The Black and Tan bookie

Posted on: 10th September, 2018

Category: The History Corner

Contributor: Shane Daly

Shane Daly is a History Graduate from University College Cork, with a BAM in History and an MA in Irish History. He also writes a Political/History Column for The Advertiser

“I want no mercy – I’ll have no mercy…I’ll die as many thousands have died, for the sake of their beloved land and in defence of it. I will die proudly and triumphantly, in defence of republican principals and the liberty of an oppressed and enslaved people.” – William Allen

In 2006 the American ice-cream manufacturers, Ben & Jerry’s, created a new flavour that used stout in its ingredients. The stout gave the icecream an unusual colouring and the company called their new flavour ‘Ben & Jerry’s Black and Tan’. This flavour never made it to Ireland. To give Ben and Jerry their due credit, they’re brilliant at making ice-cream but their Irish history could do with a bit of work. If you’re reading this column, It’s safe to assume you don’t need reminding of the atrocities carried out in Ireland, by the Black and Tans but let me give you a brief reminder. In 1920 during the War of Independence, the IRA shot a Tan wearing full uniform, killing him instantly. As a reprisal the Black and Tan force burned 300 buildings in Cork to the ground. They took little pieces of the city and pinned them to their caps to warn the IRA but also to goad the citizens of Cork. The Catholic cardinal of the day called them ‘a horde of savages, some of them simply brigands, burglars and thieves’. Similar denunciations came from within the armed forces. Their own commander, General Frank Crozier resigned in 1921 because they had been ‘used to murder, rob, loot, and burn up the innocent because they could not catch the few guilty on the run’. Ben & Jerry’s created the Black and Tan ice-cream. Winston Churchill created the Black and Tans.

One such Black and Tan was William Hill. You might recognise the name. There are 2,372 William Hill betting shops in the world. The first was created by William Hill who was a Black and Tan based in Mallow, County Cork. William was born in Birmingham in in 1903. He left school at 12-years-old and became an apprentice working for the motorcycle firm BSA. He began taking illegal bets shortly after he left school, collecting the betting slips on his motorbike in inner city Birmingham, making him an illegal bookie. Which would essentially have made him a ‘Peaky Blinder’, as illegal bookies were known as such in Birmingham at this time. A Peaky Blinder was not a gang but it was a term used to describe someone who we might describe as a ‘gurrier’ today. The derivation of their name came from the rumour that they hid razor blades in the peak of their caps. Some of you might be familiar with the Netflix show of the same name today.

Hill joined the Black and Tans at age sixteen. He was too young by law to join at this age, so he lied. The force was having an incredibly large recruitment campaign at this time, around 1919. The RIC needed them as a supplementary force in Ireland to fight in the War of Independence. The IRA were doing everything in their power to wipe the British out of Ireland and Ireland had become an increasingly volatile so the British needed more numbers on the ground to deter the IRA.

William joined, was given a uniform and posted to Mallow. He became a regular in the local bar known as Moss Foley’s and started taking bets here in his free time. He spent two years in Cork. The war was over in 1921 and William used his severance pay from the RIC to set up his first bookies. His first attempt failed. William Hill bookmaker was a quick stint of his at Birmingham Tracks, this was short lived due to the fact that Hill lost all of his capital during this venture. In 1926 organised greyhound racing became legal, which was good news for Hill and 1929 saw Hill take on a fresh challenge, he packed his bags and moved to London. The company we know today dates back to 1934 with its first off-track William Hill betting store located in London. At a time when bookmaking was still technically illegal, the company was established as a postal and telephone betting service. This meant Hill, quite cleverly outsmarted the legal system and bypassed the laws by taking a credit only approach. Punters would use cheques to place bets weeks in advance.

Hill also has the unique distinction as being the first bookmaker to offer fixed odds on football betting and established a completely separate football company, William Hill (Football) Ltd which proved to be particularly successful. Hill also expanded and offered his services in Scotland via his subsidiary offices. This is where we see some confusion – Ladbrokes was the first UK licensed bookmaker to offer fixed odds but William Hill was offering fixed odds with a credit only approach long before Ladbrokes came into the picture. Hill in fact sued Ladbrokes for damages and costs and won.

During the 50s William Hill had become a household name, claiming over 400, 000 customers. The company had become publicly listed on the London Stock Exchange and shares were being sold in excess of £5 million. During this time there were no legal obligations enforced upon any bookies to pay punters their winnings. Hill gained a reputation for honesty. He became known as being the bookie that ‘paid out’ his reputation spread and his business flourished from here. Following on from great success in the UK, Hill opened betting offices in Ireland. In Ireland and particularly in Cork there are stories that still go round to this day that in Mallow and Killavullen direction, some punters will only bet in a William Hill store. If they have a tip for a horse that is a sure thing to cross the post first, even if the odds are worse there, because if they win, the money is taken from a Black and Tan, making the win that little bit sweeter.

William Hill retired in 1970. He died one year later in 1971. Having started one betting shop with his severance pay from the RIC and building his empire to almost 2,500 shops today. William Hill’s own legacy was summed up at a Methodist church memorial service by Phil Bull – an odd combination of an atheist remembering an agnostic – who said: “He began at the bottom, rapidly rose to the top and lifted the whole profession with him as he went…He took bookmaking from the check suit and gold watch-chain image and gave it a new respectability and integrity…He became the greatest bookmaker of all time, both on the racecourse and off, with a centralised SP organisation on a national scale such as had not been seen before. It will not happen again. William’s death is the end of an era. There will be none like him again.”

The business was listed on the London Stock exchange recently with a value of £4.07 Billion. It all began in Moss Foley’s pub in Mallow, County Cork.


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