Betting House

In  Chambers' Edinburgh Journal  of 24th July 1852, is an excellent article on “Betting Houses.” It says: “‘Betting Shop' is vulgar, and we dislike vulgarity. ‘Commission Office,' ‘Racing Bank,' ‘Mr Hopposite Green's Office,' ‘Betting Office,' are the styles of announcement adopted by speculators, who open, what low people call, Betting Shops. The chosen designation is, usually, painted in gold letters on a chocolate coloured wire gauze blind, impervious to the view. A betting office may display on its small show board, two bronzed plaster horses, rampant, held by two Ethiopian figures, nude; or it may prefer making a show of cigars. Many offices have risen out of simple cigar shops. When this is the case, the tobacco business gives way, the slow trade and fast profession not running well together. An official appearance is always considered necessary. A partition, therefore, sufficiently high not to be peered over, runs midway across the shop, surmounted with a rail. By such means, visions are suggested to the intelligent mind, of desks, and clerks. In the partition is an enlarged pigeon  hole—not far off, may be supposed to lurk the hawk—through which are received shillings, half crowns; in fact, any kind of coin or notes, no sum appearing inadmissible. The office is papered with a warm crimson paper to make it snug and comfortable, pleasant as a lounge, and casting a genial glow upon the proceedings.

“But the betting lists are the attraction—these are the dice of the betting men; a section of one of the side walls within the office is devoted to them. They consist of long slips of paper—each race having its own slip—on which are stated the odds against the horses. Hasty and anxious are the glances which the speculator casts upon betting lists; there he sees which are the favourites, whether those he has backed are advancing, or retrograding, and he endeavours to discover, by signs and testimonies, by all kinds of movements and dodges, the knowing one's opinion. He will drop fishing words to other gazers, will try to overhear whispered remarks, will sidle towards any jockey-legged, or ecurial-costumed individual, and aim more especially at getting into the good graces of the betting office keeper, who, when his business is slack, comes forth from behind the partition, and from the duties of the pigeon hole, to stretch his legs, and hold turf converse. The betting office keeper is the speculator's divinity.


“There are various kinds of betting offices. Some are speculative, May-fly offices, open to-day, and shut to-morrow—offices that will bet any way, and against anything—that will accommodate themselves to any odds—receive any sum they can get, small or large; and, should a misfortune occur, such as a wrong horse winning, forget to open next day. These are but second rate offices. The money making, prosperous betting office is quite a different thing. It is not advisable for concerns which intend making thousands in a few years, to pay the superintendents liberally, and to keep well clothed touters—to conduct themselves, in short, like speculative offices. They must not depend entirely upon chance. Chance is very well for betting men, but will not do for the respectable betting office keepers, who are the stake holders.

“The plan adopted is a very simple one, but ingenious in its simplicity. The betting office takes a great dislike in its own mind to a particular horse, the favourite of the betting men. It makes bets against that horse, which amounts, in the aggregate, to a fortune; and then it buys  the object of its frantic delight. This being effected, the horse, of course, loses, and the office wins. How could it be otherwise? Would you have a horse win against its owner's interest? The thing being settled, the office, in order to ascertain the amount of its winnings, has only to deduct the price of the horse from its aggregate bets, and arrange the remainder in a line of, perhaps, five figures. Whereupon the betting men grow seedier and more seedy: some of the more mercurial go off in a fit of apoplectic amazement; some betake themselves to Waterloo stairs on a moonless night; some proceed to the diggings, some to St Luke's, and some to the dogs; some become so unsteady, that they sign the wrong name to a draft, or enter the wrong house at night, or are detected in a crowd with their hand in the wrong man's pocket. But, by degrees, everything comes right again. The insane are shut up, the desperate transported, the dead buried, the deserted families carted to the workhouse; and the betting-office goes on as before.”

