In Britain the term ‘obscenity’ has enjoyed a chequered career. Obscene libel first became an offence in 1727 when an erotic book called Venus in the Cloister was found to contravene common law by tending to ‘weaken the bonds of civil society, virtue and morality’ (Robertson 1991, p. 180). Despite this, erotic literature remained freely available throughout the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century Britain got its first Obscene Publications Act. This came in 1857 and gave the police power to take books before local Justices who could order their forfeiture and destruction.