How Betting Shops Have Changed Since 1961
It may be quite common to walk down a UK high street and see it littered with betting shops. However, this hasn’t always been the case. In fact, shops were only officially allowed to set up and open their doors from 1960 onwards. Prior to this time, bookmakers would take bets via their own means, keeping records within books and taking peoples’ wagers on sporting events and the like in a sort of unofficial way.
Yet, with the introduction of the Betting and Gaming Act in the United Kingdom, things changed forever. That Act allowed betting shops to officially start operating within the country from May 1, 1961, and that has remained in effect ever since. However, throughout the years, multiple changes and updates have occurred, which have seen betting shops go from almost sordid places to enter and transform into proud and welcoming locations where many people go to place a few bets.
Of course, betting shops have both their supporters and their opponents – both of which are quite equally fierce in their opinions on the status of betting shops. One thing remains true though, the UK has quite the extensive history where both betting and betting shops are concerned. Let’s take a look through this storied history of the betting shop in Britain.
Betting Shops Open in 1961
Following the passing of the aforementioned Betting and Gaming Act in 1960, sports betting shops had the possibility of opening their doors from May 1, 1961. As it happens, within the first six months of this becoming official law, almost 10,000 betting shops were set up and made available to the public. That figure has exploded throughout the years, and betting shops have remained as an established part of the British high street.
John McCririck, known as one of the UK’s most enthusiastic betting afficionados (and who had a long association with both horse racing and misogyny alike), spoke of the exact moment when betting shops opened in ’61. He said:
“I climbed the rickety wooden stairs to Jack Swift’s first-floor betting office in Dover Street, off Piccadilly. On that first day of legal betting shops, this tiny emporium was glorious bedlam, packed out with punters shouting their horses home. The place was filled with cigarette smoke but that day a breeze of fresh air wafted into the lives of British punters. Gambling was being dragged out of the Dark Ages, when the only legal bets were made on the racecourse, or the phone. Street betting had been rampant and everyone knew it.”
You can almost imagine that smoky betting shop from his description, with masses of people yelling out about their horses competing in various races. Obviously, prior to this moment, sports betting was much less legal than it came to be. With the legalisation of such shops, street-based bookies had pretty much been knocked out of the field with a single stroke.
While some illegal bookmakers still managed to get past the new vetting procedures established within the Betting and Gaming Act, many of them actually found it difficult to gather the necessary capital for setting up shop.
Looking back at this moment, the new laws pretty much did what they were expected to – removing illegal betting from the streets and eradicating the activity that bookmakers used of sending physical runners to collect money owed by punters.
William Hill & Ladbrokes Top Position Despite Dull Décor
While a massive number of betting shops opened once the law came into effect, not all bookmakers wanted to embrace the mass betting sector. Obviously, the capital needed to be able to sustain such business wasn’t something many of them believed was possible. As it happens, today’s William Hill brand was created by a man of the same name in 1934, and he didn’t believe in betting shops in the first instance. Instead, he only bought into them by the time 1966 rolled around.
While William Hill existed back at this time, the bookmaker’s main rival was Ladbrokes (which also remains in operation today). Both companies went through a huge expansion during the 1960s though, and they managed to acquire various small betting shop brands to assist with this. Fred Parkinson, JJ Simonds and Ken Munden all disappeared under the umbrella of either William Hill or Ladbrokes during this period, and it is this which led to these companies becoming the big names.
The legalisation of betting shops wasn’t specifically meant to be something that became a new form of entertainment, though. It aimed to remove the illegal side of things, but in a bid to stop things descending into a mass sect of gambling, Tory Home Secretary Rab Butler insisted that all betting shops maintained blacked out or shuttered windows, to which he gave the name of “dead windows”. This was put into place so as to offer as little enticement for passers by to enter them as possible. In his memoirs, Butler said:
“…the House of Commons was so intent on making betting shops as sad as possible, in order not to deprave the young, that they ended up more like undertakers’ premises”.
1986 Marks A Visual Change
Land-based betting shops remained relatively unchanged for a couple of decades or so, until 1986 rolled around. The legislation was changed around at this time, allowing the establishments to overhaul their general design and interiors. No longer did they have to remain blacked out, dark and dingy places for people to enter under the guise of people not seeing them inside. Instead, they were able to transform themselves to something much more welcoming.
Again, this didn’t specifically ensure that the shops saw an influx of new customers barging through their doors. However, it did make things more comfortable for those working inside and the punters who had become frequent visitors to them. Along with the change in interior décor, betting shops had the permission to provide hot and cold beverages to the bettors, as well as install televisions and ensure seating was available alongside.
