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Ancient copy of ‘most famous banned book in the country’ unearthed

Posted on 14/01/2019 in Press Coverage

A copy of one of the most prosecuted and banned books in history – regarded as the first English pornographic prose – has been unearthed.

Memoirs of the Life of Miss Fanny Hill, The Career of A Woman of Pleasure, London, by John Cleland, was first published in 1749.

A copy dating back to circa 1880 was found by chance by Jim Spencer, antiquarian books expert at Hansons Auctioneers and will be sold at its saleroom, at Etwall, near Derby, on January 22.

He said: “I came across it while I was cataloguing a box of cigarette cards. It was one of the most prosecuted and banned books in history, the first English pornographic prose.

“It even contains a 1960s newspaper article about police raids at a firm which had just published thousands of new copies of the book. So, clearly, it was still banned in the UK in the 1960s.


“It was originally written around 270 years ago while the author was in a debtors' prison.”

The newspaper cutting unearthed with the book describes how around 20,000 copies were seized by police, sparking a warning from Scotland Yard that booksellers risked prosecution under the 1959 Obscene Publications Act if they sold it.

The story of a country girl from a village near Liverpool who goes to London and becomes a prostitute was reprinted in the 1960s by a Manchester firm.

Published by Mayflower books, it was due to go on book stalls priced 3s 6d. However, on the order of the Director of Public Prosecutions, Scotland Yard successfully applied to Bow Street Court to seize the book.

According to the newspaper cutting, plain clothes officers confiscated all copies – around 20,000 – which filled three police vans. Mr Gareth Powell, who was then the joint managing director of Mayflower Books, told the press the book was ‘the most famous banned book in the country’. However, he felt the climate had changed sufficiently and ‘the public are ready for it’.


John Cleland, who sold the story for £21 in 1748, was summoned before the Privy Council for licentiousness when it was published in 1749. He escaped punishment by pleading poverty.

Seven years later, a bookseller was put in pillory for publishing it and, also in the 1960s, a judge banned the book in New York. However, the New York Supreme Court later ruled it was not obscene.

Mr Spencer said: “They called it the Swinging 60s but clearly erotic literature like this was viewed as too obscene to be seen by the masses half a century ago.

“These days, after the likes of Fifty Shades of Grey, it’s probably viewed as rather tame. It demonstrates just how much times have changed.”

One extract from the book reads: “He was exceedingly fond of female society, but on such occasion was continually labouring under the delusion that he was only a school boy.

“He was delighted when he could find a lady who could prevail on herself to humour this conceit, and if for some imaginary fault the fair one would condescend to feign anger, even to the extent of administering the chastisement generally bestowed on erring school boys, his delight was unbounded, and he would pay the most extravagant sums to those who had the complaisance to submit to this strange humour.”

The gentleman is described as follows: “He as exceedingly fair and smooth complexioned and appeared to me no more than 20… he has a short squab stature and a round, plump, fresh coloured face… his light brown hair was pretty thick, uncurled and looked as if it had been trimmed with a bowl dish … I had heard of others with similar inclination, but they were in general men whose nerves had been shattered and enfeebled by age and dissipation.”

The book has an estimate of £40-£60 because its condition is not perfect but Mr Spencer said that was unlikely to deter keen collectors.

He said: “I have put a modest estimate on this book but the novelty factor could make it highly sought after. Last year, a Georgian sex manual from 1720 sold for £3,100 from an estimate of £80-£120.”

Memoirs of the Life of Miss Fanny Hill, The Career of A Woman of Pleasure will be sold at Hansons Auctioneers, Heage Lane, Etwall, Derbyshire, on January 22. To find out more, email [email protected]. Entries are currently invited until March 8 for Hansons’ Library Auction on April 1.