The scandal, however, grew too grave to be ignored, and the Government took the matter up. On July 11, 1853, the Attorney-General rose in his place in the House of Commons, and said, he would now beg to move for leave to bring in a Bill for the suppression of betting houses, and, in doing so, he considered it was not necessary for him to make any lengthened statement on the subject, as the evils which had arisen from the introduction of these establishments were perfectly notorious, and acknowledged upon all hands. The difficulty, however, which arose in legislating upon this subject, was the disinclination which was felt against interfering with that description of betting which had so long existed at Tattersall's and elsewhere, in connection with the great national sport of horse racing. But these establishments assumed a totally different aspect—a new form of betting was introduced, which had been productive of the greatest evils. The course, now, is to open a house, and for the owner to hold himself forth as ready to bet with all comers, contrary to the usage which had prevailed at such places as Tattersall's, where individuals betted with each other, but no one there kept a gaming table, or, in other words, held a bag against all comers. The object, then, of this Bill, was to suppress these houses, without interfering with that legitimate species of betting, to which he had referred. It would prohibit the opening of houses, or shops or booths, for the purpose of betting; and, inasmuch as it appeared that the mischief of the existing vicious system seemed to arise from the advancing of money, in the first instance, with the expectation of receiving a larger sum on the completion of a certain event, it was proposed to prohibit the practice, by distinct legislative enactment. The mischief arising from the existence of these betting shops was perfectly notorious. Servants, apprentices, and workmen, induced by the temptation of receiving a large sum for a small one, took their few shillings to these places, and the first effect of their losing, was to tempt them to go on spending their money in the hope of retrieving their losses; and, for this purpose, it not unfrequently happened that they were driven into robbing their masters and employers. There was not a prison, nor a house of correction in London, which did not every day furnish abundant and conclusive testimony of the vast number of youths who were led into crime by the temptation of these establishments of which there were from 100 to 150 in the metropolis alone, while there were a considerable number in the large towns of the provinces. He believed this bill would have the effect of suppressing most of them; or, at all events, of preventing the spread of an evil which was admitted on all hands. It had been suggested that the more effectual course would be the licensing of these houses; but, for his own part, he believed that would be discreditable to the Government, and would only tend to increase the mischief instead of preventing it. He trusted and believed that the Bill which he now sought to introduce would have the desired effect, and he hoped the House would offer no objection to his bringing it in.

Leave was given, and the Bill was so in accord with the feeling of the House, that it went through all its stages without debate, and received the Royal Assent on 20th Aug. 1853, under the title of “An Act for the suppression of Betting Houses,” 16 & 17 Victoria, cap. 119: it became operative on 1st Dec. 1853. Its principal clause is Sec. iii., which deals with the penalty on owner or occupier of Betting House. “Any Person who, being the Owner, or Occupier of any House, Office, Room, or other Place, or a Person using the same, shall open, keep, or use the same for the Purposes hereinbefore mentioned, or either of them; and any Person, who, being the Owner, or Occupier, of any House, Room, Office, or other Place, shall, knowingly, and wilfully, permit the same to be opened, kept, or used by any other Person for the purposes aforesaid, or either of them; and any Person having the Care, or Management of, or in any Manner assisting in conducting the business of any House, Office, Room, or Place opened, kept, or used for the Purposes aforesaid, or either of them, shall, on summary Conviction thereof, before any Two Justices of the Peace, be liable to forfeit and pay such Penalty, not exceeding One Hundred Pounds, as shall be adjudged by such Justices, and may be further adjudged by such Justices, to pay such Costs attending such conviction, as to the said Justices shall seem reasonable; and, on the Nonpayment of such Penalty and Costs; or, in the first instance, if to the said Justices, it shall seem fit, may be committed to the Common Gaol, or House of Correction, with, or without, Hard Labour, for any Time not exceeding Six Calendar Months.”

The effect of this Act was to shut up, for the time, the betting houses, but nobody can deny that there is as much of this ready money betting now as ever there was, and there is no difficulty in getting “a little bit on,” if one wants to, without attending races and betting with the professional bookmakers there to be found. Children can lay their pennies and errand boys their sixpences, and, throughout the length and breadth of the country, the curse of betting permeates every rank, and, I am sorry to say, spares neither sex.

The police do something, in occasionally obtaining convictions, and magistrates have strained the interpretation of the word “Place” which occurs in the Act to its very limit—indeed it has only lately (July 1897) been settled that the betting ring at a race course is not a “Place” within the meaning of the Act. A bookmaker, named Dunn, was fined £1 for betting at Kempton Park race meeting. He appealed, and the magistrate's decision was reversed. The judges inquired into what was the real intention of the Legislature. This is sufficiently apparent from the preamble, which states that “a certain kind of gaming has, of late, sprung up, by the opening of places called betting houses,” and we are justified in assuming that it was this “kind of gaming,” and no other, which Parliament intended to suppress. Furthermore, when once this fact is appreciated, the use of the words “house, office, room, or other place” is no longer misleading, because “place” means something ejusdem generis, a “house, office, or room.” It was impossible to maintain that an open race course, or an open enclosure upon a race course, is a “place” of the same kind as a “house, office, or room,” or that the people who use it for betting claim to hold it against all the world, as they would in the case of their own offices.

