William Hill Overview and History
William Hill is the world's largest betting brand. In the UK alone, they have 2,325 betting shops. They also operate an online gambling site available in 24 languages and 10 currencies. The site offers sports betting, horse race betting, financial betting, casino, poker, bingo, and skill and arcade games all from a single website and player account bank. As a company publicly-traded on the London Stock Exchange (WMH.L), it can be verified. In 2011, they serviced more than 1.3 million gamblers with profits exceeding £146.5 million. How does a company get to be this size? All will be revealed in our history of William Hill.
William Hill (founder) Born in 1903
The William Hill story begins with the July 16, 1903 birth of their founder and namesake, William Hill. He was born in Birmingham, England, the second of 13 children in a strict family. As a young lad, he attended Oldknow Road School before leaving to work on his uncle's farm at the age of 12. He later, still as a child, worked for BSA works in Birmingham. Perhaps rebellious over his strict upbringing, overcrowded home, and working life, at age 16, Hill lied about his age and jumped on a wagon to join the Black and Tans.
Legend has it that William Hill developed a passion for horseracing and bookmaking at a young age. During his days with BSA works, he was introduced to betting. While with the Black and Tans, he was stationed in Mallow, County Cork, Ireland. From here he spent his free time taking bets from Moss Foley's pub. Returning from duty, he remained in the bookmaking business on a small scale.
Hill's first attempt at legal bookmaker came in 1925 as an on course bookmaker at the Birmingham tracks. Due to the inability to lay off a couple large bets, he soon lost all his capital. In 1929, he moved to London to begin taking bets on greyhounds, which allowed him to save up enough capital to invest and become a part owner in Northolt Park Racetrack (that would become famous for pony races).
William Hill (Company) Founded 1934
In 1934, William Hill opened his first off-track betting shop in Park Lane, London. This was the start of the company known today as William Hill. At the time, cash bookmaking was still illegal. Hill used a loophole in the law that required "credit only" betting by having punters provide checks (in person or via post) weeks in advanced. These were cashed only after the event had taken place, making it fully legal while he also retained lawful recourse against any bounced checks.
Hill then continued to build his business on "trust". At the time, gambling debts weren't enforceable by law, so bookies didn't even need to legally pay punters. While there were many scams, his business grew to some 500,000 serviced by the 1960's because of his reputation as an honest businessman who pays winners.
The Invention of Fixed Odds Football Betting
In 1944, William Hill became the first bookie to offer fixed odds on football betting. The history of Ladbrokes reported elsewhere often fails to give him credit. No doubt Ladbrokes was the first UK- licensed betting shop to offer fixed odds; however, William Hill was doing so as a credit bookmaker much earlier. In fact, court records indicate he preceded Ladbrokes, and he successfully sued them in the early 1960's for copying his ticket. Being the good sport that he was, he asked for only £1 damages plus costs, which the House of Lords granted.
William Hill as a Breeder
By the late 1930's, William Hill had become the first ever self-made millionaire bookie. While continuing his bookmaking empire, he became passionate about breeding horses. He purchased a stud at Whitsbury in Hampshire in 1943 (Nimbus) that in 1949 won the Two Thousand Guineas and Derby. In 1945, he purchased Sezincote stud in Gloucestershire that won the 1953 Derby. He also won a Classic with Cantelo in the 1959 St. Leger and the Gimcrack Stake and Champagne Stake in 1958 with Be Careful.
William Hill the First Ever PLC Bookmaker
In 1954, William Hill moved his business to a shell company called Holder's Investment Trust to secure a position as the first bookmaker ever publicly-listed on the London Stock Exchange. From 1955 to 1961, he sold portions of his shares for in excess of £5 million.
William Hill Personal Life
In order to explain William Hill's late move into the betting shop business, it's important to cover his personal life. In 1923, he married Ivy Burley (nicknamed Daisy), who was a hairdresser in Birmingham. They had their first and only child the following year, Kathleen Hill (nicknamed Bubbles) who later became Kathleen Lavinia after her marriage. She passed away at the age of 37. The Saint Leonard's Parish Church of Whitsbury, located near the track where he purchased his first stud, to this day bears the words:
"To the Glory of God and in Loving Memory of their daughter Kathleen Lavinia, Born 10th Feb 1924 Died 27 Nov 1961. This church was restored and refurnished in 1963 by William and Ivy Hill".
