Mr. William HillWilliam Hill is one of the top businesses in the gambling industry at the moment as a result of decades of work and dedication. The name of the company speaks volumes about the fame and luster characteristic to the organization and just about everyone who has ever bet online knows it well. But where did this name originate? It sure sounds like a person’s name. Well, it is. Mr. William Hill is the one who gave the company its name and set its foundations at a time when sports betting activities, let alone casino gambling or anything related to it, were illegal and marginalized in the UK, William’s native land and lifetime home. A series of events – some positive, other less so – set the course for the brand to become what it is today; many of them took place after William Hill’s death, but the lore-providing and tradition-engulfed ones transpired during his tumultuous life.

THE EARLY YEARS

It all began on 16 July 1903, when William was born in Birmingham to William Hill and Lavinia Knight. His father was a journeyman coach-painter, while his mother was the daughter of a farmer who also owned an inn on the border of Leicestershire and Warwickshire.

At the age of twelve, young Will decided to quit school so he could work on his uncle’s farm, but later became an apprentice at BSA Works in Birmingham. It was during that time, when he was still a teenager, that he began his bookmaking activity. Nowadays, one would imagine him setting up a small shop to build on by adding space and making technological improvements, but that was not the case by any means: he collected illegal bets from people living in the city and its surrounding areas by riding a motorized bicycle.

In 1919, bookmaking enter a short hiatus for William Hill, as he joined the Black and Tans (a British military group that fought the Irish during their war of independence and is still perceived controversially) and was stationed in County Cork, Ireland. Dispatched a few miles outside the town of Mallow, his job was to guard homes belonging to the gentry, but in his spare time he hung out at an in-town pub whose owners came to like him. Mr. and Mrs. Foley, as they were named, felt concern for his safety as a guard and petitioned the commanding officer to let William stay in town, a request that was granted. After completing his service duty, he resumed bookmaking by taking horse racing bets. Soon it all began to crumble, as he dealt with punters that proved to be too much for him and went bankrupt. His resilience and determination prompted him to start over, which he did, this time being careful and slowly but surely building his business, which eventually allowed him to put together enough money to move to London. Before doing that, he married Ivy Burley (in 1923), a hairdresser from Birmingham.

THE COMPANY IS FOUNDED AND SLOWLY PROGRESSES

In the capital, Mr. Hill started out by accepting pony racing bets for events held at Northolt Park, the only trotting track in Britain at the time. Then he became focused on greyhounds, an activity that brought him enough success so as to rent an office on Jermyn Street in 1934. It was there that he began to accept credit and postal betting, as these activities were not specifically prohibited by law. A boom was soon experienced and Mr. Hill relocated to Park Lane, where his new office was much bigger and better equipped. Building up on that, he soon produced the first fixed-odds football betting coupon (in 1944) and established a separate agency to deal with football wagering.

His great passion was horse breeding, though, and as soon as he could afford to undertake such a task, his first stud was purchased (in 1943 at Whitsbury in Hampshire). After that, years of success followed: in 1946 Nimbus was foaled, later sold for 5,000 guineas and then the horse won the 1949 Two Thousand Guineas and Derby; Chanteur II, one of his stallions, sired Pinza the winner of the 1953 Derby. Be Careful won him the Gimcrack Stake and the Champagne Stake in 1958, while Cantelo (a filly) brought him a Classic victory. On-course betting remained at the top of the list for Mr. Hill and at important events like Epsom, Ascot or Newmarket he would accept £20,000 per race while competing against big names such as Percy Thompson, Willie Preston, Hector Macdonald and Jack Burns. One time he booked Raymoung Guest 100/1 to £500 for a foal that had just been born to win the Derby. Sir Ivor, as the foal was called, eventually won the Derby at 5-4, triggering a huge embarrassment to the company. But that was not what made William Hill abandon on-course betting. During the 1955 Royal Ascot meeting, his runner could not fetch takers for a £4,000 bet that Mr. Hill wanted to lay off and he impulsively decided to quit.

THE TWILIGHT DENOUEMENT

In 1960, a rival company went into the football betting business; Hill subsequently sued them for copyright infringement on his coupon and the case went all the way to the House of the Lords, with Mr. Hill being the winner. William Hill Biographical BookIn 1961, betting shops became legal in the United Kingdom, presenting William Hill with an immense business opportunity, but he declined to take advantage of it. His reason for doing so was that such locales would transform betting from a mostly aristocratic occupation to a mass one, thus harming the working class (Mr. Hill was rather socialist in his political views). However, many other companies set up shops and earned considerable revenues, out-competing WH. Still, business was going well for William, as he still activated in credit betting and fixed odds. But in 1966 Mr. Hill gave in and opened his first legal physical shop, more as a response to the entreaties of his friend Jack Swift, who kept telling him to go for it before it would be too late. Things began to improve as television entered the picture, making betting shops more and more popular and the company was slowly growing to be the huge operation that it is today. During his final years, William Hill focused on breeding and even possessed some stud farms in England. In 1970 he retired while still attending events. It was during one of them, the October Sales at Newmarket in 1971, that he had a heart attack, dying at the Rutland Hotel on 16 October 1971. His life became the subject of a novel – The Betting Man: A Racing Biography of William Hill by Joe Ward Hill.