Betting, Sport and the British, 1918-1939

By Huggins, Mike | Journal of Social History, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

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. …

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