As a rule, the higher class professional bookmakers are a very respectable lot of men, and are scrupulously honest in their dealings, which is more than can be said for some of their clients, even titled ones. Such men as Davis, Steel, and Fry dealt in vast sums, and no matter how hard hit, never once failed to meet their losses; and some of them have died rich. Gully is said to have left about a quarter of a million behind him, Davis's fortune at his death is variously stated at £50,000 or £150,000, and Swindells died worth £145,000.

As to these men's clients let Sir George Chetwynd tell a tale. “I should like Fry, Steel, Emerson, Baylis, and others, to publish their list of bad debts during the last few years. People would be astonished at the amount owed to these men, yet they rather condone the fact of being owed money, by hardly ever applying the remedy of making the loser a defaulter, and all sorts of people are going about to race courses, now owing the Ring money, the creditors hoping, some day, to recover a portion of it. The most disgraceful part of it is, that some of these defaulters are owners of race horses, gentlemen riders, and so forth. Personally, I have no pity for book makers who do not post a man for owing them money, after they have given him a reasonable time for payment. If this were done, a healthier tone would be given to betting; there would not be so much reckless plunging as there is, and it would be far better for backers and layers. I recollect once, on the day the Two Thousand was run for, some years ago, I was standing talking to Henry Steel, for whose judgment I have a great respect, and whom I have always found most straightforward in all his dealings. By his side was his trusty partner, Peech. All of a sudden, I saw the latter make hurriedly off in a bee line through the scattered crowd that thronged the bird cage, and, on asking Steel what was up, he laughed, and said, ‘Oh, nothing, Sir George, it's only Bill after a bit of old'; meaning that he had seen a man who had owed him money for some years, and had gone to give him a gentle reminder of the fact.”

My readers may not be aware of the awful punishment that awaits defaulters, and I cannot do better than give that knowledge in Mr Rice's words.

“What unfair play and loaded dice did at night, defaulting bettors—‘welshers,' as they are now called—practised by day. The best legitimate Meetings, as well as the minor country side ventures, were infested with the rogues. They dressed well, wore frilled shirts and ‘flash' rings, and were, perhaps, better able to pay their way about than honest men. The Chichester ‘extortioners,' with their guinea bed for a single night's lodging, were unable to keep these gentry away from the Ducal meeting; and the unmerciful dealings of mine hosts at Doncaster, Windsor, Warwick, and Newmarket, who enjoyed, in those days, an unenviable notoriety for the extravagance of their charges, were, likewise, powerless to clear their coffee rooms from the welshing community.

“Measures were taken to reduce the evil. To begin with, the Messrs Tattersall issued a code of new rules and regulations, to be observed, in future, by all subscribers to the betting room at the Corner. A subscription of two guineas per annum was fixed. Gentlemen desirous of subscribing were to give a week's notice, in writing, to Messrs Tattersall and Son, submitting references for their approval. Non-subscribers might be admitted on payment of a guinea; and, the room being under the sanction of the Jockey Club, all the members were to be obedient to any suggestions made by the Senate of the Turf, from time to time. Lastly, special attention was called to the forty-first rule of the Jockey Club, which enacted that any bettor adjudged to be a defaulter by the Stewards, should not be permitted to go on the Heath at Newmarket, and they should be excluded from the betting rooms there, and at Tattersall's.

“This step in a right direction was followed, a few months later, by the action of the Trustees of the Grand Stand at Ascot, who gave notice that all defaulters in respect to stakes, forfeits, or bets on horse racing, would be peremptorily excluded during any Meeting on the Heath at Ascot; and, if any one in default, did gain admission, on being pointed out to the Noble Master of Her Majesty's Buckhounds, or to the Clerk of the Course, he would, if necessary, be expelled by force, unless he were able to show that he had discharged all his obligations.

