Social Origins and Modern Developments
Chapter 3: Privacy and Publicity in Early Victorian Britain
3. Privacy and publicity in early Victorian Britain 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...
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