Betting has been around for hundreds of years and, in basic forms, even thousands. But rather than the origins of gambling itself, in this article we will look more specifically at when the first official bookmakers entered the fray. Even more specifically, we will consider which betting brands were the very first to take bets.
But before we do that, we will delve back a little deeper into the past and consider the man many consider to be the first real bookmaker. Wagers have long been made between individuals and even between proto-bookies and groups of punters. However, the way this happened at first tended to be binary, with people either betting on one outcome or another. In the earliest days of betting on horses, for example, punters generally only had the option to back the favourite or the rest of the field. One day, so the story goes at any rate, this all changed.
The First Ever Oddsmaker
At the end of the 18th century betting on horse racing was reasonably common but, as noted, punters were usually given the choice to back either the favourite, or any other horse (the rest of the field). Put another way, you could essentially either back the favourite to win, or back it not to win. The widely circulated and quite possibly true story of how this changed centres on a man called Harry Ogden. At some time in the 1790s it is believed that he became the first modern bookmaker.
For whatever reason, it is thought Ogden decided to offer odds on every horse in races at Newmarket. Punters loved the ability to back whatever horse they thought would win, which brought with it the chance to land winners at far bigger odds than had previously been available.
Meanwhile Ogden and the many bookies that soon copied him, realised that by pricing the market in this way they could generate more for themselves. Given the win-win nature of this new system, it was no wonder it caught on so quickly and the rest is history. Some of which we will now consider!
Earliest Bookies in the UK
Bookies get a bad rep a lot of the time but a recent list of Britain’s highest tax-payers saw two bookies make it into the top five. These top two bookmakers, both of which are still family businesses, are thought to have paid almost £600m in tax.
However, whilst both of these are huge, established household names with a lot of history, they are nowhere near featuring on our list of the UK’s first bookies. Instead it is another massive name of UK bookmaking that we have to view as the oldest, even if its roots were rather different from the modern bookies we see today.
It would be inaccurate to say that Ladbrokes started life as a bookmaker in 1886 but that is certainly the year we can trace their origins back to. The business was established by a small group of men as a commissioning agency for horses. These animals were trained at Ladbroke Hall and in 1902 the name Ladbrokes was taken on by the company.
They moved to London and expanded their business into bookmaking but at this stage the business was nothing like the one we see today. Whilst they operated at racecourses, most of their clientele were upper class and members of the aristocracy.
As with most of the bookmakers we will look at, they really became bookies broadly as we know the today when betting shops were legalised at the start of the 1960s. We will look at that separately though. It is worth noting here that, again in common with many brands we will explore, Ladbrokes has changed hands many times over the years.
Ladbrokes’ ownership history is just about as complex as they come though, with the first change occurring in 1956 when Mark and Cyril Stein paid around £100,000 for the company. Since then, the company has changed shape many times, buying hotels, holiday resorts, casinos, bingo halls, real estate and greyhound tracks. They have merged with Coral, demerged soon after and then eventually come back together. They also changed names (though not the Ladbrokes brand) several times.
At the time of writing, Entain, formerly known as GVC Holdings, own a majority stake in the bookie, alongside the combined entity of Ladbrokes Coral. It’s all very complex in truth but what is clear is that Ladbrokes has a long and storied history as arguably the first bookie in the UK and the brand name is still very much going strong today.
Like Ladbrokes, William Hill is very much an established name in the UK and a firm fixture on the British high street. It is a brand that people know and trust and part of that is down to their longevity. Founded back in 1934 they are not too far off reaching their century and whilst they are now a very modern bookie, they retain over 1,000 shops up and down the UK.
William Hill himself was born in 1903 in Birmingham and as with many of UK bookmaking’s founding fathers, his first steps in the industry involved taking illegal bets. He moved to London in his 20s, opening an illegal gambling “den” on Jermyn Street in 1934. Bets were mostly accepted on greyhounds as Hill used a legal loophole to take bets on credit and by post, which was not strictly against the law.
