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In early June 1833 Michael Faley landed in Liverpool from Ireland.[1] He was there amongst the thousands of Irish workers who came over to Britain every summer for seasonal work on the farms. Many went to Staffordshire, a convenient destination from Liverpool where there was plenty of work. Michael Faley’s trip was a bit different, however, because he wasn’t alone – he was accompanied by 85 pigs. He was one of the many people engaged in the export of farm animals from Ireland to Britain during the nineteenth century, a key aspect of the economic interdependence of Britain and Ireland that remains to this day.

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Pig drovers and their problems. Picture from tywkiwdbi.blogspot.co.uk/2015/05/hog-driving.html

Faley owned the pigs with a partner in Ireland and had brought them to sell in Staffordshire. The partner, it seems, did not accompany him and Faley was left alone to drive the animals out of Liverpool and 60 miles along the roads to Staffordshire.  Keeping 85 pigs together and going in the right direction was a task beyond any one man and in Liverpool Faley hired a 19-year old Irish youth, John Reynolds, to help him. Setting out around 5-6 June 1833, the two men made good progress and four days later they got to Aston on the main road between Stone and Stafford (today’s A34). A bit farther on they passed the Crown Inn which lay in an isolated spot on the road south of Aston and there Faley managed to sell a number of pigs to the landlord, a Mr Taverner. He received £5 7s 6d for them.[2]

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The Crown Inn, Aston, today – still an isolated spot on the road. The Inn closed in 2007.

Michael Faley was now a man carrying a significant amount of cash and once they had set out again on the way to Stafford the temptation proved too much for John Reynolds. A mile down the road he viciously assaulted Faley, rendering him senseless with a blow from a large paving stone. He robbed him of his money – between £9 and £10 it was said – and legged it back down the road to Stone. There he stayed at the Antelope Inn and booked a ticket on the stage coach to Liverpool. Meanwhile poor Laley had been found badly injured at the roadside. He was taken by cart to Stafford Infirmary where he was described as ‘alive but in great danger.’[3] News of the attack spread rapidly round the district and the Irishman at the Antelope in Stone with money to spend – John Reynolds – was quickly seen as the likely culprit. He was arrested and taken down to Stafford where Laley did indeed identify him as his attacker.

Reynolds was committed for trial at the Stafford Summer Assizes on the charge of assault and robbery of Michael Faley. The machinery of British justice then ground remorselessly towards a tragic end for this young Irishman. At the time of his arrest he had been described as ‘having a very senseless countenance’ and in those days such a person, particularly an Irishman, would receive little understanding or consideration from the authorities. No lawyer represented him at the trial – he was left to fend for himself. His only reported argument was that Laley had refused to pay his wages. That cut no ice with either jury or judge. He was quickly found guilty and sentenced to death.

Reynolds’s situation clearly roused the sympathy and concern of other Irish people in the area. Michael Faley himself begged the judge to show mercy, a plea that fell on deaf ears. Father Edward Huddleston, Stafford’s Catholic priest, was ‘most assiduous in his attention to him’ and reported that Reynolds ‘evinces every mark of sincere contrition’. Huddleston made ‘exertions’ for his reprieve but again with no success. On 10 August 1833 the crowds gathered outside Stafford Gaol to witness John Reynolds’s execution.[4]  Amongst them ‘were a great number of Irish reapers who, before the fatal bolt was drawn, fell on their knees and appeared to offer supplications on behalf of their wretched countryman’.[5] Father Huddleston attended Reynolds on the scaffold and said that he ‘died very penitent’.[6] The fact that many Irish harvesters came to Stafford to demonstrate their feelings for their countryman shows how much communication there was amongst the seasonal migrants as well as their willingness to act together.

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Where John Reynolds met his end.The portable gallows used for executions outside Stafford Gaol between 1817 and 1868. Picture from Dave Lewis, web-site, William Palmer: the Infamous Rugeley Poisoner, staffscc.net/wppalmer/?page_id=213

John Reynolds’s fate was doubly unlucky. Had he carried out his robbery just a few years later he would have escaped the gallows because the number of crimes carrying the death penalty was drastically reduced during the 1830s. The last execution for robbery took place in 1836 and Reynolds was, indeed, the last person to be executed in Staffordshire for a crime other than murder.[7] In the same year the Prisoner’s Counsel Act ensured that those accused of serious crimes would receive legal representation in court, something denied to Reynolds.

History does not record what happened to Michael Laley or his pigs, though the latter were ‘preserved’ by the constables immediately after the assault. The case lifts a veil, however, on the agricultural links between Ireland and Britain, on the types of people who worked on them and the circumstances under which they worked. The coming of the railways gradually spelt the end for long-distance droving like that done by Michael Laley on the road from Liverpool to Staffordshire. The sound of Irish farm labourers tramping the roads of the county would nevertheless continue for decades beyond the 1830s.

[1] His surname was consistently spelt thus in the reports. It may, of course, have been a phonetic version of Feeley based on how he pronounced it.

[2] There is conflict on how much Faley received from Taverner since the Staffordshire Advertiser quoted £9 in its first report on 15 June 1833 but the lower sum in its court report on 3 August 1833. The latter is presumably more reliable.

[3] SA, 15 June 1833.

[4] SA, 10 August 1833.

[5] SA, 17 August 1833.

[6] Ibid.

[7] A.J. Standley, Stafford Prison, 1793-1916, (1996), Unpublished typescript, William Salt Library, Stafford.