The Dawes Bequest of erotica: so sensitive, it had to be smuggled in at dawn
The Private Case is the British Library’s historic collection of erotica. Comprising ‘obscene’ books that were historically set aside from the main collection, its contents tell us much about past attitudes towards sex and sexuality. This is the main reason why the British Library has just completed a project to digitise the entire collection. Within the Private Case we can see the hands of several private collectors at work, among them Charles Reginald Dawes. But who was Mr Dawes?
Bibliographers of erotica have struggled to establish the facts about Mr Dawes. The son of an iron broker born in Worcestershire in 1879, Dawes spent most of his adult life living initially in central London and later in the Gloucestershire village of Gotherington. The Dawes family were independently wealthy, but in the 1911 census Charles lists himself as ‘author’. This is curious as his name is associated with just two publications. Patrick J. Kearney raises the possibility that he may in fact have made a living from writing erotic stories under a nom de plume.
Dawes had a reputation as a discerning book collector. At his death in 1964, his library of erotica was left to the British Museum library (now the British Library). Peter Fryer tells us that the bequest was collected overnight and ‘carried reverently’ into the museum at six o’clock one summer morning’. 246 of these works can today be found in the Private Case. This was not the entirety of his erotica: Dawes also left 100 ‘books of his choice’ to his personal secretary, Antony John Gordon-Hill, who sold some privately and others at Sotheby’s on 12 April 1965. Further manuscript volumes are now lost.
The Dawes volumes in the Private Case are all in either English or French. Many are illustrated with erotic plates, some of which have been added post-publication (as with the Livre d’Amour des Anciens, 1912). Highlights include:
• four editions of John Cleland’s mid-18th century work Fanny Hill, considered the first pornographic novel in English;
• the first edition of the Memoirs of Dolly Morton (1899), recounting the erotic adventures of a fictional Quaker woman in the American South;
• five editions of works by the Marquis de Sade (unsurprising given that the Marquis was the subject of Dawes’s own publication of 1927);
• and a 1906 edition of Teleny, one of the earliest published works of gay erotic fiction, often attributed to Oscar Wilde.
For many bibliographers, the most significant item is Dawes’s copy of My Secret Life. This purports to record the sexual exploits of a Victorian gentleman called ‘Walter’, and is widely thought to be by another erotic bibliographer, Henry Spencer Ashbee (1834–1900). This eleven-volume first edition, probably issued 1889–95, is thought to be just one of 25 copies produced.
Private Case items are listed in the library’s online catalogue Explore the British Library. The Dawes Bequest is shelfmarked P.C.13.a.1 to P.C.13.h.19, and volumes can be consulted in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room. The collaboration with Gale Cengage means that they can also be viewed online via the newly-released Archives of Sexuality and Gender: Part III. This subscription resource is available at many larger research libraries and can be accessed for free in the reading rooms of the British Library.
Head of Printed Heritage Collections
Paul J. Cross, ‘The Private Case: a History’, in P.R. Harris (ed.), The Library of the British Museum: Retrospective Essays (London: British Library, 1991), pp.201-40.
Peter Fryer, Private Case – Public Scandal (London: Secker & Warburg, 1966).
Patrick J. Kearney, The Erotic Library of Charles Reginald Dawes (Santa Rosa, Calif.: Scissors & Paste Bibliographies, 2016).
Patrick J. Kearney, The Private Case: an Annotated Bibliography of the Private Case Erotica Collection in the British (Museum) Library (London: Jay Landesman, 1981).