THE scene inside high street bookmakers these days can seem like a gamblers’ holiday camp.
Refreshments, multiple widescreen TVs, gambling machines, all contained within a bright airy environment. The particularly flash ones are grandly compared by some to Las Vegas and while that might be over-egging it there can be no denial that since 1961 when betting shops were legalised, they’ve changed beyond recognition.
Up until May 1, 1961 it was illegal to simply operate a betting shop. Between the Betting Houses Act of 1853 and the Betting and Gaming Act of 1961, introduced by Harold Macmillan’s Tory Government, bookmakers were supposed to restrict their trade to racecourses.
In practice, every village, town or city had an illicit gambling den or dens hidden away in its quieter streets. And not always hidden all that subtly.
The authorities did not always enforce the laws, which were particularly harsh on the “runners” — the network of loyal servants who collected bets from local pubs and factories and ferried them to the bookies’ headquarters. If caught, runners faced a £5 fine on the first offence, an £8 fine on the second, and imprisonment on the third.
In most towns, the police would warn bookies when they were about to stage a raid, so that the real runners would be sent away and a bunch of stand-ins told to wait on street corners with £5 in their pockets. The police earned a small bonus and everyone went away happy.
In Northumberland, one of the people operating in this murky world was Charlie Chisholm – with a name like that how could he be anything other than a bookmaker?
He had for years worked on the racecourses so was in a good position to take advantage of the new law with sons Charles and Carl Chisholm, who joined the family business after completing their National Service in the 1950s.
In 1961 after the law change they opened offices in Ashington, Bedlington and Newbiggin behind a butcher’s shop, barbers and hairdressers. By the 1970s they’d extended to 10 shops and today Chisholm Bookmakers has 49 shops from Northumberland down to North Yorkshire, employing 240 staff and with a turnover of £40m a year.
The three founders of the company have long since passed away and it is now run by Howard Chisholm, son of Charles, grandson of Charlie, who went into the business after getting a degree in applied mathematics from Bangor University.
“Very useful in my line of work,” he quipped. Howard, 53, who joined the company at the end of the 1970s, has witnessed a wealth of change in the business.
He said: “Back in the 60s, my grandfather was very limited with what he could do. Although betting in shops was made legal, I remember him having to black out his windows in order to not encourage gambling. There were also no TVs in those days, no refreshments and no copies of the Racing Post up on the walls.”
A reporter who visited the early betting shops in 1961 compared them to austere little post offices, “complete with bleak wooden shelves and partitions”.
Howard said: “After the law change the restrictions were you couldn’t open the front of the shop so customers couldn’t see in. The thinking behind that is we shouldn’t stimulate demand.
“Fifty years on, our shops are now fitted with hi-tech equipment, broadcasting sporting events from around the world.”
Around 7,000 betting shops registered in the month after the new legislation was introduced and their numbers peaked at 15,000 in 1968. Today it has settled at around 8,500 as new challenges have had to be met, from the launch of the National Lottery to online betting.
Howard said “It’s like any business. It’s difficult now for the betting industry. A lot of people who liked a flutter before don’t see the difference between that and them having a flutter on the national lottery and football.
“The nature of the business has changed too. We were originally in business on the traditional sports – horse racing and greyhounds. When the National Lottery started we began to take bets on the Irish lottery which has proved particularly popular with women.
“We have got four gaming machines in shops – you can only have a maximum of four – and this accounts for a substantial part of the business. Lot of people thought the National Lottery would sound the death knell for us but we’ve learned to adapt.”
He added: “One of the great benefits of betting shops is they are social hubs – replacing the pubs and clubs we have lost. In a way it’s always been a social centre.”
Some might say he is in some ways looking at the business through rose-tinted specs, bearing in mind concerns raised that the country is becoming a nation of gamblers with the betting industry – not just bookmakers – introducing ever more sophisticated ways to part the punters from their cash.
But Howard said: “There’s a fallacy that bookmakers like big betters. We want people who enjoy having a bet and don’t go daft.
“Through the gambling commission we adhere to a social responsibility code. We give contact details for organisations which help with problem gamblers and staff keep an eye out if someone’s gambling too heavily. We have to handle such situations sensitively.”
But it’s not all about punters losing. Far from it. Today you can bet on almost anything – novelty bets abound and Howard fondly remembers how people raced to put bets on who shot JR, the Dallas soap anti-hero. Odds were also given on the weight of the first baby born when the Alnwick Maternity Unit was opened with a percentage of the cash generated being given back to the unit. And one of Chisholm’s biggest pay-outs was £65,000 on a £3 ‘Lucky 15’ punt.
Howard seems dedicated to his job, just finding some time to play a bit of golf. “I’m not good at it,” he said. “I’m extremely proud of our history and pleased we can make a positive contribution to the local economy.”