Sportsman, entrepreneur, saloon keeper, impresario, gambler, sports promoter etc

Harry Hill
Harry Hill
Image source: New York Public Library.

Most biographies say that Harry (possibly born Henry) Hill was born in Epsom around 1827; unfortunately, the common name(s) and differing years of birth in censuses and newspapers make it impossible to trace his ancestry. (For what it's worth I have a hunch that his parents could have been James Hill and Mary Belchambers of Epsom, who had moved to Woking at some point before the 1841 census and were fairly haphazard in having the children christened). Harry's uncle is important to this tale, but I have been unable to confirm his identity, mainly because I cannot find a definite christening record for Harry. There is no dispute, according to the American newspapers, that the uncle was betting commissioner to Lord George Bentinck at the relevant period, so this suggests very strongly that it was another Harry (Henry) Hill or, perhaps less likely, a John Gully - it doesn't matter greatly, since Gully and Hill were closely associated and warrant a mention for their Epsom connections with or without young Harry. Bentinck himself was not above a bit of dodgy dealing, especially when it came to manipulating odds, and one publication said, 'it requires a good deal of seasoning to swallow the statement about Lord George Bentinck's probity, and all that sort of thing, in turf transactions. He was no more honest, perhaps, than his commissioner and we do not think anyone yet has proposed to erect a monument in Westminster Abbey to Mr Harry Hill "as being one of the most undeceiving and deceivable of men"'.

Neither the older Harry Hill nor John Gully were Surrey people, which makes me wonder how there was a genealogical connection with young Harry, but we shall have to believe the newspapers and move on! Harry Senior came from Cheshire and apparently began as the 'boots' in a hotel, but then became heavily involved in the racing world and with Somerset-born Gully, who started out as a bare-knuckle fighter and became MP for Pontefract. They both made a fortune out of racing, although Hill lost most of his. Gully had the distinction of owning two Derby winners (Pyrrhus in 1846 and Andover in 1854), plus Mendicant, winner of the 1846 Oaks; he was also co-owner of the 1832 Derby winner, St Giles, although there was much suspicion about bribery of jockeys and/or trainers surrounding this victory. Hill owned two Oaks winners, Cymba (1848) and Mincepie (1856). As you probably know, there was a considerable amount of skulduggery in racing during the 19th century. John Gully seems to have kept out of too much trouble (publicly at least) on that score, but Hill was well-known for being very shady (he apparently organised an unsuccessful scheme to nobble the 1855 Derby winner Wild Dayrell and had been known to influence the outcome of races illegally). Suffice it to say that the pair of them were far from squeaky clean. From when he was a child the young Harry Hill spent a large amount of his time either working or hanging around at Epsom Racecourse (some accounts say he did riding and training) so it is easy to see how he took up the activities that he did - we are told that he learned a lot about horses and gambling at Epsom. However, unlike Hill Senior and Gully, Harry had the reputation of being a very honest man.

In about 1850 Harry encountered American sugar magnate George Woolsey at Epsom and was hired to run the latter's stables in Astoria, New York. Harry sailed to Flushing, Long Island in 1850 and in that year's US census is to be found at Woolsey's establishment in Newtown, Queens. Apparently he had married before embarking for America - all we know is that his wife was called Jane, but she is not with him in the 1850 census, although she turns up later.

Harry acquired some stables in about 1852 and began to deal in horses. He liked pugilistic sports (which could well have come from John Gully) and in 1854 opened a grocery store on the corner of Houston and Crosby Streets, very near to Broadway, for which he obtained a liquor licence. He swiftly turned the premises into a sporting house and general place of entertainment: sport certainly did take place there and Harry did perform as a wrestler. His bar was the venue for the first professional wrestling matches and he also put on female boxing (sometimes against men). One of these boxers was a woman called Jennie Franklin, who later became a shootist in vaudeville - that's where you place an apple on the assistant's head and blast the apple to smithereens, but, sadly, in 1878 Ms Franklin had a bad night and fatally shot her assistant in the head.

