How the Simmons Betting Company Went Under

Simmons Betting was, for many years, one of the UK’s favourite betting firms.
Launched in Victorian times, it was one of the first to accept bets over the phone and put an end to the traditional sports agent/prince gambler stereotype.
It’s now been in the media a few times over the years due to various scandals and legal battles, but it has still maintained a large online following.

The company started out in the right place. Founded by railway man and entrepreneur William Simmons, the firm quickly expanded across London as people began to see the benefits of placing bets through a company they trusted.
The company became so popular that they even opened branches in Paris, Berlin and New York City (although these days, they don’t exactly advertise the fact).

But despite its popularity, Simmons Betting failed to maintain its quality.
Throughout its history, the company has been plagued by scandals and high-profile issues.

The Scandals

The firm was first made famous for the scandal involving its founder and former chairman William Simmons.
In 1924, Simmons was charged with accepting a bribe from a bookmaker. He then tried to sue the British government for defamation, claiming that he was only doing his job and had been the victim of a smear campaign.
Simmons’ bribery charge was eventually dropped, but he died a few months later from a cerebral haemorrhage.

The following year, the Securities and Exchange Commission launched a probe into whether Simmons had defrauded investors.
A grand jury in New York also looked into possible charges of fraud against Simmons.

Although he was a colourful character, there is no denying that William Simmons was a pioneer in business, and he did benefit a great many people in his day.
But that was before his time.

The Lawsuits

Even though William Simmons had passed away, the firm he founded continued to suffer a number of problems.
In 1931, Simmons Betting was accused of price fixing.
For a period of six months, the SEC investigated whether the firm had colluded with other bookmakers to fix the price of international football matches.
The firm settled with the SEC and agreed to abide by a number of regulations, the most important of which being that they would no longer be involved in price fixing.

In 1937, George William Herbert Spencer was appointed managing director of the firm.
In 1941, he was involved in a dispute with the London Stock Exchange over whether the LSE’s Rules on Rebates and Settlements applied to disputes between members of the association.

In the end, the LSE’s arbitration panel ruled in Spencer’s favour, but the matter continued to be hotly contested.
Simmons also argued that it was within his rights as a member of the LSE to have his case heard by an arbitrator, as he was not an employee of the exchange but a member in good standing.

Shortly after this, Spencer was involved in a big tax fraud scandal at the firm.
He had, over a period of seven years, forged 418 cheques made out to himself and deposited them in bank accounts in the name of nominee residents.
Simmons Betting was, at the time, facing a massive £483,000 tax bill. The bank accounts were later frozen by the Inland Revenue, but by the time the money was recovered, Spencer had fled to South Africa.
Despite this, he was never prosecuted for tax fraud.

The Resignation Of A Director

In December 1941, just a few months after the tax scandal, Simmons Betting was hit by yet another blow.
Williamson & Sons, a leading firm of cotton and synthetic fibre merchants, submitted a complaint to the Stock Exchange accusing James Williamson, one of the firm’s three directors, of malpractices.
Somehow, Williamson had found out about the price fixing investigation and, as per his contractual obligations, had tried to contact the FBI, MI-5 and MI-6, the SEC and the Department of Justice.
Williamson alleged, among other things, that Simmons Betting had paid him a total of £32,000 in illegal commissions for his help in placing bets.
He also claimed that the firm had offered him an even sweeter deal if he could prove that they had colluded with other bookmakers.
Although his identity was kept anonymous, it was later revealed that Williamson had sold large amounts of cotton and synthetic fibre on the London and New York stock exchanges while in effect working for a rival firm, the Lancashire Cotton Corporation.

The fallout from this was far-reaching.
The day after it was announced that James Williamson would be stepping down from the board of Simmons Betting, the stock dropped by almost 13% to 391p.

Less than a week later, on 24 January 1942, the Financial Times called for an emergency meeting of the board of Simmons Betting.
The newspaper reported that, ‘In the last few days, the stock has declined by 11% and 18% on the London and New York exchanges respectively,’ adding that ‘rumours of trouble are never pleasant to handle, but it may be that for a time it is advisable to sit back and not exacerbate a situation which could have been avoided.’
And so it was.
James Williamson was reinstated as a director of the company a few weeks later, on 16 February.

In the end, the FBI arrested two suspected bookmakers (one of them being Harry Palmer, a.k.a. ‘Lemon Harry’, the man who had set-up William Simmons) as part of an operation named ‘Operation Cricket’.
Palmer was later jailed for 15 years after being found guilty of fraud, among other charges. The other suspect, Alfred Horsfall, was also given a lengthy prison sentence. Horsfall, who was working with another bookmaker called George Woolhouse as part of a ‘sports fixing’ ring, had attempted to pass a pair of dodgy cheques made out to himself at the end of each season at senior level to conceal his involvement in football matches. The cheques were, in fact, forgeries.
In 1945, the Federal Bureau of Investigation called the case against the accused ‘one of the most significant criminal cases in the annals of the S.E.C.’.

One of the main issues that made Simmons Betting famous was that it would always listen to its customers.
If a customer asked for a withdrawal, the company would almost always grant it. So much so that, in 1945, the British government attempted to shut down the firm as part of a crackdown on tax evasion.
The firm had never paid any corporation tax, instead relying entirely on earnings from wagers and the occasional lottery win to fund its extensive operations.

In 1946, an offer of £400,000 was made to buy the company.
Simmons’ widow, Estelle Simmons, initially accepted the offer, but then turned it down, stating that she did not wish to sell.
In the end, the government backed down and allowed the firm to continue operating as normal.

The following year, 1947, saw another attempt to buy Simmons Betting.
This time, the price was £800,000 and it was accepted by the family.
Estelle Simmons died a few months later on 27 April, leaving behind an estate valued at £2,130,000.

One of the main reasons for the company’s popularity was that it would give its customers peace of mind, knowing that, if a match was fixed, they would not be out of pocket.
Although the firm admitted that this might not always be possible, it was a policy that the Simmons family maintained even up until the very end.

The Family Fight

William Simmons, the founder of the firm, had five children from his first marriage to Mary Jane.
All five of his children, plus his wife, helped run the firm.
Three of the five children – William, Estelle and John – were, at the time of their father’s death, all under the age of 40.
The senior management team were, for the most part, very committed to keeping the company going.
In a statement, the family said: ‘We do not wish to be involved in a war, whether it is economic or otherwise, and we are confident that, with the aid of the government, the economy of Britain and the Allied countries can be restored to something like its former state, and that international trade and commerce can be revived and expanded.’

So, in a way, they were right.
By 1950, international trade had, in fact, increased by 50% and the British economy had, for the most part, recovered from the ravages of the Second World War.
Simmons Betting did, indeed, play an important role in reviving the economy and it remains one of the most successful and well-known firms of its kind in the world.