William Hill, or Hills as it is often called by punters, was at one point the biggest bookmaker on the British high street with around 2,300 shops.
Regulation changes, a global pandemic, and a poor economic climate cut that figure almost in half by the early 2020s, but the brand remains one of the biggest and best known in the country.
William Hill began, as most of the oldest brands did, in the world of illegal bookmaking, when a kid from Birmingham called… you guessed it… William Hill, began taking bets on his bike, but it grew to become a business more successful than anyone could have predicted.
The man himself sadly died in 1971 at the relatively young age of 68, so his story in association with the company only takes us so far, but without his leadership until that point, William Hill the brand would never have become the betting giant that it is.
This article will dig up every available piece of information on William Hill the company and William Hill the man. It’s a story of hard work, risk taking, personal tragedy, and epic success.
Who Was William Hill?
To understand the story of William Hill and the bookmaking business he founded, we have to go back to Birmingham around about the Peaky Blinders era.
William Hill was born the second of 13 children in 1903, escaping being called up to fight in WW1 due to his age by just a few years.
He was a hard worker from an early age, leaving school at 12 to go and work on his uncle’s farm, before moving on to the Birmingham Small Arms factory aged 14, and this is where he first began collecting illegal bets from other workers.
He would only take small bets as he didn’t have much money, riding around on his motorcycle to other factories and pubs to collect the bets. It was not so much a living as a bit of extra money for him in those days.
This was, incredibly, all before he turned 16. Because at that tender age he lied about his date of birth in order to join the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), all spurred on by an argument with his father according to rumour.
Better known as the Black and Tans, the RIC were sent over to Ireland to keep the peace (if you’ve seen The Wind that Shakes the Barley you will know a bit about it), so despite dodging the war, Hill did end up serving in some capacity after all.
While over in Ireland, William Hill was stationed in Mallow, County Cork, where he frequented a pub called Moss Foleys. The publican’s wife took a shine to him due to his youth, and made sure he was well taken care of while he took bets at the bar.
Legend has it that he returned to Foley’s many years later after having made his money. The landlord didn’t recognise him and refused to pull him a second pint until he had paid for his first, but Mrs Foley knew him immediately.
He bought drinks for everyone there, and visited every time he was over in Ireland, where he would visit for both business and pleasure.
Back to his earlier days though, and Hill returned to England in 1921, got married to Ivy ‘Daisy’ Burley in 1923, and by 1925 had a baby girl called Kathleen, and enough money in the pot to start a real bookmaking business, rather than just taking bets illegally on the sly.
His life as a businessman, rather than just as a bookie living by his wits, had begun.
Moving to London and Credit Betting
His first business was a racecourse pitch in Birmingham, but because he had such a small amount of capital he soon found himself it hot water and the business folded.
He was a brilliant bookmaker, but was still learning to be a brilliant businessman.
In 1929, with greyhound racing becoming very big business indeed, Hill made a bold decision and moved his family down to London, where he thought he could make a better go of the bookmaking business.
Things went well, and William Hill made enough money from the greyhounds to become a part owner of Northolt Park Racetrack, before going on to open his own betting office in Jermyn Street in 1934.
This was, arguably, the point at which William Hill went from being ‘just another bookmaker’ to a respected businessman and man of means; by 1938 he was the first ever bookie to become a self-made millionaire.
Of course, off course betting was still illegal in the UK at this time, but William Hill got around it by never taking cash. Credit betting was not against the law, so Hill took cheques rather than cash, and only cashed them if the bets lost. He was incredibly fair and honest with his punters (bookies were not legally obliged to pay out in those days!) and built an excellent reputation.
This went incredibly well for him, and he soon moved to an even more salubrious location, Park Lane where the company was incorporated. From here, the operation was expanded to offer fixed odds bets on football which got William Hill a lot of attention, as at the time, betting was almost exclusively on horse and greyhound racing, so this was new and exciting. He then opened a subsidiary office all the way up in Scotland.
Hill had also gotten into horse breeding during this time, which many believed to be his true passion as he continued after retirement, and had even had a 2000 Guineas and a Derby winner with his horse, Nimbus, in 1948 and 1949 respectively.
By the 1950s William Hill had started accepting bets by post as well as in his betting offices, and could realistically claim to have over 400,000 customers across his entire business, which he had also made public in 1954, listing on the London Stock Exchange.
William Hill was now advertising himself as the biggest bookmaker in the world, and since he was taking money on course and in offices up and down the country, he may well have been right.
But while his professional life could hardly be going any better, tragedy struck at home.
William Hill’s daughter, Kathleen, died from an unknown cause sometime around 1960. It is said that William never got over the death of his daughter, who was still a young woman, no older than 40, and who left William 2 granddaughters.
First High Street Betting Shops
In some ways, William Hill had been operating high street bookies for almost 2 decades before it actually became legal, thanks to his credit betting offices.
However, when the law changed in 1961 to allow off course bookmakers, William Hill was dead against them, even going on record to call them a ‘cancer on society’. He was a socialist at heart, and had concerns over their impact on the working man.
He stuck to his guns too, refusing to open what we now think of as a high street bookie for many years.
In 1966 though, with bookie shops popping up all over the place, he finally gave in and got on the bandwagon. He had no choice really since all the other bookmakers were doing it, so it was a case of adapt or die.
Almost as soon as he had entered the high street game, Hill realised that acquisition was the best way to grow at speed, so long as he managed things carefully, and he began buying out other bookies and then rebranding them as his own.
He might not have been keen on the idea of high street shops, but he was a businessman, and if he was going to operate on the high-street, he was going to be good at it.
