A History of Betting

Gambling has been with us almost since time began and it even exists in mythology with the ancient Greek Gods drawing lots to decide who received the sky, the seas and the underworld.

In the real world, crude dice were fashioned from animal bones and rolling the bones became a popular pastime with various stakes involved. But without delving too much into prehistory and those games that eventually evolved into modern day casino culture, the question concerns gambling and how it developed into the Billion Dollar industry that we know today?

To answer that, let’s start with one of the oldest sports on a typical bookmaker’s list.

The Sport of Kings

The first reference to the sport of horse racing dates back to England in the sixteenth century. We know that the concept of riding a horse and competing against an opponent predates that by some margin but this is the first time that we see horse racing listed as a competitive and largely friendly sport.

We also know that wagering took place prior to this time so we can be almost completely certain that when the sport became official in Great Britain, gambling came along too and was synonymous with it.

1504 marks the year when James IV of Scotland is said to have attended a meeting at Leith and just eight years later, the UK had its first official thoroughbred race in the shape of the Chester Cup, first run in 1512. The sport intensified from that period and we know that betting took place but how, exactly, did a transaction take place in the absence of a Tote or a Ladbrokes Tent?

A Gentleman’s Wager

Bookmaking in its present form, where an individual or organisation sets up an official betting book, didn’t start until the nineteenth century so before its inception, racegoers had to sort things out for themselves. Remember, this was a time before most of the major sports in the world – football, cricket, rugby, golf etc – had even been invented so we have to take horse racing as the example and here we find the Genesis of sports betting.

In the 16th century, bets were made between friends and rivals. One would bet on a horse to win and the other would take that bet and collect if it lost. Effectively, this would form the basis of back and lay bets which were picked up by the betting exchanges centuries later.

In time, these straight ‘win or lose’ punts were replaced as one individual would essentially set odds. ‘You bet Five Guineas and if the horse wins I give you Twenty Guineas’. But there was no sense of organisation – just a bet between two racegoers.

We know that this type of back and lay dates back to Roman times at least when the lives of the Gladiators were laid on the line for the sake of entertainment, and the chance to win some money…

Problems, Problems

The thorny issue of responsible gambling is very much at the forefront of our consciousness in modern times and it was a concern in the early days of gambling too. By 1722, some 122 towns and cities in the country were holding race meetings with money changing hands at each one.

Worried by the escalation in betting, the government introduced the Gaming Act of 1739 which included a number of measures that were intended to deter likely bettors from attending a day at the racing. Entrance money and prize money were increased to a minimum level of £50.00 and that prevented all but the richest owners from entering their horses into any race.

Documents at the time link gambling on the sport to idleness and impoverishment and the new act did much to deter the poorer citizens from attending and from entering into organized meetings. However, as an overall means for social reform, it was worthless as illegal meets were set up around the country and racing, and gambling continued as before!

Order, Order

The government could therefore do little to reduce gambling and so, in the second half of the eighteenth century, two separate bodies were set up to regulate the sport. One was intended to bring more order to meetings while the other was established to bring the gambling world into line.

In 1750, the Jockey Club was formed in Newmarket with a specific brief to bring order to the chaotic world of horse racing. The first set of rules was to be introduced while an overall organisation of the various meetings across the UK was also set up.

Their actions aided the introduction of Tattersalls in 1789 which was a body for the regulation of gambling. The order brought about by the Jockey Club had seen the introduction of many famous races such as The St Leger, The Oaks and The Derby so while its goal was being achieved, the betting fraternity had become increasingly dysfunctional.

At that point, betting had effectively remained a wager between two people but as demand increased, so did the need for proper facilities. Previously, the majority of races had seen two horses go head to head but with some of the sport’s great ‘classics’ having been born, there were greater fields. The original ‘back and lay’ system had started to become redundant and in the years that followed, bookmaking as we know it finally saw the light of day.

The Godfather

The man credited as the first ever bookmaker is a certain William Ogden. Curiously, for a man who essentially gave birth to one of the most popular pastimes and biggest industries in the world, very little is known about his life.

What we do know is that Ogden became the first man to offer fixed odds on all horses in a specific race. At that point in history of betting, all you needed was a head for mathematics, an entrepreneurial disposition and, of course, a fair amount of money to back you up if things went wrong.

Ogden was followed by colourful characters such as Facetious Jemmy Bland and Crutch Robinson who became familiar faces around the tracks of the time. Again, we know little about many of these men but perhaps Bland is indicative of the type of person who would become one of the pioneers of bookmaking.

Facetious’ Bland owned a house on London’s Piccadilly so his wealth inspired a certain level of resentment among his fellow man. However, during his time spent dealing with the betting fraternity, he built up a reputation for honesty and fair play and in those early days of cash only transactions, that was all you could really ask for.

In fact, such was Ogden’s honesty that he was to become the only bookmaker ever to be allowed into the hallowed rooms of the Jockey Club at Newmarket. We often think of early bookies as being ‘shady’ characters and certainly over the years there have been some who operated on both sides of the law but clearly in these early days, many were considered to be respectable and honest businessmen.

The Nay-Sayers

Although transactions at the start of organised bookmaking seemed to have, in the main, progressed very well, there was a predictable outcry against the dangers of betting. We’re back to the claims of idleness and poverty and the feeling amongst many that it was something of a curse on the nation.

External factors would also affect the public’s attitude to gambling – Ponzi schemes and the South Sea Bubble have been cited as factors behind a general resentment. The collapse of the first national lottery and the concerns over the fledgling stock market had also raised public ire so once again, it was back to the government to draw up legislation that would address any problems – perceived or otherwise.

Admittedly there had been some very high profile betting frauds being carried out but the Gaming Act of 1845 effectively outlawed the practise making all betting contracts void and unenforceable. Those who sought support from the state were backed up quite readily as the government had been forced into a bailout in the light of many of these frauds.

