Breach of Confidence

Breach of Confidence

Social Origins and Modern Developments

Megan Richardson, Michael Bryan, Martin Vranken and Katy Barnett

This concise yet detailed book explores the historical foundations and modern developments of the ancient doctrine of breach of confidence. The authors show that despite its humble beginnings, stilted development and air of quaintness the doctrine has modern relevance and influence, its sense of ‘trust and confidence’ still resonating with the information society of today. Topical chapters include, ‘Inventing an equitable doctrine’, ‘Privacy and publicity in early Victorian Britain’, ‘Searching for balance in the employment relationship’, as well as many others.

Chapter 3: Privacy and Publicity in Early Victorian Britain

Megan Richardson, Michael Bryan, Martin Vranken and Katy Barnett

Subjects: law - academic, information and media law, intellectual property law


If Abernethy v Hutchinson,1 discussed in the previous chapter, was an unusual breach of confidence case compared to other cases decided in the early nineteenth century, Prince Albert v Strange,2 decided in 1849, was a remarkable case for the middle of the century. Neither of these cases involved the older scenarios of valuable secrets exploited in traditional occupations dominated by tight-knit social communities. Rather they reflected individuals’ concerns to retain a sphere of personal control over information of a private and professional character in a complex urbanized society. At the same time, the commercial and broader social value of the information was not forgotten. In both cases, the plaintiffs were aware of the prospects that they may wish themselves to make their information public at some stage – and they argued that the defendants’ actions imperilled their freedom to do so on their own terms. Indeed, there were elements of privacy and publicity concerns in both Abernethy v Hutchinson and Prince Albert v Strange. In Abernethy’s case, it may be recalled, a famous surgeon and popular lecturer at St Bartholomew’s Hospital objecting to The Lancet’s publication of his lectures given to ‘persons desirous of acquiring a knowledge of surgery’ on the basis that the defendants had no authority ‘to print or publish the said lectures’.3 But the plaintiff also intimated that publication of the lectures was his right to be exercised as and when he chose,4 making plain that he intended to capitalize on his knowledge and reputation...

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