Written by Christine Shackell, NRO Research Blogger
On Saturday 11 October 1817, Robert Baker, a fifty-eight year old glover and breeches maker, left his home in Wells next the Sea, on the North Norfolk coast to collect debts owed to him. Donning his hat and coat against the autumn chill, he tucked his red leather wallet with its silver clasp into his pocket and bade farewell to his wife, saying he would return mid afternoon for a meal of hot steak pie. But he never returned.
The following day some children playing on the outskirts of Wells saw what they thought was a drunken tramp sleeping under a hedge. They threw stones at him but soon dispersed when they did not raise a response. It was not until Monday morning that Mr Dove, who was out searching for his donkey, realised that the body was a dead man, the missing Robert Baker. Mr Hew Rump, surgeon, later certified in Court that the back of Mr Baker’s skull had been severely fractured, causing his death. Searches in the vicinity of the body found Mr Baker’s hat, a coat and some broken sticks. His pocket book, which we would call a wallet, was never recovered. A hundred pound reward was offered for information leading to the apprehension of possible culprits who had been seen running away from the area where the body was found around the time of his death on Saturday afternoon.
The Trial of Johnson
Within a few days, James Johnson aged thirty years, was apprehended and held at Norwich Castle Gaol until his trial before Justice Dallas at Thetford Assizes the following March. William Hardiment and Benjamin Neale were also sought but had so far evaded capture. Witnesses at the trial described seeing two men on the edge of Wells where the body and articles were found. Later the men bought new clothes in the nearby town of Fakenham and lodged for the night in a public house there. Johnson protested his innocence and attempted to establish an alibi, but after a seven and half hour trial it only took the jury five minutes to find him guilty. Johnson confessed he had led a sinful life but continued to protest his innocence of this crime. He was hanged at Norwich Castle on 23 March 1818.
The Trial of Hardiment
Four years later, on 30 November 1821 the Hull Advertiser reported the capture of Johnson’s accomplice, William Hardiment at a lodging house in Beverley in Yorkshire. The unfortunate Hardiment was recognised by a fellow lodger who had formerly known him in prison and was presumably keen to claim the reward. Hardiment was described as “in the last stages of wretchedness” and was earning a living by selling religious tracts. He was committed to Norwich Castle Gaol and brought to trial the following March at Thetford Assizes. To assist the jurors a map was drawn up and presented at the trial, showing the roads, the route taken by Johnson and Hardiment, and where the body and objects were found. This map is now held at the Norfolk Record Office (NRO) in Norwich. The map shows the exact places where events occurred and can easily be matched with present day roads and landmarks such as Wells church.
Many witnesses were called to give evidence of sightings of the two men who had loitered on the outskirts of Wells on the road to Wighton, on the afternoon of the murder. The two men had drawn attention to themselves by begging for sustenance from two local houses. The witnesses believed Hardiment to be one of these men.
One stick was believed to belong to the victim, and the other, covered in blood and hair, was the murder weapon. The third stick found probably belonged to the accomplice.
Later the same day, two men were seen running quickly along the road close to where the body was found. Further witnesses identified Johnson and Hardiment in Fakenham that evening, staying at an Inn having bought clothes with pound notes assumed to be stolen from Mr Baker.
As with Johnson the jury found the evidence of the witnesses so compelling that they quickly found Hardiment guilty of the crime. There was only one possible sentence, death by hanging, which was duly carried out in Norwich Castle on 28 March 1822. Neale, who was also tried as an accomplice, was acquitted.
The Norfolk Chronicle dated 6 April 1822 related Hardiment’s last days and a little of his life history. He was born in 1791 in a cottage on the turnpike road near Wymondham. His only living relative was a sister who was insane and living in Wicklewood House of Industry. Hardiment had received no education and left home at the age of thirteen to enlist in the Marines. He served for twelve years taking part in battles of the Napoleonic Wars and the American Wars. He then served in the Kent Militia for five years. Hardiment never confessed to the murder but admitted he was present with Johnson on the day. The Chaplain frequently attempted to obtain a confession from him in the belief that this would be beneficial for his soul. The Chronicle’s account concluded that Hardiment had demonstrated his guilt by admitting he was with Johnson at the time, and by absconding. He submitted to his fate “with manly fortitude” before an immense crowd.
Hardiment’s body was given to the surgeons for dissection after his hanging and a death mask was made which now belongs to Norfolk Museums and can be seen here.
Robert Baker, the victim, was buried in Wells church on 15 October 1817 (NRO,
PD 679/27) and his tombstone can still be seen in the churchyard.
Norfolk Chronicle 21 March 1818
Norfolk Chronicle 6 April 1822
Age of Robert Baker from the parish burial register, October 15 1817.