WILFRED (“Nossie”) SHERMAN
Tiny Bookmaker — Towering Benefactor
by Angus Dalrymple
“WANTED: Office boy, 32s 6d week. Typing an advantage. Apply Sherman’s, Sherman House, St. Mary Street, Cardiff.”
The classified ad in the South Wales Echo in May, 1944, led me, a 16-year-old, to my first-ever bookmaking office and a pale, intense, chain-smoking midget in his early thirties.
This was Wilfred “Nossie” Sherman. He went on to change the face of betting as we know it today — and do it twice.
I’ll never forget his first question because it got me into the racing game: “What’s a shilling on a 7 to 4 chance get?”
“I reckon that’d be one shilling and ninepence, sir.
“When can you start?”
The following Monday I plunged into the exciting world of bookmaking, both legal and illegal. Legal, because Nossie Sherman took wagers placed by credit clients over the phone; illegal, due to the thousands of cash bets pouring in from street-agents all over the city, many in the bustling wartime docks, military depots and booming munitions factories.
(D-Day was still weeks away but we didn’t know it then.)
Sherman also took cash letter bets sent by punters from all over the country. These were mailed to an accommodation address in Scotland where cash betting was more or less tolerated, then rushed down to us in Cardiff by express train.
At first my jobs were bringing up from the basement heavy time-clocks with betting bags attached for our street-runners to use during the day’s racing ahead; typing return envelopes to letter-bet clients; opening football coupon envelopes sent to Sherman’s Pools; and typing the money due to street-bet winners whose wagers were written on scraps of paper, torn-up cigarette packages, even on toilet rolls.
I was also sent to a radio shop on big-race days to rent a portable wireless so Nossie could listen to the BBC commentary, and at night to the Drill Hall to sell programmes whenever Nossie, a former amateur flyweight boxing champion, was presenting professional fights.
My future in the betting world was assured one memorable afternoon when I was about to type on a pay-out sheet the amount Nossie had calculated was due to a winning punter.
“Excuse me, Mr Sherman, but this bet of a shilling each-way on Happy Landing in the Derby. Shouldn’t the return read six shillings and sixpence, not five-and-six?”
Nossie frowned, puffed on one of the expensive Passing Cloud cigarettes he often sent me out to buy, and pursed his lips in what for him was the semblance of a smile.
“Placed at 22 to 1, wins five-and-six plus stake makes it six-and-six.” He glared at the settler next to him who was supposed to check his work and tacked on the extra bob.
Next day he made me a trainee-settler and inside a month settling was my job. But there was no way Nossie would raise my salary even though other settlers, grown men and women, were getting three times my pay. I begged Nossie in vain.
“You’re only a boy,” the 4ft 9in dynamo said, looking up at me, “if I pay you what they get, they’ll want more, too. You make the most of all the free experience you’re getting.”
I did. As soon as the war in Europe ended and Hitler’s rockets stopped falling on London, I quit and got a job with William Hill. Nossie got his Uncle Harry to phone and ask Hill’s not to hire me but it didn’t work and I left for London.
It was nine years before I spoke to Nossie again. He was advertising in the “Life” for a manager and offering good pay. As I was by then married and a dad, I rashly phoned him.
When he told me the salary, I retorted I was making more working for William Hill. “But the cost of living is much lower in Cardiff,” he protested. “In any case I promise you’ll make a lot more money with me later on. Trust me.”
I didn’t. It was three years before we spoke again. He was now betting on the rails and I was working as Jack Swift’s racecourse representative. Swift’s coded messages to me were transmitted by the Exchange Telegraph and signalled to me on the floor of Tattersall’s by the Ex-Tel’s tic-tac men.
I saw Nossie shouting the odds but stayed well away. One day he said, “I see you diving around. Next time why not give the whole of your business to me? I guarantee top price.”
A few days later at Worcester, a tic-tac muttered, “Message for Swift coming down.” When I decoded it, the order read, “Put Grand Piano Midsummer Madness.”
