There are only a handful of men of whom it can truly be said that they shaped the face of the betting industry. Of those the name of William Hill looms larger than most. From humble beginnings Hill developed a brand that still bears his name and which has grown not only to become one of the instantly recognisable names in the UK bookmaking industry but has expanded globally as bookmaking has grown from illegal status in backstreet dens to ubiquity on the high streets and into homes in almost every town and city in the land and beyond via the internet-fuelled gambling revolution.
For those of us for whom the name William Hill conjures little more than an image of a faceless corporate identity, the first half of Graham Sharpe’s new book ‘William Hill: The Man & The Business’ provides an insight into the life of the man who founded and built the bookmaking giant that still bears his name. Split into two parts of roughly equal length, part one of the book tells of Hill’s personal journey and how his life unfolded alongside that of his burgeoning business. Interwoven with the William Hill tale is the story of the dramatic evolution of 20th century bookmaking in general, for Hill and his company were at the forefront of that evolution.
Following Hill’s death, almost 43 years ago, the company continued to prosper and the second part of the book concerns itself with the evolving history of the William Hill organisation and its rise as a company whose peers are not now restricted to rival bookmaking firms but include household names from all industries, alongside whom it sits within the elite of Britain’s companies on the FTSE 100.
Sharpe has been an employee of William Hill for over half its existence and has been the public face of the company via his PR/media relations role for much of that. He is the man responsible for ensuring we know when someone places a tenner on Elvis reincarnating, the Loch Ness monster turning up or laying world famous Chris Bonington 150/1 against him finding evidence of the existence of the abominable snowman on a forthcoming expedition (Bonington returned with what he was sure was irrefutable evidence only to be foiled by customs officials who summarily burnt his evidence, leaving William Hill a little richer).
Assisted in the compilation of the book by author Mihir Bose, Sharpe’s immersion in the firm and his diligent collecting and archiving of material during his tenure with the company, has resulted in a book rich in detail which provides a definitive account of the company’s history.
William Hill is a fascinating character and it is his story, rather than the slightly drier account of the company’s history after his death, which I found most absorbing. Hill was a man of contradictions, a sharp mind hewn of a necessity for alertness and speed of thought, and Sharpe’s account of his early years and first steps on the path that was to eventually lead to his status as a multi-millionaire illustrates where Hill may have developed the hunger that drove him. The story of Hill’s subsequent life and its inextricable links to the milestone events that shaped the betting industry is absorbing and written in readily accessible prose.
My favourite snippet of part one comes at the very end where a section of the address given by Phil Bull at William Hill’s funeral is quoted. “William began at the bottom of his profession, rapidly rose to the top, and lifted the whole profession with him as he went”. Glowing words indeed and the rest of that address is a good starting point to understanding William Hill (and, maybe, Phil Bull too).
Part two of the book concerns itself with the story of the business during the last 40 years during a time of continual change for bookmaking in general and the William Hill organisation in particular. The story takes us through takeovers, transfer of the business from London to Leeds, and continued expansion under a succession of executives. I guess it wouldn’t be a read for someone without an interest in either the bookmaking industry or business in general but if you do have an interest in those topics there are lots of interesting details.
An affection for the William Hill business and for the legacy and memory of the man who built it shines through. As a ‘lifer’ you’d expect Sharpe to hold the company dear but such affection can sometimes spill over into undue reverence but this is largely avoided.
This is a book that will appeal to anyone with an interest in William Hill himself, the William Hill organisation or the betting industry in a wider sense. And I am sure that anyone with an interest in any of those topics will find it a rewarding read
‘William Hill: The Man & The Business’ is available to order now from the Racing Post http://shop1.racingpost.com/William-Hill-The-Man-and-the-Business-by-Graham-S-p/willhill.htm