The origins of bookmaking have vanished into the past, but betting, especially on horse racing, has been ingrained in the character of England for centuries. Originally betting would have been between individuals, with the largest sums of money wagered on the Classic races, such as the Derby and the St Leger. Betting was the domain of the wealthy, but betting contracts, where no money changed hands, often led to large debts and animosity. The Gaming Act of 1845 banned this practice and bookmakers began to insist on cash up front.
Betting shops started being set up around the country but were outlawed by the 1853 Betting Act, and were not legalised until 1 May 1961, after which 10,000 were set up within 6 months, with some of the illegal bookies making it through the new vetting procedures, established by the 1960 Betting and Gaming Act. However a lot of them found that entering into the business world was outside of their capability, being unable to set up premises, pay staff and ‘go straight.’ As well as this, betting tax was increased and the Government imposed a 33 per cent tax on the fixed-odds coupons issued by bookmakers. The number of High Street shops began to decline, and now there are just over 8,000.
Punters could listen only to an audio commentary on races in the betting shops, provided by the Exchange Telegraph Company, with each region having a ‘local’ commentator with a ‘local’ accent. In 1986 the regulation relaxed and television screens were permitted which would bring live racing via satellite to the majority of shops. Bookmakers were permitted to open in the evenings and on Sundays, but duty at 10 per cent was driving punters to illegal bookmakers, who, operating in pubs, clubs and factories, accounted for a 10 per cent of betting turnover.
Another two events have had a massive impact on bookmakers – the first when Frankie Dettori rode all seven winners at Ascot in 1996, which resulted in massive payouts. The second was the introduction of the National Lottery and particularly scratchcards in 1995, with the betting shops being denied the right to sell tickets. A Government survey on gambling revealed that 57% of gamblers use the lottery, 20% buy scratchcards and 17% bet on horseracing.
However in the past decade, measures have been taken to rebalance the nation’s gambling impulses. Tax on betting-shop wagers was cut from 10% to 9% and abolished in 2002, in favour of a tax on the bookies’ gross profits. Rules regarding betting on football were relaxed, allowing bets on single matches, and betting shops have been allowed to install fixed-odds betting terminals and fruit machines.
Online gambling is today’s worry on bookmakers but the figures suggest that the world of internet gambling and betting shops could live side by side -the four biggest betting shop companies still seem strongly committed to betting shops. William Hill currently runs more than 2,250 shops; Ladbrokes has 2,350; Coral owns 1,600; and totesport manages 540. Paddy Power, which has 58 British shops, mostly in and around London, announced profits of £55.2m for 2007, half of this coming from online operations. But its UK shops also made money and it plans to have twice as many by 2011.