Harry Hill
Pencil Drawing of Harry Hill's Establishment, 26. E. Houston St. in 1864
Image source: New York Public Library.

Harry Hill
Inside Harry Hill's 1869
Image source: New York Public Library.

The establishment was a den of prostitutes, gamblers and criminals - a 'rough dive' as one newspaper put it, so rough that Harry never allowed his family in there. He also promoted boxing bouts and John L Sullivan, later world heavyweight champion, had early fights at Harry Hill's, as did champion wrestler Bill Muldoon, who later became chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission. This successful establishment remained in operation until 1887, albeit that for the last couple of years Harry was operating without an excise licence and was arrested many times.

Harry Hill
Harry Hill is depicted bottom centre in the boxing glove.
Image source: Library of Congress.

Harry Hill
Cigarette cards depicting Bill Muldoon (left) and John L Sullivan (right).
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Albeit that Harry's establishment was fundamentally an all-night bar, he was in favour of temperance 'as far as he could be' and allowed temperance campaigners to hold meetings there without charge, even offering the use of his orchestra.

In order to carry on with his business Harry had to make large protection payments to the police and, when he was forced to give evidence against them, found himself harassed constantly. He believed police revenge was responsible for the revocation of his licence in the 1880s. Up to about that time he had been a very rich man: he owned two hotels in Flushing (part of an estate of roughly 450 acres), steamboats, pedigree cattle, horses and dogs, but the licensing issues with his Houston Street business caused a huge loss of income and other debts and bad investments then came home to roost. Basically it was said that he was illiterate, so signed contracts that he could not read; he was also ignorant of business methods, which caused him to over-extend himself into enterprises that he did not understand. Harry closed down Houston Street and moved to Harlem, but once again the police drove him out. Next he opened a hotel in Corona, Long Island, which burnt down in 1893. Mrs Jane Hill had long since left him.

On 12 May 1894 the National Police Gazette did an extensive piece on Harry and a reporter went to visit him; he was then running a small rented bar in a place called Maspeth, in Queens but very much off the beaten track. The reporter said, 'Hill lay in a reclining chair in the back room. A little girl, the daughter of a former servant who died leaving her alone in the world, as his companion, and a bright young man, whom the little girl calls "Billy Barkeeper" serves the drinks. There was a gray cat with a stub tail and a handsome Newfoundland dog. The old man arose and expressed the greatest pleasure at seeing someone from the city again.'

The article goes on, 'During the whole two hours the reporter was there only one customer entered the door. Mr Hill lives in the saloon and does his own cooking in the rear room. He sleeps in a little room upstairs.' It was said that he had pawned his overcoat to buy the little girl a cloak. At the time of the interview Harry claimed to be 60 years old, but was thought to be about 74 (which would make c.1820 the date of birth - this is where we came in!).

Harry Hill
Drawing of Harry Hill
Image source: National Police Gazette of 12 May 1894.

The National Police Gazette organised a fund, which raised donations of $8,000, and its editor held a benefit concert for Harry, where he made a guest appearance juggling Indian clubs (something that he had probably learned on Epsom Downs whilst watching the fairs). He died in Corona on 27 August 1896. The New York Times said that he was 'a queer combination of the lawless, reckless, rough, and the honest man, who often kept his promises and was loyal to his friends, some of whom took advantage of these traits and cheated him'. The funeral service was conducted by 34 of his fellow freemasons and he was buried at Cedar Grove Cemetery, Flushing (near to Flushing Meadow where the US Open tennis is held). The newspaper observed that, although he had had many important and influential friends when he was running the Houston Street business, none of them turned up for the funeral.

Harry had three sons, who were unable to support him in his last years. William (born c.1853) was a janitor, Richard (probably Charles Richard, born c.1857) kept a small hotel in Flushing and Edward (born c.1859) spent 25 years piloting one of the steamships that Harry had been forced to sell. Mrs Jane Hill died on 1 August 1898 and is also buried in Cedar Grove Cemetery: she was said to be about 80 years of age (although this bears no relation to her varying birth dates in US censuses).

Researched and written by Linda Jackson © 2014

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