
  • Henry Spencer Ashbee, also known as "Pisanus Fraxi", Index of Forbidden Books (written 1880s as Index Librorum Prohibitorum), London: Sphere, 1969.

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