Nossie was shouting “Five Midsummer Madness!” from atop the double crates he was forced to stand on to be seen. I took him at his word and whispered, “Five thousand to one.”
He whispered back, “I’ll lay you five hundred to one.”
I couldn’t believe he’d bluff me. “But I’m giving you the whole of the bet as you asked!”
“That was last week at Newmarket,” Nossie cheekily answered. “Worcester’s a weak market; I’ll never get it all on up here.”
Naturally his tic-tacs beat me to all the other bookmakers and I ended up averaging only five to two about the balance. Jack Swift was livid when I told him why I hadn’t beaten the S.P. and told me never to hedge with Nossie again.
Was it the end for Nossie and me? Not by a long shot.
Years later when I was working as a columnist for The Sporting Life, editor Ossie Fletcher told me one morning to go to Wales and visit a remote coal-mining village with the spit-sounding name of Foch Riw.
“It’s pronounced Foc-Roo,” Ossie explained with what looked like a smirk. “The owner of a betting shop down there just phoned me from his head office in Cardiff.”
I started to shake. “You don’t mean Wilfred..?!”
“That’s him, Wilfred Sportsman; his real name’s Wilfred Sherman, he owns betting shops all over Wales. He wants us to tell our readers what an open-handed, good-natured fellow he is, claims he’s altruistic to a degree and generous to a fault.”
“But the Wilfred Sherman I know is as mean as a skunk, Mr Fletcher; I tell you he’s tighter than a frog’s arsehole!”
“Not any more, he says his Foch Riw shop does very little trade but he’s proud to run it at a loss because of his respect for the coal-miners; he claims his only wish is to serve them.”
Fletcher added darkly, “My secretary says she can’t find Foch Riw on the map. So you’d best get down there and look.”
In Cardiff Nossie’s manager told me his boss had gone to Cheltenham where he was “entertaining his clients and friends.” He then drove me up and down hills and past slag-heaps to what was the deadest and dreariest betting shop in Britain.
An elderly man wearing mittens called “Evans the Odds” ran the shop for Nossie. I had to wait with him for an age before a punter came in. A loud clock on the wall was quietly driving me mad. When the big race, the Gold Cup, was only minutes away, there was a footfall in the doorway and “Watkins the Coal” came in and put two shillings (10p) on the favourite. Evans was so grateful for his lone customer’s business he opened a battered Oxo tin and gave Watkins the Coal a reward of a hand-rolled smoke.
After talking with people in the local hostelry (run by “Rees the Pub”) and chatting outside with a policeman (“Jones the Clink”) and the minister of a chapel (“Sedgemoor the Sky”), I was baffled. Everyone admired local hero “Wilfred Sportsman” for running his shop at a loss. It seemed Nossie had finally seen the light and changed his Scrooge-like ways. Or had he?
I dejectedly gave my story to Fletcher next day and amazed when he said it was good and had great “human interest.”
Weeks later a friend in Cardiff told me Nossie’s secret: he ran TWO betting shops in Foch Riw. The one I didn’t see did terrific business; he kept the quiet shop going to keep rivals out, being rightly able to claim when they tried to get a licence the village was already more than adequately served.
Nossie next had the nerve to appear at the Sporting Life office puffing on one of his inevitable Passing Clouds. After telling Fletcher about his bleeding stomach ulcers, the dapper dwarf knocked back whiskies almost as fast as they were poured.
Nossie said he wanted the “Life” to change the way it compiled the official S.P. on two-horse races; he told Fletcher the odds he was currently publishing were wrong.
His point was that if the favourite had a starting price of say, 2 to 1 on, the other runner was traditionally but incorrectly declared by the “Life” as being 2 to 1 against.
Such odds, Nossie declared, could never be obtained on the racecourse, so what the “Life” was printing was a lie.
(There’d been a two-horse race in which a 25 to 1 on chance lost; punters screamed when off-course bookmakers said the most they’d pay backers of the winner was 5 to 2 against.)
Fletcher called in Geoffrey (“Pop”) Hamlyn, the paper’s SP compiler. When Pop admitted Nossie was right, the editor agreed to change “Life” policy and publish true odds only.
