A sixteen year old youth who killed a colleague after workplace bullying got out of hand was sentenced to death in 1886, but he was reprieved after a public outcry.
Towards the end of the previous year Michael Lavelle took a job as a sawyer's assistant at Barton's timber yard in Byrom Street. On the 1st of February 1886 as he was leaving work around 5pm he spoke with another youth named William Roberts and then asked 42 year old Maxwell Kirkpatrick how long he had been there.
When Lavelle started playing with a steam whistle on a boiler Kirkpatrick told him to leave it alone and some words were exchanged, although nobody heard what was said. Lavelle then went off on his own way and Kirkpatrick and Roberts headed home, going along Richmond Row and Everton Brow.
Unknown to the pair Lavelle had followed them, even though he lived in the opposite direction in Addison Street. Lavelle called out to them and when they turned round, saw him holding a roller which was used in the timber yard. He then struck Kirkpatrick on the head with it and ran off down Watmough Street.
Kirkpatrick was knocked unconscious by the blow but came round after about five minutes and continued his journey home. With blood flowing out of his ear a doctor was called and attended to him all night, during which he lost consciousness and died around 10am the following morning.
Lavelle had been apprehended at home during the course of the night due to the seriousness of Kirkpatrick's condition. He admitted at once what he had done and said that he threw the roller into a cellar in Bute Street, from where police recovered it.
During the opening speeches for Lavelle's trial on 15th February, the prosecution acknowledged that there had been some provocation from Kirkpatrick, in that he had spent part of the previous week throwing chips at him and using language designed to cause upset. It was pointed out though that Lavelle had responded at the workplace, throwing a roller at Kirkpatrick's legs.
William Roberts gave evidence to the effect that that Kirkpatrick was bullying Lavelle, who was employed as his 'puller off.' John Brown, an ex employee who left a month before the killing, said he had seen Lavelle have chips thrown at him and get called an 'Irish pig.' He had also heard the teenager threaten revenge, saying 'I'll be hung for him' and 'his time will be short.' Other workers referred to Lavelle and quiet and inoffensive, including Mr Tickle who owned the yard.
The surgeon who carried out the post mortem told the court that death had been caused by compression of the brain caused by a fracture of the skull. Under cross examination, he said the roller would not have had to be thrown with such great force to cause this injury. The police officers who arrested and charge Lavelle said he was sober at the time and admitted the deed, saying that life had been hell for him.
After Lavelle's statement regarding the bullying was read to the court his defence counsel said that he had been exasperated by his ill treatment and could not have realised that the weapon he used could have caused a fatal blow. Concluding that there was no murderous intent he called for the jury to return a verdict of manslaughter.
In summing up, Mr Justice Day said it was 'very painful to see a lad of the prisoners age placed in the position he occupied.' However he added that a manslaughter verdict due to provocation was only appropriate if he had the weapon in his hand at the time he was offended by Kirkpatrick. In this case, there was no evidence of any provocation on the day so if the intention on throwing the roller was to cause grievous bodily harm, then Lavelle was guilty of murder no matter how painful it may be to find that verdict.
After half an hours deliberation the jury returned a verdict of guilty causing Lavelle, who had been crying bitterly throughout the trial, to shout 'I did not mean to kill that man.' Justice Day did not give much hope of mercy during the sentencing, saying 'Do not be unduly buoyed by the kind recommendation of mercy which I shall forward to the authorities. The prerogative of mercy rests with the Crown and it would be an intrusion on my part were I to express any opinion.'
There was outrage at the sentence with local papers being deluged by letters and a Liverpool Mercury editorial said that 'judge and jury are governed by a imperiously antiquated code.' A week later the sentence was commuted by the Home Secretary to life imprisonment.