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First bet taken by famous bookie: What are the odds?

Author who worked for betting company for 46 years questions local legend that places William Hill at the landmark Archway Tavern

04 September, 2020 — By Sam Ferguson

The Archway Tavern, where it’s often told that William Hill once accepted his wagers

AN often-quoted tale that one of the UK’s best known bookmakers took his first bet in a pub in Archway has gone down in Islington folklore.

But it was claimed this week that the story about William Hill, whose eponymous gambling operation is still one of the country’s biggest players decades after his death, may be stretching the truth.

Graham Sharpe, 69, who worked for the betting company for 46 years, rising from writing the horse racing odds on boards to the position of media relations director, authored a biography of Mr Hill.

He contacted the Tribune after reading about the local legend that Mr Hill took his first bet inside the landmark Archway Tavern.

“It certainly wouldn’t have been his first bet ever, as he was already operating in race courses in Birmingham,” said Mr Sharpe, who published William Hill: The Man And The Business in 2015 – marking the 80th anniversary of the company’s founding.

“He came to London to try and break into the big time. He would have been around in central London at that time and could well have used the route which passes the Archway Tavern as he came into London on his way to the races.

“But we would need to narrow the claim down and say it was his first bet since coming to London, or his first bet taken in London to be accurate. He was already a bookmaker when he came to the capital.”

The famous pub overlooking Navigator Square recently reopened after being closed for several years and then unable to trade due to the coronavirus lockdown.

One story definitely true is that the pub was featured on the front cover of The Kinks’ album Muswell Hillbillies.

Mr Sharpe said the story about Mr Hill’s apparent visits to the tavern had not come up in his own research, but added: “It would be great if somebody could get in touch and put some meat on the bones. It’s the sort of thing that would have happened, if I know William Hill’s character.

“He would have regarded it as recruiting business, and he was known for walking into pubs and taking bets.”

Mr Hill had grown up in the Midlands, leaving school early to work on a farm and in a factory. He is believed to have come to London in 1929. He died in 1971 shortly after retiring from the business.

The company has changed hands several times, but his famous name remains attached to the company’s betting shops and online gambling services across the world.

As we reported last week, The Archway Tavern has overcome a long-running licensing saga to see pints pouring once again.

It has been refurbished and is stock­ing beers from local breweries in Islington, Muswell Hill and Highgate.

• If you can help trace the roots of the story about Mr Hill and the Archway Tavern, you can get in touch by emailing

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