The Pornographer Royal

I was interviewed by Southwark News this week, talking about Henry Spencer Ashbee, Victorian businessman and erotomaniac…

There are quite a few unusual things about Henry Spencer Ashbee, a Victorian gentleman who was born in the Rising Sun inn on Blackfriars Road in 1834.

He was a self-made man and an only child in an era where that was rare. But the most unusual was his book collection: it contained lots and lots of porn.

A bibliophile by nature, Ashbee began to collect books alongside travel writing and his day-job as the senior partner of a textiles firm – quintessential activity for a Victorian gentleman.

‘He begins to build this huge archive of books. He gets very interested in collecting first editions of Don Quixote,’ says writer Stephen Carver, author of The 19th Century Underworld. Alongside studying Cervantes, Ashbee also travelled widely writing travel memoirs from Tunisia.

But less conventional were the racier books he collected.

‘He becomes completely obsessed with it but while he’s doing that at the same time, he’s finding all these dirty books which he’s stashing away in this private library,” Carver adds. “He keeps it all separate from his family.’

The collection, a massive three-volume bibliography was extensive – rumoured by some researchers to have been the largest in the world.

It was methodological. The bibliography contained the name of the erotica, a description of the plot, and liberal quotations from the text.

But it was also explicit. In one of the thousands of tomes, a young men gains entrance to a nun’s convent.

The protagonist, to his shock, discovers that the head of the convent is his aunt, but does not let the family connection prevent him from enjoying himself.

Others, with titles like ‘The Lustful Turk’, do not need reading to give an indication of their subject matter…

To read the full article by Josh Salisbury please click here

My new history, The 19th Century Underworld, is available at all good bookshops, or you can buy direct from the publisher here

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