Allow me to introduce you to Henry Steel (1832-1915), somebody you’ve never heard of, but one of Sheffield’s larger-than-life characters. This ‘Great Master of the Odds’ made a fortune from bookmaking, earning so much money that his account at the Westminster Bank in Sheffield was its largest.
It all started with fishmongery, but as a young man he was quick to realise the gains to be made from horse racing. At first, he speculated with the ‘silver book’, but soon established a vein of gold having received the commission for St. Albans and later moving into London.
He became acquainted with John Jackson and Harry Hargreaves, both racehorse owners, and, along with his best friend, William Peech, ended up securing their extensive Turf business.
Henry’s clients included the rich and famous, counting amongst his close friends Lord Rosebery, and King Edward VII, when he was Prince of Wales, and who once gave him a valuable breast-pin. When Edward opened the University of Sheffield in 1905, he recognised Henry, left the procession, and shook him heartily by the hand.
After Blue Gown won the Epsom Derby in 1868, it is said that Henry strolled jauntily and unconcernedly down to Tattersall’s, the auctioneers, and deposited £90,000 (about £10.2million today) to buy a horse.
Henry was known at every racecourse and his transactions so enormous that he became known as ‘the Leviathan’, leader of the ring in the 1860s and 1870s, with society magazine, Vanity Fair, speculating that he was probably the richest man ever to have made his fortune in bookmaking.
His frankness and freedom sometimes tainted his reputation as a bookmaker, but he was always equal to jibes, and a ready repartee gave him the better of his critics.
Henry eventually moved to London, buying the Archbishop of York’s house, along with an extensive wine collection, but soon tired of it. He returned to Sheffield in 1870, bought Westbourne, and after some years moved to Tapton Court.
However, away from the track, Henry Steel was also famous for establishing Steel, Peech and Tozer, a famous Rotherham steel firm.
In 1875, the works of the Phoenix Bessemer Company had gone into liquidation with liabilities of £140,000. Henry, along with William Peech, Edward Tozer and Thomas Hampton, bought the works for £36,500, and turned it into a private company with a capital of £70,000. After enlargements and improvements, the business became a huge success.
Henry Steel died at Tapton Court in 1915, his will worth £652,418, that’s around £67.5million today.
Steel, Peech and Tozer joined Samuel Fox & Co, Stocksbridge, and Appleby-Frodingham Steel, Scunthorpe, to form United Steel Companies in 1918, subsequently becoming part of British Steel Corporation.