“WHATEVER the betting shop be, it has only to be somewhere – and the rapid youth of England, with its slang intelligence perpetually broad awake and its weather eye continually open, will walk in and deliver up its money, like the helpless Innocent that it is,” so said Charles Dickens in 1852.
One year later, perhaps with some Dickensian influence behind it, the ‘Act for the Suppression of Betting Houses’ put betting shops out of business – legally anyway.
And this was the way that it would stay for the next 108 years until, 50 years ago this month when the ‘Betting and Gambling Act’ of 1960 repealed the previous legislation.
Of course, illegal though it was, gambling had never gone away. Bookie’s runners had operated in pubs and on street corners, eager to whisk a furtive bet to the bookie himself.
But the opening of the betting shops did away with this underground trade, though it did seem the Government were legalising them grudgingly.
The shops had to be by law, very austere places – no televisions, no refreshments, no comfortable seating and, rather dramatically, blacked out windows lest a passer-by become traumatised by the site of an old man passing a slip of paper over a counter.
This general air of suspicion meant that both Joe Coral and William Hill had severe doubts about opening their own shops at first, fearing they would cause unrest amongst the working classes.
Indeed trepidation amongst the powers-that-be over the ill-effects that betting shops may have remained for the next 25 years.
Betting shops couldn’t and didn’t change until televisions were allowed to be installed in 1986.
Even then windows still had to be obscured until 1995, Sunday openings weren’t allowed until the same year and, unbelievably, shops weren’t even allowed to advertise their location until 1997.
These latest concessions were granted by the government after the introduction of the National Lottery had hit the betting shop’s turnover significantly.
Happily, they seemed to work and figures soon began to improve.
So, how is the betting trade fairing today?
Well, a trip to a shop is a far more welcoming environment for your average punter than it used to be.
Smokeless, food and drink to be had, bright with rows of televisions and betting available on almost anything you want, the more bizarre the better (though few of us fancying a flutter will be as lucky as Yorkshireman Fred Craggs, who won over a million pounds in 2008 on an eight horse accumulator having placed a 50p bet).
But with advances in technology and websites like Betfair making it easy to bet from your own living room, the estimated 8500 betting shops in the UK face challenging times.
The industry though is determined to roll with the changes. Fixed Odds Betting Terminals in shops are proving to be popular (as well as each one making a healthy profit of over £700 per week for each shop) and gambling available on virtual sport to the recent royal wedding are proof that the shops are determined to offer a variety of betting in an attempt to get people through the door.
For the foreseeable future at least, the betting shop is here to stay.
DONNY Adams, manager of William Hill’s St Clair Street branch, has been working for the company for four years, but has noticed changes in that relatively short space of time.
He said: “Just in the last year we’ve launched an app for your mobile phone. The internet changes everything and you have to try and keep up.’’
But he thinks punters mostly prefer coming into a betting shop.
“There’s the social aspect to consider. They see their friends, they have a chat and give each other tips.’’
Donny also thinks that gambling in some ways can be important for elder people.
He said: “Horse racing and betting, checking form etc. helps keeps their mind active and stimulated. It can be very important in that way - and it helps to fills their time.”
So what can a betting shop do to stop people staying at home?
“We try to make it friendly and go that extra mile with our customer service. We offer complimentary teas and coffees and I like to go out onto the floor and have a chat with our customers. I regard a lot of them as my friends.
“People just like spending time with each other.
‘‘It’s human nature and I don’t think that’ll ever change.”