“At Goodwood, a similar active policy was pursued; no person, being notoriously a defaulter upon bets on horse racing, would be permitted to ‘assist' at the Meeting. A contumelious defaulter having obtained admission to the Enclosure, he received peremptory orders to quit; and the example set by the Stewards of Ascot and Goodwood was promptly taken up by the better class of country Meetings; and notices were posted, that if any person notoriously in default, as to either forfeits, or bets, gained admittance, he should be peremptorily expelled. At Doncaster, it was requested that all parties who had claims for bets, would not fail to notify the same to Mr Butterfield, Land Steward to the Corporation, prior to the races, at his office, or at the Grand Stand. Lord Eglinton, who had taken a prominent part in the endeavour to stamp out this evil, wrote to the Town Clerk: ‘It gives me much pleasure to find that the Corporation of Doncaster have passed the Resolutions. Defaulters have become so numerous, and so audacious in their proceedings, that it is absolutely necessary that the strongest measures should be adopted against them.' The Corporation of Doncaster, at their meeting, when his Lordship's letter was read, resolved, unanimously, that the Town Clerk be requested, immediately, to confer with the proprietors of the Betting Rooms, and that Lord Eglinton be permitted to purify those rooms, as well as the Stand and Enclosure.

“But to the influence and exertions of Lord George Bentinck, the ‘legitimates' owed the clearance of the Turf from the hordes of welshers and other non-payers that infested it. This ‘pleasing reform of the Turf' was brought about by his active measures; and it was admitted, that had he not persevered to the utmost, even his powerful influence would have been blighted, and the host of rotten sheep left to infect the sound constitution of the remaining flock. But such was the effect of the sharp remedies employed, that, for some time after, it was safe to make a bet with any man whom you might meet in the Betting Ring at respectable Race Meetings, so effectually was the Turf ridded of the pests that had infested it.”

Probably, the greatest defaulter of modern times was a man named Dwyer, who kept a cigar shop in St Martin's Lane. He, generally, gave a point or two more than the current odds at Tattersall's, and, in 1851, he was doing, by far, the largest business of any “list man” in London. Owing to the promptitude and regularity of his payments, he gained a high reputation for solvency, and not only retained and increased his clientèle among the half-crown and shilling public, but had attracted the custom even of men of good standing in the ring. His humble patrons believed him to be every whit as safe as “Leviathan” Davis, and their confidence was largely shared by racing men of a higher calibre.

All went well till the Chester Meeting of 1851, the Cup being, then, the greatest betting handicap in the Calendar; so much so that, in that year it was calculated that upwards of a million sterling  changed hands over that one race. Dwyer laid very heavily against the winner Miss Nancy. It had always been his custom to pay up on the day after a great race; and, consequently, at an early hour on Friday, the first of May, crowds of the lucky backers of Nancy made their way to the familiar cigar shop in St Martin's Lane, to receive their winnings in exchange for the tickets they held. Conceive their consternation when they found the shutters up, and the door closed, with other unmistakable signs that the bank had suspended payment. The news spread fast, and there was soon a mob of some thousands blocking up all the approaches to the cigar shop.

By and by it oozed out that a notice had been fastened to the shutters to the effect that Mr Dwyer would meet his friends and creditors that evening at the White Swan, Chandos Street, in order to make arrangements for discharging the claims against him. Of course, that hostelry was immediately besieged by a clamorous crowd, but the landlord assured them that he knew nothing of Dwyer or his whereabouts—all he could tell them was that, late on the previous evening, two gentlemen, who were perfect strangers to him, had called and engaged his “long-room” for a meeting of Mr Dwyer and his friends on the following day. Meanwhile, the cigar shop had been broken into, and the worst fears of the unfortunate victims were confirmed when they found that every scrap of furniture that was worth anything had been removed from the house during the night. The excitement in London that evening was tremendous—nothing else was talked of among sporting men but Dwyer's collapse, and it was afterwards found that he had bolted with £25,000 of the public's money. The rogue was never found.

The largest sum ever won by a horse was made by Donovan, who, in his lifetime, carried off stakes to the value of £55,354, 13s.; but the largest amount of “public money” ever won without betting by an owner in a single season is £73,858, 10s., won by the Duke of Portland in 1889; whilst Lord Falmouth, who did not bet, won nearly £212,000 in eleven years, from 1873 to 1883, and in 1884 he sold his whole stud for at least £150,000. Count Lagrange also won in stakes in five years, from 1876 to 1880, £73,000.

These sums, with the exception of the Duke of Portland's winnings, were made before the era of enormous stakes had begun; and, according to a writer (Rapier ) in the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News  in 1892, 2559 horses ran flat races for £486,556, which sum was won by 947 competitors. These figures give us some insight into the enormous interests involved in horse racing, entirely leaving out the millions which must change hands in betting.