Betting has undergone huge changes over the centuries. The fact is that, in most places, some form of betting or another has taken place for thousands of years. It seems to be something many people are instinctively drawn to. Here in the UK, the more recent history has determined how we understand betting in the modern age.
Today, we’re going to look at a brief history of the development of betting in the UK, from the oldest, trackside bookies to the modern digital betting landscape.
Under what’s known as English common law, gambling was legal in the UK. Before the UK was even formed, though, the Unlawful Games Act of 1541 made virtually all kinds of gambling illegal. While the law was rarely enforced, gambling debts could also not be sought through the courts.
At the time, the government worried that gambling would interfere with military training. By 1845, some forms of gambling were broadly legalized—particularly those games of skill. But even in the following years, bookmakers continued to defy laws and get around them in one way or another.
By the early 20th Century, betting was legal—for a small demographic. Rich, upper-class men were able to bet on things like horse racing without consequence. This was where trackside betting came in. Some of the biggest early forms of betting were trackside horse race betting.
That takes us to how modern betting began to form.
Betting as we know it
By the middle of the 20th Century, there were many well established bookmakers, and there were calls to open these up to the whole population. Thus, in 1960, the Betting and Gambling Act was introduced, which legalized private casinos. Eventually, the National Lottery was also set up in 1994.
After the 1960 Act, bookmakers as we know them today began to open. Companies could now offer betting services like sportsbook betting and casino games to everyone who wanted to play. This was perhaps the single biggest shift in the history of betting in the UK.
Of course, trackside betting continued, but now many of the spaces were occupied by the biggest and most well-known bettors.
The modern age
In the contemporary betting scene, most of these kinds of betting still exist. High street betting shops and trackside betting are as popular as they ever were.
When the internet began to gain popularity in the early 1990s, many could see what was coming. Online betting quickly became popular among smaller niches, and it was seen as a potential huge shakeup to the industry. This is exactly what happened.
Today, the UK Gambling Commission issues licenses to around 2,600 online operators, for as many as 3,200 games. Ladbrokes and Coral shut around 300 physical betting shops in 2021. But the writing is not necessarily on the wall—online betting still accounts for less than half of all betting revenue in the UK.
But more and more, everything is becoming an online affair. Projections suggest that most betting operations will move online within the next decade or so, as smartphone technology becomes more and more affordable and accessible. This is clear through the fact sites like Findbettingsites show that there are at least 5 new betting sites launching in the UK each month. The physical betting shop has had and still has its place, but who can really say how the landscape will look in the next twenty years?
From enterprising trackside bookies taking bets on horses to the proliferation of modern online betting, the industry has come a long way in the century or so since it first began to take a shape we might recognise. Where it’s headed is a different question entirely, but it seems like it’s in the hands of regulators now.