Hill was not a money hungry coldhearted bookie. During his lifetime, he raced and bred horses with a passion, took regular fishing trips, and sponsored youth cricket leagues. He was a devout Roman Catholic and Socialist. When the UK legalized betting shops, effective May 1, 1961, he was outspoken against them. He went as far as calling them a cancer on society that preyed on the working man. In his opinion, betting was a recreational activity and competition for those who could afford it. He was a good bookie and made millions many times over in his lifetime due to hard work, trust, and running an honest shop.
By 1966, however, betting shops had become so widespread in the UK, that traditional bookies had no choice but to adapt. Hill began investing in the betting shop empire known today. In 1970, he retired and passed away the following year.
Ownership After William Hill's Death
When William Hill died on October 16, 1971, the business was taken over by Sears Plc. Many William Hill history articles associate it with Sears Holdings Group, which has 4,000 retail locations under Sears and Kmart brand names. This is NOT the same Sears. The Sears that took over William Hill is a UK conglomerate in the retail shoes business. Their current brands include Barratts and Priceless Shoes. While under Sears' ownership, the company grew to 1800 legal betting shops by 1988.
In 1989, William Hill was purchased by Brent Walker. The same year, they became the official bookmaker of Golf's PGA European Tour with betting shops located on course. During the 1990's, betting shops became more socially acceptable in the UK. They were no longer required to blackout their windows, and instead could display odds and advertisements for all to see. The law prohibiting them from being open on Sundays was also repealed; the ability to advertise in newspapers, on television, and on the radio was granted. Private Scratchcards were legalized and soon were offered at William Hill shops.
With betting now mainstream, Walker cashed in, selling them Nomura (Grand Bookmaking Companies) for £700m. They sold it 2 years later in 1999 to Cinven and CVC Partners for £825 million. Finally, in 2002, William Hill was successfully floated on the London Stock Exchange for approximately £1 billion.
William Hill Online
In 2000, William Hill launched an off-shore phone-in betting shop. It used a call center in Athlone, Ireland, which accepted bets for William Hill International based in Antigua where the tax was only 3%. That same year, they became the first UK bookmaker to offer tax-free betting via the Internet. Oddly enough, despite being known by all bettors alive as William, they had to use the domain willhill.com. The domain williamhill.com was already in use by a winery in California. The winery stopped using it in late 2005, and William Hill the bookmaker acquired it in 2009, redirecting the brand they had built.
As you can imagine, this was already the largest betting brand in the world, and their growth as an online company was a natural transition. These days there are many multiple language betting sites, but when William Hill entered the market full scale in 2000, there were few. They already were popular internationally and were the biggest bookmaker in the UK. Their growth came fast when launched in 2000 supporting English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Japanese, Norwegian, and Finnish languages. In late 2000, they added an online casino to their offering and then an online poker room in 2003. On April 17, 2002, William Hill signed a deal with the British Horseracing Board for the commercial use of data. This made full racing data available on their online website.
After successful floating on the London Stock Exchange in 2002, numerous acquisitions followed. In September of 2002, William Hill purchased Sunderland Greyhound Stadium. In March the following year, Brough Park Greyhound Stadium was added. In 2005, it acquired 624 betting shops from Stanley Leisure for £504 million, although it had to sell 78 of them due to an anti-competitive practice ruling. In 2008, it went into partnership with the world's largest casino software provider and poker network operator, Playtech.
As mentioned above, William Hill remains the world's largest betting brand. The website is available in 24 languages, 10 currencies, and it supports sports and horse race betting, financial betting, casino, poker, bingo, skill games, and arcade games. This is no doubt one of the safest and most well-regulated websites for online gamblers.
Author: Jim Griffin
Updated: March 2015
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