Another excellent “Long Read” from The Guardian, by Tom Lamont - the same writer as the one about pubs that I highlighted last year.
In total, there are around 9,000 licensed betting shops in the UK, around half of those operated by Ladbrokes and William Hill. The two corporations are great and bitter rivals, tracing a contempt for one another back to the 1930s. Difficult as it is to credit now, both companies once shared a snotty attitude about the idea of bookmakers having shops.
“I don’t think it would be very nice,” said Mr William Hill, founder of William Hill, in 1956, “to see at every street corner a betting shop.” There was never a Mr Ladbrokes; the company was named for a country house where its founders trained horses in the 1880s. Up to the 1960s it reckoned itself too posh for street-level trade.
[…] Once Ladbrokes and William Hill could not ignore the potential profits any longer, they began to open branches, or take over existing ones, and from the mid-1960s on, the two companies’ spread was rapid and aggressive. Between them they absorbed dozens of smaller now-forgotten firms – Solomons & Flanagan, JJ Simonds, Ken Munden, Fred Parkinson.
[…] [Then] around the turn of the millennium, [came] the first modern gambling machines – “fixed-odds betting terminals”, or FOBTs (pronounced fobtees), offering a digitised version of roulette as well as other arcade-style games that could be gambled on.
[…] Many shop workers I spoke to had stories about looking on, impotent, as the machines under their charge were angrily destroyed by the customers who had been playing them. Worse, somehow, was when a machine was calmly destroyed. The deputy manager of a William Hill in Hull said: “You just watch, there’s nothing else to do. It’s normal. It’s normal for people to smash up the shop.” (A representative of William Hill said this was “rare”.) A woman working at an Oxfordshire Ladbrokes told me she had watched all four FOBTs in her shop get wrecked by a man swinging a stool; by the next day’s trade, she said, her ruined machines had all been replaced. According to figures I have seen, the number of incidents of damage to machines in Ladbrokes branches rose steadily between 2010 and 2015.
A senior figure at Ladbrokes during this period became increasingly concerned by the situation at shop-level “getting silly, getting crazy”. They told me it was their belief that with the introduction of the machines, betting shops had more or less become “mini casinos”. And how many casinos, they asked, got by without bouncers to cope with aggrieved gamblers? How many were run by individuals on their own?
As with his story on the pub trade, Tom Lamont highlights the impact on some of the people working in betting shops. Sadly, this time there’s no happy ending. Very far from it.