Going Underground

Having been out in the open for over half a century, bookmakers were forced to go underground once again. Bets were still made and accepted but they were naturally clandestine in the wake of the 1845 set of legislation.

In the first half of the 19th century, betting houses had been cropping up in towns and cities all over the country but these were to be outlawed in the wake of the Gaming Act. In turn, that led to street betting which eventually become subject to further rules but the practise didn’t go away.

Arrests for breaches of the law increased but so did the increase in betting. It was clear, even though the rules remained in place, that the gambling community wasn’t going to go away and that they merely had to be more careful as to how they went about their business.


The first quarter of the twentieth century saw a shift in public and legal attitude towards gambling. It was evident that even with laws that had been put in place, the practise wasn’t going to disappear so rather than try to abolish it, questions were asked as to how it could be regulated.

There had been a precedent in regards to alcohol where fair licensing laws had helped to calm social excess so how could the same be done with betting?

The 1906 Street Gambling Act had sought to wipe out gambling but it only saw an increase in arrests and bookies, like publicans, were seen to be providing a useful service to the social community. It wasn’t until the outbreak of the First World War that a greater level of tolerance was seen as the police clearly had more important issues to deal with.

William Hill and Joe Coral – the Bookies Runner

This was the time when important characters such as William Hill and Joe Coral began to appear. Officially, the Coral Group was first established in 1926 but young Joe had started his bookmaking career much earlier. Having left school at 14, a talent for mathematics landed him a job as a clerk in a lamp making factory and it was there that he came into contact with several private bookies.

Joe became unofficially employed as a Bookies Runner – an occupation that has ultimately led to many of the established brands that we know today. The mechanics of the job are not widely published but the clue is in the name. People such as Joe Coral would literally ‘run’ the bet between client and bookmaker, handling the cash and delivering any winnings back to the customer.

Trustworthiness was therefore vital although the consequences of a runner stealing money from some of the more shady bookmakers would have been grim. The issue of trust also meant that runners were often young boys aged around 14 – 16 – people that the police would tend to turn a ‘blind eye’ to as they went about their business.

William Hill’s entry into the world of bookmaking provides interesting parallels to that of Joe Coral. Hill ran away from his schooling at the tender age of 12 and by the start of World War One had begun an apprenticeship at the BSA Motorcycle Company in Birmingham. From there he got into ‘running’ and by having access to a bike he could do his job far more efficiently.

Runners such as William Hill and Joe Coral have gone on to become household names but there were thousands like them in an industry that had been driven underground but was about to become tolerated and ultimately made legal.

Study Group

Through 1932 and into 1933, the Royal Commission on Lotteries and Betting sat and initially, it was designed to tackle a familiar problem – the effect of gambling on society. But, as the weeks went by, the attitude of its members changed as it realised that the underground industry was never going to be stamped out.

In fact, one witness to the sittings said that it was doubtful whether a single bet had been prevented in the wake of the 1906 Street Betting Act. Ultimately, they concluded that the main problem laid in the direct contact that a bettor had with the bookmaker and that was the key issue in terms of social decay, associated with gambling.

As a result, a special system of letter boxes was set up so that bets could be posted and this in turn led to a loophole whereby postal bets by regular mail were also admissible. This particular ‘grey area’ was exploited by early brands such as Coral and William Hill who used it to build their burgeoning businesses. Licensed Betting Shops were discussed at the platform but the idea was dismissed – for now.

Essentially, another set of ‘underground dealings’ were established but in the years that followed, the inception of the welfare state and the crises that eventually led to the Second World War were to become a focus for politicians at the time.

Sea Change

At the conclusion of the conflict, the government was able to turn once again to its issues at home and in 1949, a second Royal Commission was established to see if there had been a shift in public opinion since the first sitting prior to World War II.

It was evident that betting was becoming acceptable in all levels of society and over the years, several factors had broken down social boundaries to an extent. Chairman of the commission Henry Willink and his partners agreed with the opinion that attitudes to gambling were stuck in a form of misplaced Victorian morality. Furthermore and perhaps more importantly, the government had also recognised that a huge revenue could be drawn from the proceeds of a legitimised industry.

A number of recommendations were made but the biggest of these surrounded the formation of legalised betting shops. The Royal Commission of 1949 stated that these premises should be introduced and that anyone operating illegally should now be granted an official license rather than be punished.

Slow Change – When Did Betting Shops Become Legal?

The recommendations were taken on board and were to lead to the biggest change in the gambling industry to that point. However, progress was slow and it wasn’t until 1960 that betting shops were allowed to trade in Britain’s towns and cities.

The legislation produced in the Betting and Gaming Act of 1960 had a number of facets some of which were important at the time but seem relatively minor now. For example, gambling for small sums in games of skill such as bridge was allowed for the first time and pubs were allowed to install and openly display slot machines. But the biggest move of all saw the first licensed betting shops open their doors to customers for the first time in the summer of 1961.

Established brands such as Ladbrokes and William Hill started to get involved and it’s said that from May 1st 1961, betting shops were opening at a rate of 100 per week until there were 10,000 premises by the following November.

Over the years, other names started to appear on the British High Street such as Betfred, Paddy Power. In many cases these were regional with BetFred in the Manchester area and Stan James to the west of England and it wasn’t until the digital age revolutionised the way we bet that we began to know them just a little bit better.

Growth continued throughout the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s and although most of us like to gamble online these days, the betting shop on the High Street continues to thrive. The Betting and Gaming Act of 1960 had finally made it possible and had paved the way for operators to go to the global level that we know today.

It had been a long struggle, lasting hundreds of years but finally society had accepted an industry that simply refused to die.