Betting in British culture

By Pete | @kingpetey | 14 Sep 2013

Gambling has always had an up and down reputation in Britain and has gone through favour and censure depending on the time, the societal pressures and the economic situation.

Sometime during the middle of the 19th century, betting shops were made illegal and the only gambling to happen would be underground and, therefore, dodgy for many reasons for the next 100 years. It could certainly be argued that, much in the same was as prohibition in the US, this outright ban would have increased the criminal fraternity to run black market gambling, which was much more dangerous for those participating.

Illegal betting shops continued, of course, and there was basically a ‘look the other way’ policy going on as there is no way the authorities didn’t know about the huge underground betting market that was going on under their noses.

This didn’t stop gambling, of course, and it certainly wouldn’t have stopped the rich from doing what they wanted. Betting on horses, actually at the races, was still legal so that attracted most of the activity. Thankfully, on 1 May 1961, completely legal betting shops began to emerge onto our high streets. But they mostly had a seedy appearance and a seedy reputation.

Gambling is linked, of course, with addiction and with stories of people losing everything and not being able to stop. But it’s also an extremely enjoyable way to use your brain. Working out odds, analysing situations, comparing bookmaker’s odds - all of these feed into a logical, mathematical and complicated computation in pro gambler’s minds, allowing them to have a good chance of coming out on top.

There was, in fact, a reason for the premises generally being rather dingy and unwelcoming - the government’s 1961 Betting & Gaming Act specified that licensed betting shops did not ‘encourage loitering’. So if you’ve ever wondered why betting shops used to seem unwelcome - it was on purpose!

Fred Done owns over 250 betting shops - Bedfred is the name you would have seen - and is actually the biggest independent bookmaker in the UK. He came from nothing, working for his father’s bookmaking business in 1959. There were limits on multiple betting back then so they couldn’t lose too much as a bookmaker and punters had absolutely nowhere near the level of understanding and access to information they have now.

Cyril Stein, who started up Ladbrokes, understood the sheer potential in the market and bought up shops everywhere he could. As the government has raised betting taxes and internet gambling for sports and casinos has taken off in a big way, high street shops have definitely declined. There are around 8,000 on our high streets today, and many customers still prefer to visit the shops and watch the sports or racing while they’re there.

However, far more now bet online. There is easy access to online gambling, online betting and any kind of casino game or sports betting you can think of from myriad providers online, one of the most successful of which is William Hill at freebets.org. William Hill is also incredibly successful on the high street - the chairman, John Brown, began buying shops in the 60s and now the company he set up owns around 1,500.

Other factors including the introduction of the National Lottery, scratch cards and all of the opportunities they provide to win money for customers, along with the ease of using them, has also contributed to the decline of high street betting shops.

With gambling legislation under near constant review, it’s likely that both online betting and high street betting will continue to work together, enabling as many people as possible to enjoy their hobby.