Lumley v. Wagner

1 De GM & G 604, 42 Eng. Rep. 687 (1852)

Quick Summary

Benjamin Lumley (plaintiff) and Johanna Wagner (defendant) were involved in a legal dispute after Wagner breached an exclusive performance contract with Lumley’s theatre by agreeing to perform at Covent Garden Theatre. Lumley sought an injunction to prevent Wagner from performing elsewhere.

The issue was whether an injunction could be issued against Wagner to honor the negative aspect of her contract. The Lord Chancellor’s Court ruled in favor of Lumley, upholding the injunction that prevented Wagner from performing at any other venue during her contract term with Lumley.

Facts of the Case

Benjamin Lumley (plaintiff), the lessee of Her Majesty’s Theatre, entered into a contract with Johanna Wagner (defendant), a renowned singer, who agreed to perform exclusively at his theatre for three months starting from April 1, 1852.

The agreement included specific roles that Wagner would perform and stipulated a salary of £400 per month. An additional clause stated that Wagner could not perform elsewhere without Lumley’s written consent.

Lumley’s rival, Frederick Gye (defendant), the lessee of Covent Garden Theatre, offered Wagner a more lucrative deal, inducing her to abandon her contract with Lumley and perform at Covent Garden instead. Lumley, aware of this breach of contract, filed a lawsuit to prevent Wagner from performing at any other venue without his permission.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. Lumley filed a bill against Wagner, her father Albert Wagner, and Frederick Gye to enforce the negative stipulation in the contract that prevented Wagner from performing elsewhere.
  2. The trial court granted Lumley’s request for an injunction to restrain Wagner from singing at other venues.
  3. Wagner appealed the trial court’s decision, arguing that the injunction was equivalent to enforcing specific performance, which was beyond the court’s authority.

I.R.A.C. Format


Whether a court can issue an injunction to prevent an individual from performing an act she has contracted not to do, particularly when the court cannot compel specific performance of the contract.

Rule of Law

An agreement containing both positive and negative stipulations is effectively one contract, and a court can intervene to prevent the violation of the negative stipulation even if it cannot enforce specific performance of the entire contract.

Reasoning and Analysis

The Lord Chancellor concluded that Johanna Wagner’s agreement to perform exclusively for Lumley’s theatre and not sing elsewhere was effectively one contract. The negative stipulation, which prohibited Wagner from performing at other venues, was integral to the contract’s purpose and supported the primary obligation to perform at Lumley’s theatre.

The court reasoned that preventing Wagner from singing elsewhere would not compel her to perform at Lumley’s theatre but would hold her to her contractual promise not to perform at competing venues.

The court also emphasized the importance of upholding contractual obligations and indicated that equity courts have a duty to ensure parties are held to the true spirit and meaning of their agreements. By granting the injunction, the court aimed to prevent Wagner from breaching her contract and potentially fulfilling her engagement with Lumley.


The Lord Chancellor’s Court dismissed the appeal and upheld the trial court’s injunction, thereby preventing Johanna Wagner from performing at Covent Garden or any other venue without Benjamin Lumley’s written permission during the term of her contract with him.

Key Takeaways

  1. A court can enforce a negative covenant in a contract by issuing an injunction even if it cannot enforce specific performance of the entire contract.
  2. The enforcement of negative stipulations in contracts is essential to uphold the integrity of contractual agreements and maintain good faith in commercial dealings.
  3. The decision demonstrates that equity courts play a vital role in ensuring parties adhere to the true spirit and meaning of their contractual obligations.

Relevant FAQs of this case

How does the court enforce affirmative versus negative contract stipulations?

Courts often struggle to enforce affirmative obligations but readily uphold negative stipulations, like agreements not to compete, using injunctive relief.

What's the primary purpose of an injunction when dealing with negative stipulations in contracts?

An injunction’s main role is to proactively prevent a party from violating a contract’s negative stipulations, ensuring compliance.

When can a negative stipulation be considered unreasonable or against public policy?

A negative stipulation might be deemed unreasonable or against public policy if it excessively restricts a party’s lawful activities.

  • For example: A 50-year worldwide ban on a singer’s performances could be considered unreasonable.
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