His business grew and he began taking bets on football and becoming more involved in horse racing, both as a bookie and as a breeder and owner. His company did not, like many others, open betting shops as soon as this became legally possible, instead waiting until 1966. Hill may not have believed they would be as successful as they were, whilst an alternative theory posits that as a socialist he was concerned about their impact on the working masses.
He retired in 1970 and, sadly, died just a year later. Subsequently, the firm was bought and sold many times, being owned at different times by Sears Holdings, Grand Metropolitan, Brent Walker and others. It floated on the London Stock Exchange (LSE) in 2002 and over the years bought and sold a number of related companies.
In 2021, the company was delisted from the LSE after being taken over by US gambling giants Caesars Entertainment. This was largely down to the strong foothold that Hills had in the nascent US market. Caesars had less interest in the European side of things and certainly did not want to take on the UK high street bookers the firm owned.
In 2021, 888 Holdings, owner and operator of several major UK betting brands, paid around £2bn for the Hills retail empire and the online European business.
Joe Coral started this, another hugely recognisable UK betting brand, in 1926 (though some sources say 1924). Coral was born in Poland in 1904 as Joseph Kagarlitski but operated as Joe Coral when he began taking bets in the 1920s. At this stage he was mainly accepting wagers at greyhound tracks and also ran speedway meetings.
He was most closely associated with Harringay and Walthamstow but also had a credit office in London accepting bets by telephone. Whilst there were various legal arms to his betting empire, a large portion of revenue was generated through illegal street trade prior to the legalisation of betting shops.
Unlike contemporary William Hill, Coral was quick to act when the laws around betting shops changed. Although he only dipped his toe in to start with, when his initial shop became quite lucrative he rapidly opened several more, assisted by sons Bernard and Nicholas. Indeed, they had grown to 23 shops as early as 1962.
We then see a familiar picture of expansion, mergers and changing ownership. In the late 1960s Joe Coral took the firm into casinos, hotels and bingo halls, having become a public limited company in 1963. Merging with a local rival, Mark Lane, in 1971, Coral moved behind Hills and Ladbrokes as the third-biggest bookmaker in the UK.
Towards the end of the decade (or the start of the next depending on who you believe), Coral was bought by brewing giant Bass, with Joe staying on as president. A brief merger with Ladbrokes was scuppered by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission in 1998, with Coral’s empire eventually ending up in the hands of a private equity company.
Another buyout ensued in 2002 before Gala bought the business in 2005, before the green light was finally granted for Ladbrokes and Coral to come together in 2016. Since then, as noted above, the joint firm was bought by GVC (now Entain).
The history of bookmaking in the UK is rich, as we have seen, but few brands can match Tote due to the cache of the reasonably accurate claim that they were founded thanks to Sir Winston Churchill. It might be a stretch to say that the legendary war-time PM helped start Tote but he did set up its forerunner, the Racehorse Betting Control Board.
This government-appointed board was established by the 1928 Racecourse Betting Act and so Tote too is approaching its 100th anniversary. At this time betting on horses was becoming widespread and the government, and indeed sport, wanted greater regulation. By allowing and controlling betting the government could generate tax revenue and also ensure that some of that money was diverted back into the sport.
At the time, most bets were made with illegal off-course bookmakers but in 1929, at meetings at Newmarket and Carlisle, this changed. The Tote operated as a parimutuel betting facility, rather than a more typical fixed odds bookie. In 1961, following the Betting Levy Act, the Racehorse Betting Control Board became the Horserace Totalisator Board and thus “the Tote” was born.
They opened their first off-course betting shop in 1972 and expanded to become one of the major UK players, working as a “normal” bookie as well as offering parimutuel racing bets. It remained a government-owned entity, though privatisation was long-mooted. Various legal steps had to take place before this could actually happen though and it was not until 2011 that Tote was actually sold.
Betfred was the buyer and whilst the family-owned bookie kept some of Tote’s retail shops (rebranded as Betfred), they eventually sold the brand in 2019. A consortium of people involved in horse racing bought the business for more than £100m, far less than Betfred paid for it.
Born in 1943 Fred Done, like his brother Peter, is a young buck compared to the men who founded some of the other brands. Even so, as one of the major UK players, and one that has been around since the 1960s, they certainly merit inclusion here. According to the official corporate website of Betfred, the brothers established the company in 1967 using funds won by a huge bet on England to win the 1966 World Cup.