It was due to this new legislation that William Hill and Ladbrokes were joined by a couple of other brands at the very top of the market. Coral became another forerunner in the betting industry, with the company originally starting out in 1926 and even being one of the first to open a licensed betting shop in 1961. Yet, it wasn’t until the changes brought about in 1986 that the brand really took off, following the purchase of it by brewing company Bass in the 1970s. The other brand was Mecca, which is known primarily today for its bingo gaming services.
Together, these four betting brands managed to bring about a turn in legislation that would have a direct effect on punters. William Hill, Coral, Mecca and Ladbrokes all put pressure on the government to eliminate the tax that was charged on individual bets. At the time, this was charged at a rate of 10% on all bettors’ winnings. While it took many years of lobbying (until 2002, actually), the work eventually paid off and the tax on winnings was monumentally erased under then-Chancellor Gordon Brown.
The Premier League Brings About More Changes
Betting shops had been moving along at quite the nice rate from 1986 onwards. People were able to feel comfortable entering them and placing bets on the sporting events taking place. Another landmark moment came in 1992 though, with the official birth of the Premier League. Back in 1990, the managing director of London Weekend Television (LWT) Greg Dyke met with the representatives of the big five football clubs in England (Arsenal, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur). This meeting was to figure out a way of breaking away from the Football League, with Dyke suggesting that it would be more lucrative if only the larger clubs were featured on national television.
It was this initial meeting that would eventually lead to the creation of the Premier League, which not only changed the face of football in general, but betting across the country as well. More people looked to football as a favoured sport to wager on at this point. While only bettors based within the UK were permitted to bet on the Premier League initially (and had to place a minimum of three bets on it, too, known as the trebles rule), the rules were relaxed after a short time period. This allowed single bets to be placed on football events within the Premier League, and soon enough, gamblers from across the seas could also place bets on the league.
The demand from betting fans led to more betting markets being created, and this became even more of a focus once things switched to the online sphere several years later. Gone were the days of punters having to simply place a bet on which team they thought would win, and the arrival of betting markets for yellow cards, number of goals being scored, first/last/anytime goalscorers and both teams to score in the same game and more became available. Those same markets remain operational today throughout land-based and online sportsbooks, and these increased markets also gave birth to cash outs and in-play betting, which remain exceptionally popular today.
Fixed Odds Betting Terminals Creep Into Bookie Shops
Gambling has never been too far away from controversy throughout history, and in 2001, one of the most controversial decisions was made. This was the year that saw a range of electromechanical devices brought into betting shops, known as fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs). Almost instantly, a debate was raised on how damaging these machines could be to both punters and the general industry – and argument that has continued on throughout the years.
The minimum bets on those machines was set at £1, although they could go into the higher figures of up to £100 per round. The largest single pay-out from them could not exceed £500, although the speed at which bettors were able to place their wagers on these machines was the main focus of any negative backlash regarding them. Furthermore, allegations rose of the FOBTs being used for money-laundering purposes. This led to them being dubbed as the “crack cocaine of gambling”.
That was a term that was used to describe the machines throughout their mainstay in betting shops, and it remains in use today, even though the maximum stakes on them have been significantly reduced to £2. This has naturally had a negative effect on the revenue of betting shops, as people are less likely to spend large amounts of money on them when they’re only betting in maximum limits of £2 per game.
UK Smoking Ban
Remember back to the testimony of John McCririck earlier on in this post, who recalled his own sight of the first betting shop being filled with cigarette smoke? Well, that sort of setup had also continued on unchallenged throughout many decades. That is, until 2007 rolled around. On July 1, 2007 a smoking ban was enacted as a consequence of the Health Act 2006 in England. Similar bans had already been brought into effect in the other UK countries, starting with Scotland on March 26 of the previous year, and Wales and Northern Ireland in April of 2007.
The smoking ban meant that people were no longer able to readily smoke inside public places. This included restaurants, pubs, cafes and various sectors of the leisure sector such as betting shops and casinos. While the initial reaction to this from betting shops was quite negative in itself, things didn’t really go downhill. Actually, in a report from one year after the introduction of the smoking ban, some bookmakers even stated that they had seen some positive effects from punters and staff alike. Even a vast portion of the smokers themselves welcomed the smoking ban inside such establishments.
Of course, it was only natural for such establishments to initially jump to a negative conclusion. After all, if someone isn’t allowed to do something like smoke while enjoying the comfort of the betting shop, why would they continue visiting and staying there? Alas, this proved not to be the outcome at all. Granted, it may have turned a small group of bettors away initially, but 70% of people polled on the effects of the smoking ban suggested that it made the betting experience more pleasant.
With a lack of cigarette smoke now penetrating through the air inside betting shops, people who hadn’t particularly opted to venture into them to place bets before now found themselves with a bit more of an incentive to do so. The spokeswoman for William Hill, Kate Miller commented that:
“On the whole, the smoking ban has done nothing but help the image of Britain’s bookies. Betting on sports and things like X-Factor, Big Brother and lottery-style games are enjoying a boom and produce a higher proportion of our turnover than ever before”.
