A Bit of a Flutter

Mark Clapson looks at how Victorian morality drove the pleasures of betting underground, and relates the various devices that enabled the working-classes to sustain the reputation of a nation of gamblers.

The Licensed Betting Office, popularly known as the betting shop, is a common sight on the shopping streets of British towns. Yet legal off-the-course outlets for cash (ready money) betting were introduced only quite recently, in May 1961, following the Betting and Gaming Act passed by the Conservative government in the previous year. This ended over a hundred years of prohibition of off-course cash betting on horses, initiated by the 1853 Betting Houses Act, and reinforced by further legislation in 1874 and 1906. It is a fascinating but underexplored aspect of social history, how ready-money betting became commercialised at a time of prohibition, and in the face of an alarmist campaign which misunderstood the reality of English working-class gambling.

Until the early nineteenth century most betting was on footracing, cruel sports such as cock fighting and dog fighting, and prize fighting. These were sports of what was called 'the fancy' people would gather at cockpits and compounds in public houses, fields or fairgrounds to discuss the form and prospects of the competitors and pager amongst themselves on the basis of their information or inclination, their fancy. It was a direct transaction: the loser paid the winner.

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