Geoffrey Baker (known as Spyke) was born in Eastbourne, East Sussex in 1955 and grew up in the town. He attended Roselands Infant School, Stafford County Primary School and Cavendish Secondary Modern School. Apart from an ancestor who is said to have been one of Eastbourne’s first policemen, there is no known family connection with the law.
It was a visit to an Eastbourne careers fair at age 13 that inspired Mr Baker to become a solicitor. “I had no idea what I wanted to be,” he says, “so I looked around at what was available and went to the stall that was manned by the Law Society of Eastbourne. I had a chat with them, they were enthusiastic and explained the work of a solicitor as involving helping people in many difficult situations. This appealed to me and from that moment on I was determined to join the profession.”
After Cavendish Secondary Modern School Mr Baker studied A-levels at the Eastbourne College of Further Education. “There was a chap there who taught me law called John Williams,” he recalls. “He was the best lecturer I ever had, and encouraged me to carry on with my ambition to become a solicitor. I shall always be grateful to him for encouraging me in the way that he did and I still meet up with him from time to time. Coincidentally, he is the father of Mark Williams, a partner in Gaby Hardwicke. In fact Mark became a partner on the day that I retired. So there’s a sort of continuation.”
After college Mr Baker moved on to study a law degree at Kingston Polytechnic and then continued his studies at the College of Law, Chester. Whilst at law school he applied for an articled clerkship at Gaby Hardwicke, after seeing an advert in the Law Society Gazette. He was successfully interviewed and offered the position.
Joins Gaby Hardwicke
On 12 February 1979 Mr Baker joined Gaby Hardwicke as a clerk and six months later began his articles of clerkship after passing the Law Society final examinations. “One of the great things about Gaby Hardwicke at the time was that they were used to having articled clerks,” he recalls. “So many firms had adopted a policy of not having them, but the partners at Gaby’s took the view that there was a responsibility for ensuring a continuation of the profession.
“All the partners and staff at the firm welcomed me with open arms, but even so I found it a bit intimidating. The senior partners were proper old-fashioned gentlemen who carried themselves with a certain bearing and it shook me down a bit I suppose.
“Senior Partner George Herbert was my principal: they were the people who looked after the articled clerks and to whom one was attached. I remember I turned up on the first day at the firm full of information and knowledge that I’d gained through my degree and at law school, and I thought I knew all about the law. Then Mr Herbert said, ‘Good morning, Geoffrey. I’d like you to draw up a change of name deed.’ I’d never heard of a change of name deed – you don’t actually get taught that sort of thing either at degree level or law school – and I was completely flummoxed. So I looked it up, learnt how to do it and did it. But it made me appreciate that, although I’d been learning the law for a good number of years, there was always going to be an awful lot more to learn.”
After qualifying as a solicitor, Mr Baker dealt primarily with criminal law, and latterly with family law and personal injury claims, but after the untimely death of George Herbert he took over much of Mr Herbert’s workload, which was chiefly private client based. Mr Baker became a partner in the firm in 1983 and was thus actively involved in the rapid expansion of Gaby Hardwicke that took place from the mid-1980s onwards.
“It’s been a phenomenal expansion,” he says, “it’s astonishing how the firm that I joined is the firm it is now. When I joined the firm we occupied three houses as offices in Eversley Road in Bexhill and the outpost at Cooden had only recently opened. Secretaries were still able to do shorthand, they used manual typewriters and it was all very old-fashioned. We provided an excellent service but on an old-fashioned basis.
“The innovations that have been made as a result of technology and the diversification into new areas of law have been exponential and a lot of the development occurred through mergers with other firms.
“All of the partners in the firm were significant and all of us played our role to the fullest of our capabilities, but I think one of the best decisions we ever made was that one partner should be given the job of managing the firm, leaving the other partners to deal with the clients and their cases. Peter Taylor was the ideal man for the job and it was through his efforts that the firm went from strength to strength. Had we not made that decision I doubt that we would have made so much progress, so quickly.”
As the firm expanded Mr Baker’s main area of work changed to residential conveyancing. While previously every lawyer had taken a hand in this work, the firm now launched a dedicated department, headed by him. “The idea was to specialise in conveyancing and provide a dedicated service to our clients,” he says. “We were one of the first firms who felt it was appropriate for that to happen. We could see that if a lawyer was dealing with other areas of the law, it was difficult for him or her to provide the necessary proactive, fast and specialised service to a large number of people who were moving house – and from a small seed a huge tree has grown.”
The small department started by Mr Baker has burgeoned into the impressive multi-office structure that today makes Gaby Hardwicke one of the leading firms in its territory for conveyancing.
In March 2005 Mr Baker retired from the Gaby Hardwicke partnership at the age of 50. “There was a gathering of all the staff and I can’t say that there wasn’t a tear in my eye,” he says. “When you retire you almost inevitably expect that there might be some sort of parting gift of a watch or clock or perhaps a decanter. Somewhat unusually the partners and staff of Gaby Hardwicke kindly presented me with something called a Johnny Seven Gun.”
The ‘Johnny Seven Gun’ was an expensive and much sought-after toy of the 1960s. As a young boy Mr Baker had dreamed of owning one but found that (no matter how hard he saved his pocket money) it was beyond his reach financially. “Some years before I retired I mentioned it to Gary Winterton, he managed to remember it and somehow they managed to get hold of one of these things,” he recalls. “I was delighted when I opened my retirement gift and found it wasn’t a clock but a Johnny Seven Gun. It now sits in a case on the wall of my study.
“I have to say that I was blessed, during my time at Gaby Hardwicke, with a great number of very helpful colleagues with whom I worked as a team.
“I was really lucky to have my career with the firm. I always felt that it was a firm with a good family spirit.”
In retirement Mr Baker leads a very active life. He practises and performs in choirs, plays the piano ('badly'), regularly attends pheasant shoots with his Springer Spaniel and is a self-confessed tennis addict – playing between three and five times a week. “Never a day goes by that isn’t full,” he says. “I’m very lucky indeed.”
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Key partners (pre-1945)
Key partners (post-1945)
- George Herbert
- Jethro Arscott
- John Midgley
- Peter Taylor
- Malcolm Walker
- Geoffrey Baker
- Michael Bugden
- John Gregory
- John Raeburn
- Bryan Sagar