'He began at the bottom, rose to the top and lifted the whole industry with him'
Howard Wright looks back at the life and times of the bookmaking giant
First published on Sunday, October 16, 2011
The greatest bookmaker of his time, or any time; a leviathan: these and similar epithets perfectly fit William Hill. Yet the history of bookmaking will forever single out his greatest failure, as the biggest in the business who did not take up the potential of betting shops when legalisation arrived.
Hill was aware of the potential, because he had been closely involved in the parliamentary process leading to the Betting and Gaming Act 1960 and Betting Levy Act 1961, but he had his own reasons for ignoring it until economics forced his hand.
In the debate leading to legalisation and a levy for horseracing, Hill told a BBC interviewer: "If they amend the law to have betting shops, and I sincerely hope they do not, there will have to be some proper authority to approve the premises. You cannot have 'hole in the corner' dens."
In other interviews he described betting shops as "a cancer on society" and said he visualised their being responsible for a growing amount of misery, and in some cases broken homes, among working men attracted to bet beyond their means.
As a product of a working-class family – his father was a coach painter who was posted to the BSA (an engineering company) works in his native Birmingham during the first world war – Hill could have been reasonably expected to form his views from early memories.
LEGEND IN HIS OWN LIFETIME
Dates born July 16, 1903; died October 15, 1971, after heart attack in Rutland hotel, Newmarket, aged 68.
Modus operandi Pioneer in bookmaking; laid bigger bets more often than most on racecourse, standing on his judgement; had large telephone and postal business; was first into market with fixed-odds football betting, and first bookmaker to launch publicly-quoted company.
Best of times 1941-55, when he dominated the racecourse betting ring. SP reporter Geoffrey Hamlyn wrote: “Four- or even five-figure bets were nothing unusual, and he would stand horses in the ante-post races for £50,000 [equivalent to £2.4m today] or more, a lot of money in those days.”
Worst of times Mid-1960s, when refusal to move into betting shops after the 1961 Act cost company dearly and 25 per cent tax on fixed-odds football bets, imposed by chancellor Reginald Maudling in 1964, closed previously lucrative business.
What he said “So these were the big boys. I watched them and thought, ‘My god, I could beat you lot with one hand tied up behind me’.” Reminiscing about his first experience of working on the London racecourses, recalled in Bloodstock Breeders Review obituary.
“I would strongly deprecate giving one penny piece to a racehorse owner or breeder, or the shareholders of racecourse companies. If they cannot survive without the subsidy, they should get out of the business.” 1961, agreeing with the principle behind Peppiatt Committee’s recommendation for a levy on bookmakers, but not on where the money should be spent.
What they said about him “Few racing men would dispute that he was the greatest racecourse bookmaker of his time. He was the undisputed leader of the ring, which included some strong bookmaking personalities. I never saw a bookmaker to equal him. He could do double the business in half the time of any other layer you could care to name. It can be truthfully said he was a legend in his own lifetime.” Geoffrey Hamlyn.
Yet he had taken bets from his middle teens, when after briefly running away from home as a 12-year-old to work on his uncle's farm, he was sent by his father to work for a tool-making subsidiary of BSA, and more seriously from the age of 19, when he used a £500 gratuity on leaving the disbanded Royal Irish Constabulary to rent an SP office in Birmingham.
It seems there were commercial as well as moral factors behind his obstinate opposition.
Hill's youngest brother Joe Ward Hill – there were 13 in the family and William was the third-born – questioned the reasoning in a biography of his brother, a curiously cursory and often dispassionate account that probably suffers from their being born 20 years apart and leaves a serious gap in betting's historical literature.
Ward Hill wrote: "Did William really think that listeners who knew anything about racing and bookmaking would believe that the reason for his opposition was that 'he didn't think it would be very nice to see a betting shop at every street corner, with all those unpleasant types hanging about'?" Avoiding his version of an answer, fellow bookmaker Ward Hill quoted the cynics who believed betting shops would be a serious rival to his brother's business, which was built on a strong racecourse presence and hugely lucrative off-track football and telephone betting.
The cynics were right, it seems, according to the observations of John Brown, who began working in William Hill's London trading room in August 1958, when the debate was hotting up, and later became chief executive and chairman.
Brown says: "Billy Alsford, who was running the trading room jointly with Sam Burns, reckoned that William couldn't trust anyone, so if he was to set up a string of shops, he wouldn't trust the people to run them for him."
But there were other reasons.
When the shops were opening up, William said he didn't need them. He had his trade room, doing incredible business from bookmakers around the country, and he wouldn't be a one-man band with shops.
