The History of Betting, Gambling, and Bookmakers in the UK

Betting has been around for decades in Britain and across much of the world. Nowadays, we take it for granted that we can bet on almost any event taking place at home, or place a bet on any overseas market at the touch of a button.

Huge competition between online bookies and those on the High Street means we’ve also become used to excellent odds, fast payments and increasingly generous perks and privileges. But it hasn’t always been this way, with gambling in the UK having grown from relatively humble origins.

The ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’

In the past, placing a bet was fraught with uncertainty and difficulty. Before the Victorian era, men used to place wagers between themselves under a gentleman’s agreement. These bets didn’t usually involve odds and there was very little you could do if someone refused to pay you your winnings.

In the 1800s, betting wasn’t much easier. Most of the bookmakers on the High Streets were illegal, and those that weren’t were strictly regulated. In the 1960s, there was a huge change in bookmaking because gambling was finally legalised. This resulted in betting shops opening across the country. In recent history, betting websites have all but taken over the industry in the UK and worldwide.

But in order to truly appreciate today’s accessible and flexible gambling scene, you need to take a trip back to where it all began.

The Origins of Bookmakers

Betting is older than the records we have; people have been placing bets since way before money was invented. Most early bets were simple, with only two outcomes being possible – you would either win or lose. These bets rarely involved odds, which is fine if the event you are placing a bet on is evenly matched, but if it wasn’t, you were very unlikely to win.

Bookmakers created a book that lists the possible scenarios or outcomes, which, if balanced, will enable you to make a profit. In this type of bet, bookmakers will take numerous bets for different outcomes from different people.

Harry Ogden – the First Bookmaker

In the 1700s, horse racing began and quickly grew in popularity. Harry Ogden, the Lancastrian, set up a bookmakers near Newmarket Heath. This location was close to the most famous and oldest racecourse built in the 1790s.

Harry chose to price the bets depending on whether they were likely to win or not. This gave his customers a choice. For the first time in betting history, people were thinking tactically when placing their bets.

Harry Ogden also cleverly built in a profit margin so that he could earn money from the bets placed. The odds Harry set for the horses never actually reflected their real chances of winning. This is how the art of bookmaking started, and why it has never been the same since.

Bookmakers in the 1800s

There were three issues with the rise of bookmakers in the 1800s:

  • Lack of regulation – there were no laws in place
  • The government wanted gambling to be taxed
  • In the Victorian era, the Victorians wanted to be in charge of any public vices

Gambling Act 1845

In the 19th century, the belief was that gambling was having damaging social effects. Due to this, the House of Lords set up a committee. This committee introduced the 1845 Gambling Act to try and regulate gambling. This act meant that gambling was no longer considered illegal. It didn’t, however, alter the problem that bookmakers could still quite easily run off with your money.

Greyhound Betting

Greyhound betting and racing was brought over from America in the 1920s. The first oval track opened in Manchester in 1926. When people realised how popular they were, greyhound tracks started popping up in cities all over the UK. Worker affluence and increased living standards meant they flourished.

Dog racing enabled working-class people to place a bet that they could afford. The races usually took place in an evening or on a weekend so that workers could attend when they’d finished work. The Great Depression didn’t slow down the popularity of this sport. When WWII ended, it was recorded that there was a spike in people attending a greyhound course, with over 30 million people attending during that year. This was more than half of the British population at that time.

Greyhound betting is still popular today, with most people now choosing to place their bets online. If you’d like to place a bet, this site covers greyhound betting. Boyle Sports guarantees to offer you the best odds, and they often run deals such as free bets when you join.

Football Pools

In the middle decades of the 20th Century, it was difficult to bet on anything other than greyhound or horse racing. Law enforcement would often overlook aristocrats who were placing bets illegally, but this wasn’t the case for the working class.

In 1923, the football pools were introduced by John Moore Littlewoods. This was perfect for working-class men as it didn’t cost a lot of money and it was fun. However, the government quickly noticed how popular it was and introduced a 40% tax on it.

The 1960s Betting and Gambling Act

In the 1960s, people wanted more freedom to choose how to live their life. This led to the conservative government altering the laws and introducing this act. In 1961, Harold McMillian and his government legalised betting shops. This allowed greyhound betting, sports betting and many other options to be done on the high street, rather than at racetracks and sporting venues.

Restrictions Lifted

Between 1960 and 2000, restrictions were lifted and gambling laws became much more relaxed. Before 2001, any bet that was placed in the UK had to pay a levy of 9p for every £1 spent. This was leading to lots of bookmakers moving their businesses abroad. Gordon Brown (the then chancellor) decided that enough was enough and issued a review of gambling. The review led to a new law that meant bookies would be taxed 15% on their gross profits. Gamblers were now able to place a bet without paying tax on it.

Gambling has changed considerably over the years. No longer is it illegal to place a bet on your favourite football team, make greyhound bets or play in a casino. Suffice to say, the industry has a bright future ahead of it – one that is likely to be influenced predominantly by shifting technological trends in the field of gambling.

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