Gambling has been part of the British culture for decades, and pretty much every high street has at least one betting shop. This billion pound industry has undergone some significant changes over its lifetime and has morphed from the early days of dodgy track side betting to the bright and colourful betting shops that we see today. And of course, there’s the internet, with sports and casino betting at your fingers tips 24 hours a day.
So, on that note, let’s start with the two things that most of you are probably here for – a list of the bookies that operate in the UK and recommendations of the best ones for betting online. Everyone you see on this page are legal and licensed in the United Kingdom (as they should be).
UK High Street Bookmakers Listed By Number Of Shops
|Site||Number of Shops||Deposit in Store||Date Established||Visit|
|2,300+||Yes – Ladbrokes ‘The Grid’ (£1 Min)||1902|
|~2,300||Yes – Cash Direct (£10 Min)||1934|
|1,800+||Yes – Coral Connect (£5 Min)||1926|
|1,300+||Yes – £10 Minimum||1967|
|210||Yes – ROI Only||1926|
Note: We’ve included the Republic of Ireland in these figures, so technically the table is for the UK & ROI. One of the bookies, Boylesports, currently only operates in Ireland but may enter the UK market if it manages to acquire some of the locations that Coral and Ladbrokes are required to sell prior to merging.
Former Shop Operators
|Site||Former Shops||Notes||Date Established||Visit|
|~80||High street rebranded as MegaBet
Online sold to Unibet
|3||Final three betting lounges sold to Star Sports||1925|
There are of course, many other smaller bookmakers who have run betting shops in the past, but it wouldn’t be feasible for us to list them all. Nor would it be particularly interesting. The list above is limited to the major brands who used to grace our high streets.
Best Online Bookmakers
In the table above we’ve covered all of the high street betting shops that you’ll find in the UK so that you can compare sizes. But which are the best online bookies, and who should you turn to if you want to bet online? In this next section we’re taking an editorial approach and instead of just covering everyone, we’ve narrowed the options down to the top choices for betting both online and in person (for the most part).
LADBROKES – 2,300+ SHOPS
Ladbrokes are currently the biggest high street bookie with over 2,300 betting shops. The proposed merger with Coral would see them become so large, that they may have to sell off a few to appease the regultors. Through Ladbrokes ‘The Grid’ you can also bet in store using funds in your online account, or make deposits and withdrawals in person – with a minimum of just £1.
Their online site offers a great range of products including both fixed odds sports betting as well as a peer-to-peer betting exchange, something very few bookies are able to claim. Odds are decent enough but not top of the range, but they have a huge amount of markets with excellent coverage of different sports. Throw in cash out, live streaming, BOG+ and regular price boosts and you have yourself a solid bookmaker.
CORAL – 1,800+ SHOPS
Coral have over 1800+ shops throughout the UK, making them one of the largest in the country. Like Ladbrokes they have an online-offline hybrid product called Coral Connect which lets you deposit, withdraw and claim bonuses in person.
As a whole, Coral are one of our favourite online bookmakers – pretty much offering the whole package. Decent odds, great range of markets, regular promotions and tons of features mean that if you were only planning on having one account, Coral is where we’d suggest you sign up.
Both their desktop and mobile sites are easy to use and comes with a search feature, allowing you to quickly find bets rather than having to hunt for them. An incredibly useful feature that is often overlooked.
BETFRED – 1,300 SHOPS
Mr Fred Done comes in at number 4 with 1,300 shops. His Betfred brand also makes many an appearance at racecourses up and down the country, offering track side betting, and the company is also responsible for the Tote after purchasing it for £265m in 2011.
What Betfred are very good at, and this applies to both in person and online betting, is coming up with new markets and promotions. Both teams to score, for example is an incredibly popular bet that was actually invented by Betfred through their Goals Galore coupon. They also invented the Lucky 15 and were the first bookie to offer double odds on wining goalscorer bets. And whilst other bookies quickly copied what Betfred have done, it does show that they’re willing to push the boat out to come up with new and interesting options for you to bet on.
Credit for their inventions aside, Betfred offer a very large range of promotions, both regular and one off, on everything from football and horse racing to politics and even who will win the X-Factor. So if you like bonuses (Fred Done’s nickname is, after all, ‘the bonus king’) then you should definitely take a look at Betfred. The site itself is a little dated when compared to some of the others, but perfectly useable and with good odds.
BETVICTOR – HAD 3 BETTING LOUNGES BUT SOLD TO STAR SPORTS
BetVictor, formally known as Victor Chandler, have moved most of their business onto the internet but for many years maintained a whopping 3 betting lounges in the UK which still operated under the ‘Victor Chandler’ name. Their most well known was in Mayfair but entrance was by invitation only, meaning you couldn’t just stroll in off the street. These final three lounges were eventually sold in 2015, along with their racecourse pitches.
