The Private Case is a historical collection comprising printed books segregated from the main British Museum library collection in the 1850s on grounds of obscenity.
About the collection
The Private Case is a collection of erotic printed books, transferred from the British Museum in 1973. Established in the 1850s, it contains material that was segregated from the main collection on grounds of obscenity. Its name derives from it being kept originally in lockable book cases. Today the Private Case contains about 2500 volumes but in the past it held up to 4000. The definition of obscenity has seen many changes since the mid-nineteenth-century and books have consequently moved in and out according to the social mores of the time.
Dating from the late seventeenth century through to the twentieth century, the collection consists mostly of erotic printed fiction and poetry, often with saucy engraved illustrations. It ranges from luxury limited editions of works by the Marquis de Sade to Victorian vulgar song books, ‘dirty books’ about flagellation and Soho typescripts that were sold under the counter in the 1950s and 60s.
The Private Case provides a unique insight into historic attitudes towards gender, sexuality and obscenity. Almost all of the Private Case erotica was produced by heterosexual men for heterosexual men.
No additions to the Private Case have been made since 1990 and there are no longer restrictions on its use.
- 40 early and rare editions of Fanny Hill or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1748) by John Cleland (1709–1789). This is considered to be the first pornographic novel written in the English language.
- Five rare or unique issues of Harris’s Lists of Covent-Garden Ladies – a pocketbook directory of female sex workers in Covent Garden, published yearly from 1757 to 1795.
- Teleny or The Reverse of the Medal (1893) - this is one of the earliest examples of gay erotic fiction in the English language. It was written anonymously but it is thought to have been by Oscar Wilde, potentially in collaboration with others.
- Books published by the Olympia Press in Paris. Launched in 1953, it published erotica that could not be issued without legal action in England. The Private Case contains Olympia Press editions of works by Marcus Van Heller, William Burroughs and Anne Cécile Desclos amongst others.
What is available online?
Catalogues and finding aids
The Private Case collection is fully catalogued on the British Library’s main online catalogue Explore the British Library.
More detailed records about the seventeenth and eighteenth century English material in The Private Case are given on The English Short Title Catalogue.
The Private Case has been digitised by Gale Cengage as part of their Archives of Sex and Gender resource. The database can be accessed for free onsite at the Library.
A Private Case book features on the British Library’s Discovering Literature webpages: Harris’s List of Covent-Garden Ladies: or Man of Pleasure’s Kalendar, for the year 1773. P.C.22.a.12-15.
What is available in our Reading Rooms?
Registered readers can request items from the Private Case collection to the Rare Books & Music Reading Room using Explore the British Library. Private Case copies are held at British Library shelfmarks beginning 'P.C.'
A small number of Private Case items are restricted from access due to their physical condition. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
What is available in other organisations?
The Private Case is similar in intent and purpose to the Enfer at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the Greek Delta collection at the Library of Congress and the Phi collection at the Bodleian Library.
The digitised Private Case collection can be accessed through other institutions with a subscription to Gale Cengage's database Archives of Sexuality & Gender.
- P J Cross, ‘The Private Case: a History’, in P R Harris (ed), The Library of the British Museum: Retrospective Essays (1991), pp. 201-40.
- Patrick J Kearney, 'The Private Case: an annotated bibliography of the Private Case Erotica Collection in the British (Museum) Library', London: J Landesman, 1981.