Angus Dalrymple (left) began his career in the bookmaking business during the Second World War. Billed as Gus Dalrymple in the Sporting Life from 1962 to 1966 (and again in 1972) he wrote about betting shops and racing personalities. He now writes for CBC-TV News in Toronto.
I’m indebted to BOS magazine for permission to reproduce this article.
The William Hill I knew
by Angus Dalrymple
JULY 30 IS a very important anniversary in my life. It’s exactly 66 years – nearly two thirds of a century! – since I began working for William Hill in Park Lane, London, as a settler. But it was a close-run thing, desperately tight.
I was a teenager and getting my first glimpse of a city dreadfully damaged by Hitler’s bombs. The fighting in Europe was over but the war against Japan was still on.
“Can YOU settle?” Henry (“Nick”) Nicholls, Hill’s bluff and hearty staff manager, gave a bemused look as he gazed down at my slight figure that summer afternoon in 1945. (In less than two years I would tower over him.)
He took me into the phone room and gave me a very tricky settling test: five pound each-way doubles, trebles and an accumulator on four winners including, I shudder even now to recall, a 100-7 shot and one at 13-8 on in a dead-heat.
I set to work and after many minutes gave my completed paper to Nick. He took it to a man with a pronounced limp who was walking near a desk. This was Don Hart, Hill’s communist racing manager; the Soviets of course were our allies then. Don took a paper from the desk and gave it to Nick. I then saw them shake their heads as they compared my returns with theirs. Nick, frowning, came back over.
“Your doubles are wrong, lad, and so are your trebles. Your accumulator’s adrift too. So I’m afraid it’s no go.”
He saw my face fall. “Look, son, we’ll take care of your fare up from Cardiff and any other expenses. I’m sorry.”
I’d double-checked my answers and could not believe it. How could I be so wrong? I was just going out to head for Paddington Station and home when I heard Don Hart’s deep voice suddenly call out, “Hold it, Nick, just a sec.”
Don was again looking at my answers, but this time with a slight smile. Nick went back to him. The two whispered for a second. Then Nick, also smiling now, came over.
“Our racing manager’s just noticed something. Tell me, have you ever settled bets on a credit basis before?”
“Never, sir, I’ve only worked on cash letters and street stuff from our runners. It’s all ready money, you see.”
“That accounts for it, you’ve included the stakes in your returns; we don’t do that up here because all bets with us are on credit, that’s what misled us. It’s lucky Don spotted that your shillings and pence are correct, it’s only the pounds that are different because you didn’t deduct the stakes. Congratulations. Would you like to meet Mr. Hill?”
Would I? My heart was thumping with relief and joy.
Soon I was being shown into a private office. The head of William Hill (Park Lane) Limited was in London that day because there was no horse racing, only a greyhound meeting; wartime restrictions permitted turf meetings just a few days a week so as not to jeopardise the war effort.
The tycoon who was one of the few bookmakers to keep operating during five years of war and now ran the biggest firm in the country, rose from his desk to greet me. I was looking at a dynamic, well-dressed, dark-haired man in his early forties with a genial smile and twinkling eyes. What Hill saw was an awkward 17-year-old in a suit from the Fifty
Shilling Tailor and a shirt and tie from Marks & Spencer.
“Sit down, son. Nick tells me you’ve done a good test and would like to join us. Cigarette?”
His mellow Midlands accent rolled over me like syrup. I couldn’t believe the firm’s founder was lighting me up.
“Nick says you’re with Sherman’s in Cardiff. I know old Harry. How long have you been working for him?”
“I started as an office boy just before the Derby last year, sir, but a few weeks later I was promoted to settler.”
Hill picked up a pair of spectacles and put them on, thoughtfully writing down what I told him. “So you started with him in May last year. Tell me, how much is Harry paying you a week to work out bets for him?”
“Thirty-two and six, plus 18 pence a night tea money.”
Hill gravely wrote down this information, then looked up. “TEA money? Never heard of it. What’s that?”
“We get one and six a night for staying late and getting all the settling done before we go home.”
“And you get paid this five times a week so you can buy yourself a cup of tea and a sandwich?”
I nodded and he got busy with his pen again. “At eighteen pence a night that’d bring your money up to…”
“Two pounds a week, sir,” I said helpfully.
Britain’s Number One oddsmaker took off his glasses. “I’m afraid we don’t pay tea money here, but what I can give you is five pounds a week basic pay and an extra pound every time you work a dog night. You can do that five times a week if you want, so that’d bring your money up to..”
“Ten pounds a week. And thank you very much, sir.”
Mr. Hill put down his pen and smiled. I was in!
* * * * *
I JOINED the firm on Monday, July 30, 1945, and soon found I was luckier than I thought. The news came from racing manager Don Hart, the Communist crippled when he was stabbed in the leg during a clash with Fascists in Hyde Park in the ’30s. He also told me he religiously bought two copies of the pro-Soviet newspaper the Daily Worker every day and left one on the bus in the hope another passenger might be converted.
“Your boss Harry Sherman tried to stop you coming to us,” Don said on my first day as we stood by his desk overlooking the same Hyde Park that had maimed him. “He phoned last week asking for Mr. Hill but as he was away at the races I took the call. ‘Mr. Hart,’ he said, ‘I’m terribly short of good staff and it would really help if Bill could hold off on taking Dalrymple away from me. The fact is, most of my best settlers are still in the army and can’t come back till they’re demobbed, you know how it is. So if you’ll please tell Bill my problem, I’m sure he’ll understand’.”
