Hartley v Ponsonby – Case Summary

Hartley v Ponsonby

High Court

Citations: (1857) 7 Ellis and Blackburn 872; 119 ER 1471.


The defendant’s vessel suffered a desertion of many of its crew before its voyage was complete. There was so few crew remaining that it was no longer safe or reasonable to complete the voyage. However, the defendant could not find replacement sailors. To convince the remaining crew to stay, the defendant offered to pay them a bonus. The remaining sailors agreed, and completed the voyage. The defendant then refused to pay the bonus.

The sailors sued for breach of contract. The defendant argued that there was no contract between them relating to the bonus.

  1. Did the sailors provide good consideration for the promise of a bonus?

The Court held in favour of the sailors. Since it was no longer safe or reasonable to perform the contract, the sailors had provided good consideration by agreeing to proceed anyway.

This Case is Authority For…

There are two ways of interpreting this case:

  1. The sailors were bound by contract to perform, but went above and beyond their existing duties by continuing even though it was not safe. The fact that they went beyond their existing duties provided good consideration;
  2. The original contract was frustrated by the desertion of the other sailors. The sailors were therefore not bound to complete the voyage at all. Their promise to continue the job was therefore good consideration because it was not a promise to do something they were already bound to do.

The best interpretation is probably the second. It matches the reasoning of Lord Campbell CJ, who stated that because the job was now dangerous ‘it was not incumbent on the [sailor] to perform the work; and he was in the condition of a free man’. Erle J similarly described the sailors as ‘not being bound to go on’.