Betting, Sport and the British, 1918-1939
Huggins, Mike, Journal of Social History
The interwar period was characterized in Britain by an expansion of leisure spending, reinforcing and extending pre-1914 patterns. New leisure forms, ranging from the cinema and radio to speedway, motoring, the pools and greyhound racing, played an increasing cultural role. Major interpretative overviews by Stephen Jones and, more recently, Ross McKibbin, have argued strongly that leisure was differentiated primarily along class lines. But the preeminence of class as an explanatory category, in its various dichotomous, triadic, or 'seamless web' manifestations, has come under some attack in recent years. British leisure historians Doug Reid and Peter Borsay, separately attempting their own longer-term perspectives, have both recognized, alongside reworked class approaches, the part played by other self- and collective identities, such as gender, ethnicity, age and community. (1) Despite or because of the economic downturn after World War 1 betting on horses, greyhounds and soccer results attracted an increased proportion of national leisure spending. Unemployment may also have increased the number of gamblers. But its new forms attracted controversy and debate. Debates over drinking and gambling have a long history, and recent British controversies over public house opening hours and smoking in public places are certainly a pertinent and salutary reminder that social class has never been the only way Britain has been divided on such matters. Both Geoffrey Best and F. M. L. Thompson saw divisions as being between the 'respectable' and 'rough' in society. (2) Hugh Cunningham interpreted them as reflecting distinct leisure cultures. (3) In part such taxonomies still rested on class, though more recent work has increasingly argued that even in the supposedly more respectable middle classes a cult of bourgeois hedonism ran alongside, or at the very least that pleasurable leisure consumption increasingly became part of middle-class life. (4)
So betting's multiple discourses did not always reflect the horizontal divisions of much simplistic class discussion. Whilst there certainly were class and cultural dimensions, betting represented a primary and controversial societal fault line that was more subtle and nuanced, linked to cultural attitudes to religion, politics and pleasure, and incorporating vertical dimensions to its trajectory.
Between the wars a powerful stigma attached to betting on sport in some circles. Indeed off-course cash betting had been illegal since the Betting Houses Act of 1853 and the Street Betting Act of 1906. Many sports organizations, such as the English Football Association, cricket's MCC or motor-cycling's National Speedway Association, tried to exclude betting to avoid its negative associations. Yet as Mass Observation recognized in their 1938 study of Bolton life, betting, like drinking alcohol or smoking, was "a major opposition which cut across the life of the community in all sorts of ways." While some people felt neutral, many others apparently alike with respect to age, appearance, class or education violently differed. In the late 1930s, a large cigarette shop in a Bolton main street sold no cigarettes. Its counter was only used for taking cash bets. Despite such illegality, its existence was accepted tacitly. Likewise, although notices prohibiting cash betting were pinned to the smoke-darkened walls of Bolton's pubs, many were betting centres. (5) Bets were received by bookmakers and their runners, and connived at by landlords, barmaids and barmen, but actual convictions were rare. Such betting catered for sufficient British tastes and interests to be almost normalized. Even policemen bet. Betting on greyhound racing and on the football 'pools' became accepted and legal after initial moral panics, while cash betting on the horses, although a crime, became widely accepted, as did the purchase of horse race sweep tickets. Only the now-forgotten urban tote clubs failed to survive and prosper.
Betting's historiography is fairly substantial. Following Ross McKibbin's early foray into the field, Clapson and Munting subsequently provided useful overviews of popular gambling. Chinn explored bookmaking, street betting and the working classes, and Dixon examined gambling legislation and anti-gambling associations. More recently its horseracing manifestations have received detailed attention by Mike Huggins, while Miers has examined the way the British Home Office grappled with its problems. (6) But despite betting's popularity between the wars we still know less that we should about its contemporary social and cultural meanings. Writers have largely concentrated on individual betting forms, such as street betting. So this paper seeks to explore a wider range of cultural attitudes to betting across its various betting contexts. Why was it so controversial, yet so readily accepted by many? Betting's inter-war contradictions, the debate, dispute and division they caused and the extent of change over the period provide a key focus.
