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Graham Sharpe

Reflecting on 60 years since the legalisation of betting shops provides a warning for the future

Like many youngsters in the late 1960s, I wanted to rebel in some shape or form. So when I was temporarily out of work as a journalist, I opted to take a job in a betting shop, thus prompting my mother, in whose house I still lived, to observe disdainfully: “Newspaper hack, bookie – what next, estate agent?”

Having no desire whatsoever to flog houses for a living, I instead decided to push ahead with my fledgling career, initially as a boardman, where I committed the cardinal error of mis-pricing a favourite, thus causing severe aggro when the horse inevitably won, being returned not at the 10/1 marked up on my board, but at 2/1. “Easy mistake to make, that commentator needs elocution lessons,” I explained to punters threatening to string me up as they received a fifth of the winnings they’d expected.

Despite this inauspicious start, I rose up the ranks and was eventually given my own shop to manage. But that was only made possible by the Government’s decision in September 1960 – almost 60 years ago to the day – that betting shops were to be legalised.

There had actually been some 400 betting shops operating quite legally in London in 1850, but three years later they had been banned after one of the best known shops, Dwyer’s in St Martin’s Lane, vanished overnight – owing punters in excess of £25,000. Legislation was subsequently introduced to close down all betting shops.

Bookies have never been anything other than pragmatic, however, so after years of operating clandestinely in the street, it was no surprise when the Daily Mirror revealed in 1958 just how easy it was to place a cash bet, despite such a thing being ostensibly illegal.

Reporter Jack Stonely wrote: “I stopped a policeman and asked ‘Please can you direct me to the nearest place where I can put a bet on a horse?’ ‘Certainly sir, straight along the road – you’ll see a little doorway, go right in’.”

When the Home Office announced that betting shops were to be legalised, the eponymous William Hill was amongst those not particularly optimistic about their potential profitability, telling the Daily Mail: “Only a third of the shops that open will still be in business after a year.”

Even the Sporting Life was doubtful, quoting J T Chenery, author of the book, ‘Betting and Boomaking’, as saying: “The ‘To Let’ sign will be hanging over many a betting shop before long. Who is going to leave his armchair to go out, perhaps in the rain, to do what he can do in comfort simply by lifting the telephone? No one in his right mind.”

They were wrong. Rab Butler, the Home Secretary responsible for the legislation, rightly predicted: “I am convinced that the new social experiment will be successful.”

The newly-legal betting shops did flourish, but were spartan places to frequent – completely unrecognisable from those we see today. There were no refreshments, no comfortable seating, no televisions.

By 1964, John Morgan was writing in the New Statesman: “Their saddest feature is their discomfort. With a delicate hypocrisy the government has encouraged gambling by making shops easily available, but salved its conscience by insisting that they are graceless, utilitarian places.”

In 1966, William Hill himself was finally persuaded to see the light by his concerned directors and had to buy in to the betting shop business by purchasing rival chains. By 1973, two years after William had died, the number of betting office licences in force in Great Britain had peaked at 14,750.

Nothing significant changed in the legislation governing betting shops for a quarter of a century, until on March 10, 1986, punters were finally allowed to watch live and recorded sport on televisions in the shops, which could also now provide soft drinks and refreshments to customers.

On May 1, 1987, Satellite Information Sevices, SIS, launched the UK’s first live coverage of non-televised race meetings, beaming horse and greyhound races into betting shops. By 1992, William Hill betting shops were open in Wembley Stadium to take wagers on events being held there.

Betting shops could open in the evenings from April 1993 and from November 1994 it became legal for them to accept football pools coupons. The following year, the shops were able to open on Sundays, but in 1996 many of them were nearly put out of business when Frankie Dettori rode all seven winners at Ascot on Saturday, September 28 at accumulative odds of 25,095/1, costing the industry tens of millions.

The National Lottery’s introduction in November 1994 was a blow to betting shop turnover – the minimum age to ‘play’, as it was disingenuously couched, was 16, against the 18 to bet with a bookmaker. The danger was, of course, that 16 and 17 year olds would now assume they too could bet in a bookie’s, causing all sorts of unwanted problems for the industry, which genuinely had no wish to be encouraging younger teenagers into their branches.

With Prime Minister, John Major – who, as a youngster, had once acted as a bookies’ runner in Loughborough – keen to maximise the appeal of the Lottery, it was also permitted to be advertised in parts of the media banned to other forms of gambling, while bookmakers were specifically prohibited from taking bets on Lottery draws.

Approaching their 60th anniversary, betting shops have obviously suffered like so many other retail outlets during the current pandemic. Nevertheless, despite a number of closures in recent years, there are still 6,900 of them across the UK.

In the years since 1961 they have established themselves as a much-loved part of the High Street throughout the UK, providing enjoyment for customers, good rewarding jobs for around 40,000 men and women, and a vital source of tax and duty revenue for the Treasury.

As we await the forthcoming Gambling Review, the decision to legalise betting shops is a great example of what happens when the Government gets regulation right. As I explained, before legalisation, betting still took place – but with unlicensed bookies operating on street corners with no protection for punters. The modern day version is the illegal online black market, which is completely unregulated. Ministers must ensure that any changes they make do not have the unintended consequence of driving customers into the arms of these unscrupulous operators.

Betting has its critics. It always will. Claims of escalating harmful influence on people are unsupported by hard evidence. The vast majority of customers are perfectly capable of enjoying their visits by limiting their potential spend to affordable amounts.

I will always be a fan of betting shops and betting shop punters. The shops, like myself, may have reached pensionable age, but they certainly haven’t outlived their usefulness. They are a still vibrant element of the endangered High Street, which has been shedding so many component parts. They deserve to survive and prosper as a safe place to have a bet, and as long as there are those who enjoy a flutter they will continue to exist and, hopefully, to thrive.

Graham Sharpe is a former William Hill media relations director and co-founder of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award

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