Of all the punters who visit a William Hill betting shop or logon to its website today to place a bet how many will give a moment’s thought to man who founded the betting company which still carries his name to this day?
2014 marks 80 years since William Hill established his betting company in 1934 – although he had been taking bets officially and unofficially since the 1920s – and to mark the anniversary a new book has been published exploring the life of both the man and the company he created (William Hill: the man and the business (2014) Graham Sharpe with Mihir Bose, Racing Post Books).
In the 1920s and 1930s when Hill began his betting activities, off-course bookmakers were not regulated and were illegal but operated quite openly. In the formative years of his bookmaking the book outlines several episodes involving Hill and others that are the stuff of the modern Gambling Commission’s nightmares. But those were the times and bookmaking was a tough business to be in.
If the Gambling Commission had handed out copies of its social responsibility guidelines in that era they would simply have been put to good use mopping up the blood in the betting ring after yet another pitched battle between rival racecourse gangs and bookmakers, such as at Lewes racecourse in June 1936 when “hammers, iron bars, jemmies, knuckledusters and broken billiard cues were scattered around the ring”.
At that time having “a gambling problem” meant how you were going to solve the issue of getting yourself and your winnings – bookmaker or punter – out of the betting ring in one piece without being assaulted.
Clearly to survive and thrive in bookmaking took no small amount of character, determination and luck.
The second part of the book, dealing with the corporate history of the business, held less interest than the first, perhaps for no other reason than the more recent events (e.g. the Playtech saga – where one imagines Hill would have dealt with the situation in the same forthright manner as then-CEO Ralph Topping did) will be familiar to those who are involved in the betting sector. But it still contains characters every bit as colourful as Hill himself.
Although the company does essentially the same thing as when Hill founded the business in 1934 he could scarcely have envisaged how betting has changed. His company now has operations around the world, from Nevada to Manila, and customers can now bet on all manner of sports and events using all manner of devices.
During a US court case in which Hill was supporting his daughter’s bid for custody of her children, the opposing lawyer opened with “What do you do for a living, Mr Hill?” When the reply came, “a bookmaker”, the lawyer said to the judge “No more questions” and sat down.
This new book commemorating the first 80 years of the William Hill business is a well researched account putting his lifetime’s achievements deservedly on record.