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.
“I think it’s definitely tens of thousands of books – it’s an awful lot of pornographic books,” laughs Carver, a former academic of the Victorian period at the University of East Anglia.
The large stash of dirty books has posthumously made Spencer-Ashbee’s name.
When he died in 1900, he left his large collection of Cervantes’ first editions to the British Museum. However, the donation came with a caveat: to have the serious works of literature, the museum had to take his erotica, too.
The museum accepted, but hid his works away for years in the Private Case, a closed collection kept off the general shelves. Unsurprisingly, the porn has eclipsed his methodological and thorough studies of first editions of Don Quixote.
Despite the conventional strait-laced mores of polite Victorian society, Ashee was unsubtle in his raunchy collection. True, they were kept away from his family and published under the pen-name ‘Pisanus Fraxi’.
But it was not hard to figure out the author’s true identity. “He’s using quite a similar one to the one he used as a contributor to Notes and Queries, a gentlemen’s magazine. It’s a Latin play on his name,” points out Carver. “But it was only circulated in his inner circle.”
His reputation as the Victorian-era’s ‘pornographer royale’ has fuelled speculation that Ashbee is the mysterious ‘Walter’, the author of the sprawling, obsessive title ‘My Secret Life’.
Spanning eleven volumes and 4,000 pages, the 1888 memoir details the author’s numerous visits to London brothels and escapades with prostitutes.
But the theory doesn’t hold much water with Carver. He lists several reasons why he doesn’t think Walter and Ashbee are one and the same.
But ultimately, he says, “the dates just don’t match up.”
Surprisingly, for a man with a filthy book collection and often suspected of being behind a sex memoir, Ashbee was not as progressive as might be thought.
He rowed with his wife, who believed in universal suffrage about women getting the vote. He did not believe his three daughters should be well educated.
He disowned his son, the designer and architect Charles Robert Ashbee, for being gay, despite having gay associates himself.
He was once appalled at Charles turning up at his counting house wearing the unseemly outfit of a blazer and straw boater.
These paradoxes can lead people to think Spencer-Ashbee was a Jekyll and Hyde character: the scholar studying Cervantes by day, but a porno purveyor by night.
It’s an interpretation resisted by Carver. Ultimately the obsession cataloguing of porn was just as Victorian as the cataloguing of Cervantes.
“What you get with Ashbee is the drive and confidence of the Victorian mind turned towards its subject” he says. “Not only did he study porn – he studied it quite well!”
The 19th Century Underworld, published in October by Pen and Sword is an exploration of moral panics and the seedy underworld of Victorian society.