"He thought that people with shops would need someone to hedge with, and that Hills could get ten per cent of all the shop business without opening any of their own.
"For a while he was right, and the trade-room business boomed, but as chains of shops started to emerge, it tailed off." Eventually Bill Balshaw, who had run the thriving Glasgow office, dealing in cash, fixed-odds football bets placed by post, which were illegal in England, warned Hill: “‘It’s either betting shops or we go bust,’” Brown recalls.
Hill took the advice. In 1966 he bought Jack Swift’s business, and traded under that name for several years, while he bought up other chains, such as Manny King, and Hudson and Parkinson in Scotland and the north, at the top of the price bracket in an emerging market.
Brown joined the company three years after Hill had walked away from the racecourse business halfway through the Royal Ascot meeting, leaving expert staff to manage a business that the founder believed would not witness great days again.
The big punters whom Hill had accommodated so willingly were disappearing, he felt, and he had other matters that demanded his attention.
Married to ladies’ hairdresser Ivy Burley at the age of 20 – they remained together until his death, despite relationships with a succession of female companions, several of whom he treated deplorably, according to long-time friend and associate Phil Bull – Hill had already gained experience of taking bets, collecting slips from pubs and his workplace as an early-teenager.
His first racecourse venture, on leaving the RIC, ended in financial failure, but he was not to be deterred and on relocating from the Midlands to London in 1929, the ‘rest is history’ story began, starting on greyhound tracks and an illegal book in a nightclub, moving to the racecourse at Northolt Park in 1933, and the following year opening his first London office in the West End’s Jermyn Street.
In 1939, when childhood illnesses that kept Hill away from school until the age of eight prevented his being called up for the forces, he reached a turning point. Northolt closed for racing; he opened new office premises in Park Lane and launched fixed-odds football coupons, while building the postal cash betting and telephone businesses.
John Brown recalls a story told by Billy Alsford, who was clerking for Hill at Ascot. “The firm had blown its brains on the first five races, and it came to the last, a three-runner race. They were betting odds-on each of two, 33-1 the outsider, and the boys wanted to go home.
“William insisted on staying; he laid the two odds-on shots and the 33-1 chance won.”
SP reporter Geoffrey Hamlyn wrote in his autobiography: “William Hill made many mistakes in his career, and it was a weakness of his that he hated to acknowledge them. But despite his failings he was an outstanding bookmaker.”
As for the man himself, Hamlyn added: “He had a strong, domineering personality. He was always impatient of any obstacle that seemed to block his way to the top. He also possessed a fairly explosive temper. We had the father and mother of a row when he tried to ‘knock out’ [where a bookmaker artificially extends the odds on a horse to influence the SP, at which he has himself backed the horse] a horse of his.”
That Hill was usually his own man, despite drawing to the firm some of the best brains in bookmaking, was made clear by his perverse reaction to two events that involved the elements of a scam. He refused to pay out on a 1951 bank holiday-meeting winner that was returned at bookmaker-inflated SP odds of 25-1, despite advice from an official committee to honour the bets, but two years later he did pay out in the race won by the ringer Francasal, probably to those who figured in the subsequent court case, according to Joe Ward Hill.
Hill’s reaction to another incidence of skulduggery was witnessed at first hand by John Brown, who recalls the Dagenham greyhound coup in 1964.
“William came down to the trade room, wearing his usual white silk shirt, big, wide, red braces and a silk handkerchief. He took out the handkerchief, blew his nose loudly and said: ‘They’ll sort it out in the courts, I’m going fishing.’ And he did, but not before he’d talked to the lawyers. The people behind the coup never got paid.”
Hill died suddenly of a heart attack in the Rutland hotel in Newmarket, 40 years ago yesterday, the night after 13 lots from his studs sold for more than 90,000gns, a record aggregate for a British breeder and the equivalent of £4.5m today.
He left a bookmaking legacy of a company that had become the first of its type to be publicly quoted, when in 1954, with the help of accountant Lionel Baber, he took over a shell company, Holders Investment Trust, which bought two William Hill companies for £1.05m and £2m.
Hill’s own legacy was summed up at a Methodist church memorial service by Phil Bull – an odd combination of an atheist remembering an agnostic – who said: “He began at the bottom, rapidly rose to the top and lifted the whole profession with him as he went.
“He took bookmaking from the check suit and gold watch-chain image and gave it a new respectability and integrity.
“He became the greatest bookmaker of all time, both on the racecourse and off, with a centralised SP organisation on a national scale such as had not been seen before. It will not happen again. William’s death is the end of an era. There will be none like him again.”
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