top of page

The Flat Cap on ... Bookmakers

“Gamble responsibly” growled actor and archetypal hard man Ray Winstone from the television screen. There then flashed up the odds of the next goal scorer in the game The Flat Cap had been watching for the last forty five minutes. As he hasn’t got an online account with a bookmaker The Flat Cap managed to ignore Mr. Winstone’s pleas and instead went to make himself a nice cup of tea. It was whilst waiting for the kettle to boil that The Flat Cap’s mind began to wander back to gambling and he resolved to find out more about this age old past time.

The first thing he learned was that betting has been going on for centuries. The earliest recorded bet dates back to biblical times. In 1974 archaeologists in Israel excavated a skeleton, in whose hand was a betting slip. The writing when translated read, “£1,000 win Goliath 4/9”, and the odds had been circled with a blue biro. History recalls how Goliath lost his duel with David and the unlucky punter probably killed himself rather than return home to share the bad news with his wife and family. Hundreds of years ago a thousand pounds would have bought you acres and acres of land, a big house and plenty of change to spend on servants, a sporty chariot and private healthcare. If you lived somewhere warm, like Israel, the chances are you would also have had your own swimming pool.

Organised bookmaking, as we now know it, began in the UK with betting on horse races. The first recognised bookmaker was a chap called Harry Ogden, who from 1795 onwards was a familiar face at Newmarket racecourse. Harry catered for all sections of society; from little old ladies betting a farthing on the favourite to lords and ladies who would wager several guineas on the outcome of a race. Details about Harry’s life are a bit sketchy but The Flat Cap reckons he would have been smartly dressed and possessed a brown leather satchel with his initials stencilled on it. Nowadays civil servants working for the Home Office are issued with something similar except that that the H.O. denotes it is the property of their employer so that they don’t sell the satchel on ebay or gumtree.

Today you can visit a bookmaker’s shop and get odds on pretty much anything; from sporting events to the outcome of general elections, who will win the next series of Love Island, the sex of the impending royal baby, the chances of it snowing on Christmas Day….. the list is practically endless. In 1845 life was a lot simpler and following the passing of the Gaming Act it was legal only to bet at race courses. Well the British love a flutter and with the introduction of the railways around the same time trains soon began running to all the major meetings. Armed with their wages from sweeping chimneys, working in the local mill, or mining coal Victorians loved nothing more than a day at the races.

Of course not everybody who wanted a bet could take time off work to go horse racing. The answer to this dilemma was the spawning of illegal bookmakers. Whilst having to work “under the radar” of law enforcement they nevertheless provided a service and did alright for themselves – as long as they paid out the winning bets. One such character was a lady called Bella Thomasson who ran a tobacconists shop in Bolton, Lancashire. Bella’s shop never sold tobacco goods and its true activity was an open secret. Despite being fined the business survived for many years and somehow managed to avoid further prosecutions.

Bella died in 1959 and two years after her death legislation was passed to legalise betting shops. The Betting Levy Act made betting shops legal and soon there were as many as 15,000. Since the rise of the internet, and more ways to gamble, that number has dwindled to about two thirds of what it was. The majority of betting shops belong to the big three bookmakers; Corals, Ladbrokes and William Hill. If you go into one of these shops you can watch a number of sports, and in some of them enjoy a cup of tea and a biscuit also.

The Flat Cap decided to continue his research with a trip to his local David Pluck betting shop and whilst there met a man called Frank who was “studying the form” in between placing his bets. Frank claimed to spend most afternoons in the local bookmakers and volunteered the following facts:

  • There are lots of different types of bets and they all have their own special names including a “Yankee”, which isn’t a resident of the USA, a “Canadian”, which isn’t a resident of Canada, a “Heinz” which has nothing to do with baked beans or tomato ketchup, and a “Goliath” which is just a very big bet comprised of lots of other bets (247 to be precise)

  • Some wagers are prefaced by the word “Lucky” followed by the number of bets, for example “Lucky 15”, “Lucky 31” and “Lucky 63” although as Frank helpfully pointed out, “they’re only ‘effin’ lucky if you win

  • The worst time to put a bet on is the day of the Grand National horse race. This is when ‘once a year’ punters clog up betting shops with their family’s bets and get in the way of the regular clientele

  • The average bet on the 2018 Epsom Derby was £7.46

  • For people who struggle to heed Ray Winstone’s plea to gamble responsibly there are groups such as Gamblers Anonymous

  • Because the weather in the UK can be unpredictable the first purchase of any on course bookmaker is a big umbrella

  • Before the advent of the internet and mobile telephones bookmakers would employ tic-tac men whose job was to communicate betting odds by a series of hand signals. All the best tic-tac men wore white gloves to make their signs more visible. Snooker referees also wear white gloves as part of their job

  • Tic-tacs are also a type of sweet, and now come in various flavours. The white minty ones are the best

  • “Turf accountant” is another term to describe a bookmaker. It is not the person who counts the rolls of turf at your local garden centre

  • William Hill, the founder of the betting chain that bore his name, bred and owned the horse which won the 1959 St Leger Stakes

bottom of page