A country divided over betting
Between the wars horse race betting was Britain's dominant gambling form, although betting was traditionally associated with a much wider range of working-class sports. During the period novel new opportunities to bet, on football pools, totalisator betting (the "tote") and greyhound racing became formalized and attractive. The "tote", introduced by the British government in 1929, allowed the Racecourse Betting Control Board to run a form of betting at racecourses which pooled all stakes received on a race, deduct costs and a contribution to racing, and then pay the rest in dividend to winning punters. It proved less attractive to serious gamblers, who preferred to bet with bookmakers, but increasingly attractive to casual race-goers, especially women. Few people saw such an occasional 'flutter' as wrong. Solidly respectable newspapers provided daily reports on horse racing's future runners, earlier results and starting prices, catering for an interested middle-class readership. The Times, the paper most read by leading opinion-formers, reported consistently on horseracing and leading London greyhound races, as did the Daily Telegraph, the Express and Mail, the London Evening News and Evening Standard, which contained a daily greyhound supplement. Reports from committees of the Jockey Club, National Hunt Committee and National Greyhound Racing Club, and racecourse and stadium company annual general meetings, were featured alongside coverage of anti-betting views. Leading newspapers employed betting tipsters, and the popular press had a long-standing association with betting. By contrast only a few papers, such as the Manchester Guardian or the Northern Echo, attempted a consistently anti-gambling position. All five leading newsreel companies regularly featured race meetings in their cinema coverage, while the BBC consistently provided commentary on 'national' races such as the Derby, the St Leger and the Grand National.
Betting combined excitement, sociability and the prospect of becoming temporarily better off. (7) In theory opportunities to gamble were fairly limited, since only credit betting, private betting between individuals and racecourse cash betting with bookmakers were legal. Yet across the classes, across the country, and across age and gender, betting was increasingly ubiquitous and socially acceptable. Anti-gamblers found this surprising, shocking and objectionable. Governmental legislation and local authority by-laws supposedly ensured the suppression of working-class cash betting. Various statutes imposed firm restrictions on much organized betting. Although the anti-gambling movement's actions and arguments were ever-increasingly failing to sway private public opinion, reformers persevered, appalled by the widespread evasion of the laws. Pre-1914 acts were promulgated on the premise that working-class gambling could be substantially reduced by prohibition and police action, but by 1923 even the Times accepted that "chaos" reigned with regard to betting. By 1934 there was "a tangle of controversy," and the betting laws, ambiguous in their policy and obscure in their working, were "notoriously in a state of collapse." (8) Police were often unwilling to prosecute bookmakers or punters unless forced into it by press and public complaint, or by senior officers. Bookmakers evaded the law. Courts were unwilling to imprison offenders.
Despite anti-gamblers' usually limited direct experience of betting, they were strong in their socially constructed, mutually reinforcing and self-confirming opprobrium, employing dominant discourses painting punters as "ignorant dupes," "feckless," "reckless," "thriftless," "wasteful," "weak-willed" and "selfish." They wrote, preached and complained about betting. Their opponents derided them as an unrepresentative minority, composed of "petty" people, "obscure little cranks," 'faddists," "fanatics" or killjoys, "bodies that on principle are opposed to all sports and popular amusements," "interfering people, whose greatest pain in life is seeing others enjoy themselves" or "disappointed people in one way or another, out of whom the joy of life has gone." (9) The two sides produced much assertion but little data. There was so little statistical information on the pleasures, benefits or social evils of gambling that the House of Commons Select Committee on Betting Duty of 1923 and the Royal Commission on Lotteries and Betting of 1932/3 could rely only on the evidence of "experienced" witnesses.
If disapproval of betting was still commonly publicly voiced, many people supported Lord Birkenhead's view that there was "an antagonism between the public conscience and the private tastes of the people." (10) The 1932/3 Royal Commission admitted that a "commonly held" opinion was that "gambling in moderation and within a man's means" was "a pardonable habit [that] may fairly be reckoned among his amusements." (11) Even the fervent Salford anti-gambler Canon Peter Green, a leading national critic, recognized that the persistent obstacle to any considerable improvement was "the non-existence of a conscience on the question among the bulk of our population, and ... even among Christian people." (12)
The churches were indeed divided. Nonconformists usually opposed all betting. The Catholic Church, less opposed, argued that gambling was not essentially sinful. Catholic churches, parishes and schools regularly organized fund-raising horse racing sweeps. Some Catholic clergy attended race meetings. The Church of England, typically, occupied the middle ground, but contained some fervent anti-gamblers.
Even so, the laws remained. Successive governments recognized that betting was a culturally contested activity and were reluctant to ease betting restrictions. All expansions of betting stirred up fresh problems, accompanied by demands from anti-gamblers for further restrictive legislation. Any change alienated voters and potentially lost political support. Doing nothing was safest. Home Office officials generally believed that betting was widely opposed, a view stemming from its enforcement of existing anti-gambling legislation, its processing of criminal data relating to bookmaking and betting, and suggestions that embezzlement, larceny or …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Betting, Sport and the British, 1918-1939. Contributors: Huggins, Mike - Author. Journal title: Journal of Social History. Volume: 41. Issue: 2 Publication date: Winter 2007. Page number: 283+. © 2009 Journal of Social History. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.