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Today in History... first UK betting shops set to open

12:00am | & Lifestyle

Watching TV or surfing online today it seems every second or third advert is for some kind of online gambling website or app. There are even adverts urging us to ‘gamble responsibly’, paid for by gambling websites… but none urging us not to gamble at all.

Yet it’s only 60 years ago today – on September 1st 1960 – that the Government gave the green light for the UK’s first licensed betting shops. Its new “Betting and Gaming Act” would allow licensed betting offices – which soon became known as betting shops – to open for business from May 1st, 1961. The new act also legalised gambling for small sums of money in games of skill, such as bridge, and allowed pubs to introduce slot machines in limited numbers.

At that time, people who wanted to place a bet on the horses or dogs had two choices. They could do so at the race course itself, on race day, or they could make their private arrangements by telephone to their bookmaker, or ‘turf accountant’. The second option was only available if you could demonstrate that you had sufficient credit to set up an account with a bookmaker.

In reality there was a third option – although not a legal one – as illegal street betting on all manner of sporting events was widespread. It was hoped the new Betting and Gaming Act would take gambling off the streets and end the practice of bookmakers sending “runners” to collect from punters.

While the Church of England generally opposed gambling, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Geoffrey Fisher, chose to speak out in favour of the proposed changes. He hoped they would regulate the country’s gambling habits and bring them under stronger control by the authorities.

The new betting shops would be issued with licences and permits from the Racecourse Betting Control Board. Punters using them would also be able to listen on the premises to radio broadcasts of races they had bet on and, in some high end establishments, watch televised events screened in the betting shop.

As soon as the Act was passed, bookmakers began preparations to set up betting shops, with commercial estate agents noting a sudden and sharp rise in the price of vacant shops and offices in prime towns and cities. Even then, they tended to be off the main high streets as gambling was still regarded as something of a furtive activity. Only when recessions led to empty shops and cheaper rents did the betting shops begin to move into the high street.

Thousands of betting shops opened for business on May 1st, 1961, with more opening at the rate of 100 per week. After six months there were already more than 10,000 operating across Britain.

The new Act also relaxed restrictions on casino gambling, with around a thousand casinos opening in the first five years after it came into force. However, it soon became apparent that loopholes in the law meant almost anyone could open a casino, with many used as a cover for money laundering and other criminal activity. In 1970 a new Gaming Act aimed to plug those loopholes and put tighter restrictions on all gaming, including bingo and slot machines.

The number of betting shops in Britain peaked at around 16,000 in the late 1970s and early ’80s, while figures for 2019 show the number significantly lower at 8,423 and continuing to fall. There could be a further marked drop when the full effects of the coronavirus pandemic are fully realised.

The decline of the betting shop is due to the rise of internet betting, with websites and smartphone apps now enabling punters to gamble anytime, anywhere. Similarly, the number of traditional bingo halls has fallen rapidly, with online bingo websites widely advertised on TV.

The biggest single form of gambling in the UK is the National Lottery, set up in 1994, while another game growing in popularity is the “People’s Postcode Lottery” in which participating residents can win prizes if their postcode is randomly selected. Both these lotteries use significant parts of their profits to support charities and good causes, while several national and local charities have also set up their own lotteries as a means of fundraising.

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