However, before that they were among the many now-legal bookies to operate on the street. Fred left school without any qualifications, as did his brother, but both worked for their dad. They helped him operate as an illegal street bookie, sometimes acting as runners and gaining a thorough grounding in the world of bookmaking.
With betting shops now legal and funds in their pocket thanks to the glories of 1966, they opened their first betting shop on the home turf of Salford and grew steadily. In 1997 they took over a chain of shops owned by Robert Walker, meaning the firm, then known as Done Bookmakers, had over 100 retail outlets. In 2004 they became Betfred and much more emphasis was placed on the online side of the business. Even so, they continued to expand on the high street, reaching 500 shops in the middle of the decade.
That empire now stands at over 1,000 shops and Betfred is one of the most well-known names both online and in terms of betting shops. They continue to be family-owned, with headquarters in the North West and Fred and Peter still going strong.
There are a number of other bookies we could have included and detailed here and over the years many brands and businesses have come and gone. Perhaps the most important is Victor Chandler, and that is the last of the UK’s key bookmaking firms we will now look at. This company has gone by various names over the years but is now known as BetVictor.
Victor Chandler was born in 1951 and was pivotal in the move to offshore gambling in the UK and one of the people who saw the potential for internet gambling first too. However, the roots of the company pre-date him by two generations, with his grandfather, William Chandler, getting the ball rolling in the 1930s or even earlier.
William was born in 1880 and had a long association with greyhound racing. He was the chief bookie at White City and owned or part-owned other dog-racing venues, notably Walthamstow. It is also believed, in what is very much a common theme by now, that he operated illegal betting businesses as well.
He died at the age of 65 and various parts of his business passed to different members of his family – he had eight children. The bookmaking side of things passed to Victor, who was the father of the man we now know as Victor Chandler, Victor Chandler Jr., being the grandson of William? Are you keeping up?
The older Victor died in 1974, with the man most modern punters are familiar with taking over from his father. The self-styled “gentleman bookmaker”, Chandler liked to portray himself as an old-fashioned bookmaker who was prepared to take a position (take on risk) rather than play things safe.
Despite this image, Victor Chandler Jr was a very modern, innovative bookie and in the mid-1990s he began investigating the idea of offshore betting. The company relocated to Gibraltar meaning their punters no longer had to pay the 9% tax levied at the time. Chandler was a big part of the reason that Labour Chancellor Gordon Brown eventually scrapped the tax.
Whether known as VCBet, BetVictor or Victor Chandler, the business continued to grow, especially online. In 2014 Michael Tabor, a pro gambler, businessman and bookie took over the company, though Victor stayed on in a key role. Headquarters remain in Gibraltar and the firm’s strong and historic links to greyhound and horse racing remain.
1960s See UK Bookies Take Shape
Betting shops first became legal on 1 May 1961.
— BBC Archive (@BBCArchive) May 5, 2021
When we consider the history of bookies in the UK it is clear just how important the regulatory changes of the 1960s were. Whilst many of today’s biggest and best-known sites can trace their origins back much further, they only really became what we would now think of as bookies following the legalisation of betting shops.
Prior to that they operated either as illegal street bookies, as on-course bookmakers or in the grey areas of legal loopholes. Usually they were some combination of all three. Once high street shops became regulated, it was possible for large-scale expansion to take place. This is when the brands and bookmakers that dominate today really began to develop as nationwide entities.
As we have seen via their individual histories, many of the long-established UK bookmakers grew through a combination of natural organic growth, and takeovers and mergers. As with many industries, betting moved from most outlets being small, family-run operations, to becoming large corporations, many of which were publicly listed companies.
Whilst it might have been assumed that the internet would democratise the sector and make it easier for smaller players to compete, the opposite has proved true. The largest bookies have continued to grow through buying their rivals and we have seen almost constant mergers. Even so, however, many of the original UK bookies have survived, as brands at least, and we think it is safe to say that the likes of William Hill, Ladbrokes, Coral and so on will be around for many years to come.