After this triumph, Nossie’s second visit to the “Life” eventually led to a major change in the daily racing routine.
He urged Fletcher to join him in a campaign to get the advertised times of races altered: instead of meetings beginning at 2 pm and 2.15 pm, so that a race took place every 15 minutes, Nossie’s plan was for a third meeting to start at an unheard-of five minutes past the hour while the first race at a fourth meeting would be at ten minutes past.
Through a haze of cigarette smoke I saw Nossie’s dark eyes glint when the editor asked, “But why, Mr Sherman?”
“Well obviously, Mr Fletcher, turnover. You see, with races every five minutes instead of fifteen, betting-shop takings will go up when punters get more chances to invest.
More turnover, more profit, more money for the Levy Board, more cash for the betterment of racing.”
I considered Nossie, with his huge chain of shops, being interested only in the betterment of his pocket, however Fletcher saw his point and pledged the “Life’s” support.
Meetings with the Horserace Betting Levy Board and the Jockey Club led to Nossie’s master-plan, which for some reason no one had ever had the brains to think of before, being adopted. As we know, Nossie’s idea is still with us today.
He also convinced the authorities that for his plan to work it was essential races start exactly on time instead of getting off several minutes late as they almost always did.
Later I watched Nossie at a celebration at the Sporting Life office give a thin smile, sip his scotch, and contentedly fill his lungs with the fumes from yet another Passing Cloud.
The Philanthropist of Foch Riw had done it again.
* * *
NOW NOSSIE came into his own. As the son of a poor Jew from Lithuania, he’d worked for street bookies in Cardiff before he was even a teenager. And now with fortunes flowing in from hundreds of his own betting shops in Wales and the West he was galloping towards racing’s stable of multi-millionaires.
He became chairman of the Licensed Bookmakers’ Federation and although still betting on the rails, often left his pitch for the paddock. He was a good judge as a racehorse owner, winning many races including Cheltenham’s Triumph Hurdle in 1968 with England’s Glory and the 1974 Haydock Sprint Cup with Princely Son.
Mixing with jockeys and apprentices changed Nossie’s life: he felt at home with them because, like him, they were so short. He visited training centres and was shocked to see stable lads with nothing to do with their spare time but hang around pubs.
The former flyweight champ helped by organising boxing tournaments to raise funds for the lads’ well-being. He was a founding father of the Stable Lads’ Welfare Trust, dedicated to making sure retired stud and stable staff were cared for. And he battled for years to ensure that all riders working for trainers wore an approved helmet under the Work Safety Act.
Down the decades his bookmaker’s generosity knew no limit.
When he retired he went to live in Spain. And it was from Cordoba – at the age of 98 – that he journeyed to England to unveil a plaque at the centre he’d built to provide a decent retirement home for racing’s elderly and infirm “little people”.
Wilfred Sherman died in March last year at the age of 99. The house in Newmarket that is his legacy stands in a road named after him. Even he might smile if he knew the name the trustees chose for the thoroughfare to honour his memory. The sign reads “Wilfred Sherman Close.” It certainly suited Nossie; he was the closest bookmaker I ever knew.
But a great one in the end.
Angus Dalrymple began his bookmaking career during the Second World War. He was later billed as ‘Gus’ Dalrymple in The Sporting Life, from 1962 to 1966 and again in 1972, whne he wrote about betting shops and racing personalities. He now writes CBC-TV News in Toronto
I’m indebted to Chris Pitt at BOS Magazine for permitting me to reproduce this article. Chris has done a considerable favour to the betting industry, in my opinion, by re-establishing a proper Bookmakers Trade Fair. The Betting Show, as many remember it, had gone from an affordable, educational and sociable gathering to a bloated, expensive and tiresome arcade. Chris and Mary Pitt via BOS Magazine have restored some sanity and their third Bookmakers Trade Fair takes place at Wolverhampton Racecourse on October 6th. If only Angus Dalrymple could be there!