Moving to an Offshore Locations
By the time that the new millennium rolled around, various companies were looking toward the internet as being a location that sports betting could take place. This saw multiple bookmakers set up their own online websites where people could register for accounts and place their bets on different sports this way. Naturally, this led to quite a change in business management for many big-name betting stores.
One of the very first to take this route was Victor Chandler, and he opted to move his entire operations from the United Kingdom and onto the island of Gibraltar, starting up an offshore business. Through this, bettors would be making wagers offshore, and this led to them being tax free. That was quite the key factor in the British government opting to change its views on gambling tax. On December 1, 2014, the Gambling (Licensing and Advertising) Bill was enacted. Through this, the taxation of online gambling was altered to a point of consumption, meaning that offshore bookies were no longer immune to UK tax laws.
That law remains in operation, and a number of large brands have merged with others, creating huge companies in the process. Betfair and Paddy Power is one merger that took place because of this, while Ladbrokes and Coral opted to follow suit later on, although they had to sell various betting shops to be able to do this.
Online Gambling Has a Knock-On Effect
The value of betting shops has been on quite the decrease in more recent years, thanks to the fact that online gambling has pretty much taken over in terms of popularity. While William Hill was able to buy out Stanley’s betting shops in 2005 for a reported £807,000 per shop, a report from around 2016 speculated that Boylesports was looking to buy 360 betting shops from Ladbrokes and Coral. They would be priced at £277,000 per shop, which is a huge drop in value in comparison.
Naturally, it would be easy to throw negativity at the online betting world for this, with more recent law changes pretty much forcing betting shops to adapt to the new environment. This has seen various other business mergers take place for those betting companies that don’t have online operations in place.
The rise of online gambling’s popularity has pretty much echoed the earlier success that land-based betting shops had. This doesn’t only pertain to bookmakers either, but land-based casinos as well, which have seen a decline in the number of people opting to visit them in favour of online options.
Yet, in a bid to try and have their betting shops remain relevant and as close in popularity to the online betting options, operators of the shops have tried to make the in-store experience something even better. Naturally, these companies don’t want betting shops to become an extinct industry due to online sports betting prospects, although due to the more recent influx of mobile betting gaining in popularity, they may be fighting a losing battle. Closures have been experienced over the past few years at quite an alarming rate, and this is likely to continue due to the current climate. A decrease of 43% in the number of betting shops available in the UK was recorded between 1970 and 2016.
Time will tell how much longer betting shops have to remain in operation. Like many high street stores, the online world seems to be gobbling up the vast majority of the custom, and for something as steeped in history as betting shops are, this is quite the shame.
Bookies Expected To Halve In The Next Decade
Pretty much all high street retail has suffered in the digital age as people enjoy the convenience of online services along with the better prices that tend to come with it. This is more true in betting than any other sector and you only need to look at the promotions you can get online vs in store to see how much more valuable online punters are now to betting companies.
Companies with a big high street presence have tried a lot of tricks to preserve high street betting, such as linked card schemes that allow people to merge online and offline betting and enjoy additional benefits. The government has also tried to help by setting different point of consumption tax rates for offline (15%) vs online (21%) partly because of the local effects on jobs and communities from bookmakers closing.
Two things in particular at the end of the last decade produced a hammer blow for land based betting shops. The first we mentioned was the reduced stakes for FOBTs, which had for many years compensated from reduced revenue from over the counter bets. The other was more unexpected and caused all UK betting shops to close for over 3 months, the corona virus pandemic in 2020.
On the back of the lockdown induced by the virus outbreak many companies accelerated plans to close shops and at the same time online revenues soared as people spent more time at home. The effect of social distancing rules when the shops did reopen also did not help, removing a lot of the social elements of why many punters still visit shops.
It is expected that by 2030 the number of shops in the UK will halve to around 4000-5000 from over 9000 in the mid-2010's.
Do Betting Shops Have A Future?
While the convenience of online gambling will continue to drive more revenue online it does not mean there will be no demand for betting shops in the future. Shops offer a novel and social element that you simply cannot get online.
It is expected that most rural and sub-urban shops will progressively close but those in city centers or sporting venues, such as football stadiums, with high foot flow will continue long into the future.
The other thing shops offer that online cannot replicate is the ability to bet anonymously. People who bet fairly low stakes in cash in a shop do not need to register, provide ID (as long as they look over 18) or need to use a bank account. This is a huge draw for many people and will remain so in the future.
One day a betting shops may be preserved as a museum exhibit but given the UK's love of gambling that will not be for a long long time.