Murder on a Rochester barge

By Gerald Hinks

Albert Baker and Walter “Ginger” Smith were close friends. They were both born in Strood. They went to the same school. And they were both watermen.

But it was some years before they sailed on the same barge: Baker as skipper of the East Anglia, owned by London and Rochester Trading Company, and Smith as his mate. That first fateful trip together in October 1937 was to be their last.

Albert Baker: shot dead by his friend

Baker was to die in his cabin from three bullet wounds. Smith was to die at the end of the hangman’s rope in Norwich Prison.

On the face of it they were unlikely friends. Albert Baker was a cheerful, extrovert character. Walter Smith was apt to be morose and withdrawn.

Baker, who was 28, came from a well-known river-going family in Strood. He was separated from his wife and living with his parents and a married sister in Gordon Road. He had one remarkable distinction: he might have been a film star.

When Leslie Fuller made the film Captain Bill on the Medway three years before, Baker was chosen to play the leader of a gang of smugglers. He was so good in the part that he was offered the chance of a film career. But he chose to stay a bargeman.

Walter Smith was 33. His background was far less colourful. His mother had suffered from epileptic fits. His father had been an alcoholic. And his aunt had died in an asylum.

Walter Smith: hanged for murder

Nevertheless, this curiously contrasting pair were said to be as close as brothers. Certainly there was no hint of impending tragedy when the East Anglia, with a cargo of barley, berthed at. Felixstowe on Thursday, 21 October. Baker and Smith, who were the only crew, were last seen together drinking in the quayside Pier Hotel at midday on the Friday. They returned to the barge in the afternoon.

Baker was not seen alive again. His body was discovered on a bunk in his cabin by dockhands the following morning. He had been shot three times: in the left temple and twice in the chest.

Near the body was a single-loading, long-barrelled pistol. His empty wallet was found under a pillow. Smith was picked up by police that evening in the nearby British Lion pub. He showed no emotion when he was told his friend was dead. He asked to finish his drink. Then he was driven to a police station.

Smith demolished any doubt about his guilt by instantly trapping himself. “You say he was shot dead,” he told police officers. But they had not told him how Baker had died. Smith made a statement that evening in which he said he had last seen Baker alive the previous afternoon quarrelling with a woman known as Scottie. But he had bungled again if he aimed to switch suspicion to Baker’s girlfriend. For she was in London all that weekend — and she could prove it.

The next morning, Sunday, Smith made another statement. It was even more preposterous than the first. This time his story was that he and Baker had got themselves drunk in the pub on the Friday afternoon. When they returned to the barge they quarrelled. Baker had a gun and in a struggle it went off.

But Baker had been shot three times. And the pistol, which had been given to the skipper by his brother a few months before, had to be reloaded for every shot. And there had been no sign of a struggle in the cabin. Altogether Smith was a remarkably naive killer if he wanted to cover his tracks.

He had even worn the dead man’s suit and produced a bloodstained scarf during a pub crawl on the Friday evening. And he had been throwing money about like confetti. Everyone around was treated to drinks. How had Smith suddenly got hold of so much money?

The police came to the obvious conclusion that it had been stolen from Baker’s wallet. Smith might almost have had a death wish. The charge of murder against him was a mere formality. And at the three-day trial at Ipswich Assizes, his counsel, HR Boileau, made no serious attempt to deny that Smith had fired the shots.

Instead, he claimed that Smith was suffering from a form of alcoholic insanity. Mr Boileau asked Smith in the witness stand: “Do you recollect at all firing that pistol?” Smith replied: “I really can’t. The more I think the further I get behind.”

Smith’s sister, Mrs Beatrice Rix of Rochester, said when he had one of his drinking bouts he did not know what he was doing for two or three days afterwards.

The defence also had a surprise witness: Police Inspector Bevan of Maidstone. He told how Smith, in a drunken state, came into a police station seven years before and handing over I a carving knife said he had just killed a man by stabbing him in the back. But Smith was lying. And the grandest charge he faced was stealing one carving knife.

The defence was skilfully constructing a picture of an unstable man. Their next witness was Dr Cannon of Uxbridge, who specialised in drunks and was jointly in charge of a group of mental homes.

Asked to describe Smith’s condition, Dr Cannon told the hushed court: “I did not find he was certifiably insane but in my opinion he was definitely of a sub-normal mentality.” Mr Boileau asked: “Having regard to his mental condition is he more likely to suffer from mental disorder, if an alcoholic, than an ordinary human being?” The doctor replied: “Yes, from alcoholic insanity.” The defence also called another doctor who said Smith’s condition was consistent with acute alcoholism.

Smith’s case was definitely shaping well. But the prosecution was allowed to call additional medical evidence. The doctor at Norwich Prison said he had kept a watch on Smith from 25 October until 4 December. He could find no evidence whatever of mental deficiency or insanity.

Dr Grierson, senior medical officer at Brixton Prison, was next into the witness box. He said a characteristic of the mania was wild fury or frenzy lasting perhaps two hours or more. In that condition an individual might commit acts of violence and have no memory of them afterwards.

His evidence seemed to support the defence. But then the judge, Mr Justice Singleton, asked Dr Grierson a crucial question. The judge asked: “Suppose there was an interval of a few moments between the firing of the first and second shots; in your view does that point to a wild frenzy or fury?” Dr Grierson answered: “No, it does not. The curious thing is the time taken in the complicated action of loading and unloading this pistol.” That answer was to send Smith to the gallows.

The jury took 40 minutes to reach a guilty verdict. Smith flinched slightly when the verdict was announced but remained calm. Asked if he had anything to say, he shook his head.

In passing the death sentence, the Judge commented: “After everything that could be said on your behalf has been said, the jury have convicted you on the evidence, and rightly so.” Smith appealed against the verdict. His counsel argued that the judge wrongly told the court that they could presume intent because the pistol was fired when he should have explained that it was for the prosecution clearly to establish the intent and give the accused the benefit of the doubt.

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Hewart, who sat with Justices Charles and Goddard, said that the law was that the defence of insanity must be clearly proved. The appeal was dismissed. Again Smith accepted the decision without apparent emotion. A fortnight later, on 8 March, Smith was hanged in Norwich Prison.

In a letter he had written from prison to a friend in the Medway towns, Smith said: “I don’t know what came over me to do a thing like that. There must have been a terrible row and I must have gone off my head.” But how could a man in a drunken rage have gone to the trouble of loading that pistol three times?

That question will never be answered.

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