The portfolio of William Hill shops increased over the next few years, with business going well and the company growing steadily. He hit another home run when he ‘invented’ the idea of ‘amusement bets’, one of the first being that man would not walk on the moon before the year 1970 – a bet he would lose in 1969.
He probably didn’t mind too much though, because by 1970, Hill was ready to slow down.
The industry was changing fast, heavier taxes were being introduced, and he was approaching old age, so he decided to retire. He wasn’t one of these businessmen who could never let his business go, so aged 67 he stepped back to enjoy a quiet life breeding his horses.
His retirement lasted barely a year though, before he died in 1971. He was actually in Newmarket at the time as he had some horses in the October sales, and he was found in his hotel room.
You have to remember that William Hill only spent about a decade in the ‘new’ gambling industry before he retired. Despite being a millionaire, he would never know William Hill as a global chain with thousands of shops, and given his own thoughts on betting shops in general he may not have even liked the idea. His views as a socialist and his skills as a businessman no doubt put him at odds, and there are many stories of his generosity towards the people around him, be they friends, colleagues, or employees.
Nevertheless, without Hill’s skill in establishing the business, his creativity in being the first to offer fixed odds football markets and amusement markets, and his business acumen when dealing with tax changes, William Hill the brand would not have been around long enough to have taken the next step in its’ incredible journey.
The Corporate Era
Shortly after William Hill passed away, a conglomerate called Sears plc bought William Hill to add to their portfolio of retail outlets.
This is the company that became the Arcadia Group, owned by Phillip Green, although this was well before his time.
Sears owned William Hill during one of the biggest booms in high street betting in British history, with total UK betting shop numbers peaking at 14,750 in 1973 – and William Hill owned a few hundred of them.
This number grew and grew though, and by the mid-80s there were around 800 William Hill shops on the high streets of Britain, swelling to 1,200 by 1988.
In this year, a large company called Grand Metropolitan (now Diageo) bought the brand from Sears for £330 million, and merged it with another company they owned by the name of Mecca Bookmakers, an offshoot of the bingo brand. However, the merger was done under the William Hill brand rather than Mecca’s, and by 1989 there were 1,800 shops in the fleet.
That same year, Brent Walker, a company owned by retired boxer George Walker, made a successful bid of £650 million for William Hill, which was almost a 100% return on investment for Grand Metropolitan, so the ownership changed hands again.
Interestingly though, the CEO of William Hill remained the same throughout.
His name was John Brown, and he had started as a tea boy at the company back in the 1950s, and risen up through the ranks.
He will have known William Hill the man, so despite the brand now being dominated by huge corporations, something of its’ past remained.
John Brown left William Hill in 2003, with a £2 million fortune in his pocket thanks to shares he sold, but not before he had steered the business through another couple of takeovers; the first by Nomura in 1997 for £700 million, and then to Cinven and CVC partners for £825 million in 1999.
The company became public again in 2002 when Cinven CVC floated it on the London Stock Exchange for the second time, where the shares were oversubscribed ten times over, which just goes to show how well the business was doing.
John Brown spent his entire 44 year career at William Hill, going from the days when bookmaking was a real art as well as a test of nerves, to the days when bookmakers were essentially run by accountants.
He also oversaw their first tentative steps into the virtual world.
It was in amongst all of this changing of hands that William Hill made their first foray into the world of online betting.
Officially, they launched their very first sportsbook in 1997, which would make them one of the earliest adopters in terms of online gambling, but in truth, their website wasn’t quite ready to do what it needed to do.
This was the stone age as far as the internet was concerned, so no one really understood what it was capable of.
The site closed down for a while, directing customers to use their telephone betting service instead, but by the year 2000 the site had relaunched and was in its stride, adding an online casino in 2002.
From this point on they could expand into new territories across Europe and beyond with very little outlay since there were no physical locations required, and they even bought an online casino that was popular in Europe called Mr Green, to help strengthen their European footprint, although this was a lot later on in 2019.
During the first decade of internet betting the retail side of the business was still chugging along nicely, but the more online betting grew, the less well the shops were doing.
Tighter regulations and tax changes on top of this meant that the number of shops the brand operated was dropping year on year, due to costs, but they still maintained well over 1,000 retail outlets.
However, the internet had changed everything. Hill’s website was now arguably its most valuable asset, available in scores of different countries and taking millions of wagers each and every day.
America and 888
Although online sports betting was mostly illegal in America until the early 2020’s, William Hill was miles ahead of the game in establishing themselves across the pond.
They began acquiring American companies in 2011 and became the first European gaming operator to be granted a gaming license in Nevada in 2013, settling themselves in nicely for when the American market opened up.
It took a while, but it did finally start to happen after the federal government changed the law so that each state could deal with gambling laws how they saw fit. This meant that one by one, the states began to legalise online betting and gaming, and William Hill were already in a position to take advantage as other British bookies scrambled to get in on the action.
Despite their strong position to capitalise on this change, during the 2020 COVID pandemic, the stock market collapsed and William Hill shares went to ridiculously low levels.
This made the company look like a bargain to the big American gambling companies, who were interested in the UK industry stalwarts for their technical experience given that the American betting market was opening up.
There was something of a bidding war for William Hill, who ended up being bought by Caesars Entertainment for £2.9 billion, who made no secret of their plan to offload the retail arm of the business as well as the UK and European online arm.
Basically, they wanted William Hill’s knowledge base and technical secrets, which they took, then promptly sold the rest of the company on again to 888 for £2 billion, almost recouping their money.
This cut William Hill in two, with the American version of the brand operating completely independently of the European and UK business.
The well-known bookie is just as present on British high streets these days as it ever was though, despite having been fought over and ripped apart, but with a new owner at the helm, the brand’s future is anyone’s guess.