William James Hardham was born in Wellington, New Zealand, on 31 July 1876, the son of George Hardham, a labourer, and his wife, Ann Gregory. After attending Mount Cook School, Hardham became a blacksmith. He was a talented rugby player, about five feet nine inches tall, weighing 12 stone, a 'fast dashing forward, full of go from kick-off to cease play'. In 1897 he represented Wellington for the first time and began playing for Petone.
Hardham began his military career in the 1890s. In 1895 he enrolled in the Wellington Naval Artillery Volunteers, and in late 1896 transferred to the Petone Naval Artillery Volunteers. In March 1900 he enlisted as a farrier sergeant in the Fourth (Rough Riders) Contingent. He arrived in South Africa in May and saw a considerable amount of action. Near Naauwpoort in Transvaal, on 28 January 1901, a section of New Zealanders including Hardham was suddenly ambushed by a Boer force. As the New Zealanders began to withdraw, Private John McRae was wounded and his horse killed. Hardham, under heavy fire, at once went to his assistance. He placed McRae on his own horse, and ran alongside until he had guided him to safety. For this act of conspicuous bravery Hardham was awarded the Victoria Cross in October 1901; he was the only New Zealander so honoured in the South African War.
The following year Hardham served as a lieutenant in the Ninth New Zealand Contingent and in the force which represented New Zealand at the coronation of King Edward VII. In London, on 1 July 1902, he was presented with his Victoria Cross.
After he returned to New Zealand Hardham continued to play rugby for Petone and Wellington for some years and became heavily involved in rugby administration. He served on the management committee of the Wellington Rugby Football Union from 1908 to 1914, 1921 to 1925 and in 1927, and became a life member of the union. He is remembered in a senior club trophy, the Hardham Cup.
Hardham saw further military service in the First World War. In August 1914 he was appointed a captain in the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment, part of the New Zealand force sent to the Middle East. He was severely wounded at Gallipoli on 30 May 1915; a comrade who came to his aid was fatally wounded. While convalescing in Wellington, Hardham married Constance Evelyn Parsonson on 11 March 1916; they were to have no children. Between June 1916 and September 1917 he was commandant of Queen Mary Hospital at Hanmer Springs. He was determined to return to active service and, after securing the necessary medical clearance, served with the Wellington Mounted Rifles in Palestine between April and October 1918. On 15 May 1918 he was promoted to major.
After contracting malaria, Hardham was invalided back to New Zealand in January 1919. Because of the effects of his wound and illness he could not resume working as a blacksmith, and had to find less physically demanding employment with the Dominion newspaper and, later, the Public Works Department. During the difficult years following the war Hardham worked conscientiously to promote the interests of returned soldiers. He was closely associated with the Wellington Returned Soldiers' Association, and was for a time the club manager. As a member of the Wellington Citizens' War Memorial Committee he helped organise the annual Anzac Day celebrations.
On 13 April 1928 William Hardham died at his home in Wellington; he was survived by his wife. William Hardham was a quiet, modest man: initially, he was reluctant to wear his Victoria Cross on official occasions. He was a popular and much respected soldier and sportsman who put service to others before self-interest. It was said of him that his 'ideals were high, his work splendid, and although he has crossed the last goal line his spirit still lives.'