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How William Hill became a gambling behemoth

Published:

30 Nov 2018

The name ‘William Hill’ is synonymous with the brand we all know today as arguably the number one gambling company in the world. 

Its journey is a fascinating one which delves into the murky underworld of highly illicit gambling at Hill’s roots, to the blooming yellow poppy that we all know today (yellow poppies represent success). 

When we think of William Hill, we see the familiar, straight-laced logo, emblematic of many a high street all around the country. It is unlikely that we picture a young, rebellious tearaway racing around the east end of London taking illegal bets on his motorcycle. 

Hill the businessman though, did exactly that. In 1934, he opened up an unlawful gambling den on Jermyn Street and shrewdly found a loophole allowing him to take bets in the form of credit or postal stamps instead of cash. 

Little would he have known at the time; a giant was born. Four years later, in line with his passion for greyhound racing, Hill took joint-ownership of Lone Keel who went on to win the English Greyhound Derby in 1938. 

Hill’s game changer came in 1944 when the bookmaker introduced the first fixed odds football coupon, a move at the time which helped to draw in many more punters and became a platform for his future success. 

Taking it to the next level 

By the 1950s, ‘William Hill’ was firmly established and in 1954 Hill moved his business to a shell company called Holder’s Investment Trust, which secured a very lucrative position on the London Stock Exchange, becoming the first bookmaker to do so. 

During this time, Hill had bought a number of racehorses, many of which went on to win prestigious events and, there is perhaps a fitting symmetry as to why ‘William Hill’ is still regarded as the number one choice among many horse racing punters. 

By the time Hill had retired in 1970 and passed away in 1971, William Hill was firmly cemented as a household name. Nearly every high street in the country had a shop and by 1988 there were 1,800. 

Through his success, Hill forced his competitors to adapt and grow, with many including Ladbrokes starting a betting shop business of their own. 

When Brent Walker purchased the business in 1989, William Hill began to really take off. They partnered with the European PGA Golf Tour, becoming event’s official bookmaker with betting shops on the course, aggressively expanding into the golfing marketplace. 

They were also perfectly positioned for the 1990s when gambling legislation changed considerably, allowing for Sunday trading with shops no longer required to have blacked out windows. 

It meant also, that advertising opportunities were endless and William Hill took full advantage. Having reached a level, where they had surplus to invest, they began to dominate the media taking up half pages in newspapers with betting offers, prime time television slots and appearing on radio broadcasts. 

They had reached a point where they along with Ladbrokes and Coral, were considered the ‘Big Three’ of bookmakers and reaped the rewards. 

Established platform for Online success 

Due to easily having the biggest betting brand in the world, their transition to an online commodity was relatively seamless. Interestingly, the domain williamhill.com was already in use by a Californian-based winery and inconveniently they became registered under willhill.com. 

Despite this, their growth went to a whole new level online and they became one of the only bookmakers in 2000 to offer their service in Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Japanese, Norwegian and Finnish securing even more custom in new territories where online gambling was legal. 

Later that year, they expanded their offering with online casino and in 2003 established an online poker room, further adding to their dominance.  

Perhaps the true masterstroke though, came in 2002. Aligning with the British Horse Racing Board, they secured rights to list full and in-depth horse racing data on their website, allowing their dedicated horse racing following to make fuller informed decisions when placing their bets. 

Still operating under the domain willhill.com, the final piece of the jigsaw appeared to fall into place when in 2009, the bookmaker acquired williamhill.com after the winery discontinued and their brand was redirected. 

Today, William Hill are still revered in the gambling industry with a large scale and separate operation in Australia. With increasing competition, the longevity of the company, established on an almost daredevil platform by their founder, makes it a sure bet that it should mark its 100-year anniversary with ease.