Don Hart’s lantern jaw twitched as he recalled the way a bloated capitalist was trying to exploit a lowly worker.
“I said, ‘No, Mr. Sherman, and I know Mr. Hill will agree with me on this. I think we should let the boy have his chance’. That’s why, Angus, you’re here with us now.”
It was then Don told me something Harry Sherman couldn’t have imagined and not many people realise today: it’s that William Hill was a staunch supporter of the Labour Party and as much of a left-winger as his racing manager was.
I went to work with a will and loved it. Most of the staff were men and women too old to have been called up or who’d been invalided out of the services on compassionate grounds or because of war wounds. The crowded settling department was on the first floor next to the phone room.
Accounts staff worked on the ground floor (here I met Ron Pollard, who went on to be one of the heads at Ladbroke’s). Our mail room and filing department were on the second floor.
DAILY ROUTINE: Mornings began by finishing up greyhound business from the night before. Then came the settling of thousands of postal bets from across the country. Next we calculated ante-post wagers and wrote out clients’ vouchers.
If there was time before lunch we engaged in the “stuffing” of envelopes with Hill’s latest promotions or took bets in the phone room using a brand-new invention, ballpoint pens.
After lunch we got down to the nitty of the afternoon’s horse or dog racing. Runners and results were shouted to us in a strong northern accent by “Willie” Williams from the phone room’s doorway. Then came his bawling of the “weighed-in” signal followed by his equally clamorous delivery of the Tote dividends. The uproar reigned until the day’s work ended.
OFFICE VISITORS: I saw fiery Phil Bull, a man with flaming red hair and a beard to match wearing a navy uniform (he was the founder of Timeform); Florence Desmond, a stunning actress who went on to star in the William Hill Show on Radio Luxembourg and with whom it was said Hill was having an affair (she certainly paid enough visits to Hill’s
private office on non-racing days); Hill’s best client, the millionairess Dorothy Paget, owner of a large string of racehorses (she was the subject of one of Hill’s favourite jokes, of which more later); singers and comedians Bud Flanagan and Chesney Allen (both gamblers from the famous variety act “The Crazy Gang”); and Roy Sutterlin, a debonair young man in air force uniform who said he was hoping to work for us after the war (he eventually joined us as a telephonist and trainee settler – I showed him the new “block” system, a time-saving method of working out bets – and the aircraftman went on to become one of Hill’s top aides and a director of the company!).
One day in the phone room I tried a new tack. Instead of announcing “William Hill” when I took a call, (many of the Londoners around me said “William ’llI” including one ripe
Cockney named Tom Simpkins who actually said “This is ’Ill speakin’”), I decided to say “William Hill of Park Lane at your service.” My greeting brought me a nice surprise.
It happened when Don Hart limped his painful way over to me. “You’re to go to the cashier and tell him you’re getting an increase in pay of a pound a week. That was Mr. Hill you just put through to me. He said to tell you he likes the way you answer the phone.”
I never saw William Hill in a bad temper. Not even when he bought large and shiny highly polished tables for the settling room along with dozens of self-extinguishing tall black plastic ashtrays with gleaming chrome tops. Within weeks every ashtray in the place had vanished. Hill remarked to Nick: “Well, at least we’ve still got the tables.”
On non-racing days he often came into the settling room to regale us with racing jokes. He often told the same stories but so enjoyed chuckling over them no one ever reminded him we’d heard them all before.
One he never tired of telling was about the punter who went to Epsom with only ten shillings (50p), backed winner after winner and was thousands of pounds up until the last race when he lost everything. He had to walk all the way home, where his wife greeted him with “How d’you get on, Fred?” and Fred answered, “I lost ten shillings.”
His Dorothy Paget story told how a new Welsh announcer at Chepstow races got the sack on his first day. His voice sang out over the loudspeakers: “Attention, please! The Stewards have informed me that Miss Dorothy Paget’s Fanny has just been scratched. In the paddock.”
Hill said the news naturally turned the betting market upside down: it was only minutes before the race and a new favourite had to be quickly installed. Then the announcer came on with the extra information that cost him his job: “May I have your attention again, please! The Stewards now inform me that to the best of their knowledge and belief, Miss Dorothy Paget’s Fanny has never even been entered!”
* * * * *
THE WAR in the Far East ended and a great Victory Parade was planned. Park Lane was on the route and Hill’s office gave a great view of the marchers passing the reviewing stand. Friends of the firm packed the phone room and settling department on the great day. What with the blaring bands, cheering crowds, and Willie Williams bawling the results, bedlam reigned throughout that memorable afternoon.
Months later as Christmas approached I received two invitations: one was from the government, telling me to report for military service in January; the other was from William Hill asking me to go to his first-ever staff party.
The occasion, the first of many I attended down the years, was held at Fisher’s nightclub in Bond Street. On the big night, our racing manager, Don Hart, made us all sit up.
Hill’s principal guests were announced by a doorman at the top of the grand staircase. We all gaped when we suddenly heard him call: “Sir Donald Hart!”
Don, immaculate in a dinner jacket with a white carnation, came limping sideways down the stairway, one at a time. When he reached the foot, the Master of Ceremonies boomed again: “Sir Donald Hart!”
What an entrance. The sight of a onetime communist agitator masquerading as a knight for a night made William Hill, Nick Nicholls and the rest of us break up.
Later Mr. Hill, in his speech to the company, said that while I was away doing my service in the army he was arranging for me to be paid my salary in full every week.
What a man.