So, if you want to bet with BetVictor you’ll need to do it online. Thankfully they run an excellent online betting site featuring brilliant odds for football, amongst other sports and regular offers. They are also incredibly generous when it comes to enhanced places, often offering one or even two extra places on each way bets for big events when compared to other bookies. The Grand National in particular is worth using BetVictor for.
The History: From High Street Betting Shops To Online Bookmakers
The glitzy, modern shops of the big high street bookies, with their numerous flat screen TVs and mixed clientele are a far cry from the early days of bookmaking in the UK. The multilingual, all-singing, all-dancing websites offering just about every sport and event under the sun, not to mention casino games, bingo and poker are probably even further away from those roots. Here we take a brief look at the history of gambling in the UK.
WHEN DID PEOPLE START GAMBLING IN THE UK?
Gambling has existed for almost as long as time itself, and certainly in the Middle Ages the lower classes were gambling, which was viewed by upper classes as having a negative impact on their work ethic. More recently, gambling became popular among the aristocracy in the early years of horse racing in the 17th century.
King James I established a royal palace at Newmarket which was to become the centre of UK horse racing and this royal patronage was continued by King Charles I and Charles II. In the late 18th century the Classics were established and the sport – and gambling on it – began to resemble something we could recognise today.
Around this time there were over 400 betting shops in London alone but the 1853 Betting Houses Act put paid to that. The Attorney General at the time said, “The mischief arising from the existence of these betting shops was perfectly notorious,” and for over 100 years there was no legal off-course betting.
THE TOTE: BRITAINS FIRST LEGAL BOOKIE
The Tote – forerunner of Totesport – was established under the Betting Levy Act 1961 as the Horserace Totalisator Board, however its origins go back much further. None other than Winston Churchill (yes, THE Winston Churchill) set up the Racehorse Betting Control Board following the Racecourse betting Act of 1928. The intention was to provide a safe and legal alternative to the many illegal betting operations that existed at that time and also to channel funds generated back into the sport itself.
During this period it remained legal to bet at race courses but there also existed a large network of illegal bookies. Many of the huge modern giants of UK bookmaking started life either operating trackside or as an illegal bookie, or sometimes both! Fred Done, co-founder of Betfred, originally worked for his father’s less-than-legal bookmaking business, whilst Victor Chandler (father of the current owner of BetVictor, also called Victor Chandler!) started out in a similar way in 1946, almost 20 years before betting shops were legalised once more.
The Betting and Gaming Act of 1960 effectively legalised off-course betting and whilst the Horserace Totalisator Board continued its strong role at race tracks, they didn’t open a high street shop (as Tote) until 1972. Betfred opened their first shop (then Dones) in 1967 whilst Ladbrokes opened shops immediately. Growth in this period was huge, with an estimated 10,000 betting shops opening within the first six months of legalisation on the 1st May 1961, but the early retail outlets would be unrecognisable from what we see today.
THE FIRST HIGH STREET BOOKMAKERS
Some early shops offered neither TV nor radio coverage of races, and were generally very basic. They were places to bet, smoke and pass time with few comforts and very little information on offer about the races themselves! Racing pages from newspapers would be pinned to the wall, odds would be manually displayed by the “board-man”, who got them via a wire service which also delivered commentary if you were lucky. The commentary was rudimentary to say the least, consisting of short bursts of purely descriptive information.
For a long time not a lot changed until new gambling legislation in 1986 allowed shops to offer a little more comfort. Prior to that they were not allowed to offer visible enticements and were legally required to be, in simple terms, unwelcoming places that wouldn’t encourage anybody, but especially the young, to gamble.
The 1986 legislation brought such luxuries as seats, hot drinks and even television coverage of races! By now there was the established “Big Four” of William Hill, Coral, Ladbrokes and the Tote, although there also remained a huge number of independent bookmakers. Gradually, as technology and the shops improved, many of the independents were forced to sell up, although some, such as Betfred and Victor Chandler would thrive and ultimately join the old “Big Four” as bookmaking giants in their own right.
BETTING TAXES & THE MOVE OFFSHORE
A tax was levied on bets, at first 10% and then reduced to 9%, with the option to pay either on your stake (a smaller outlay but paid regardless of result) or only on the returns if the bet won. This tax gave illegal bookmaking a chance to thrive and as recently as the late 1980s it is estimated this accounted for 10% of wagering.
This ultimately forced many bookmakers offshore, with Victor Chandler (BetVictor) one of the first to go, lock, stock and barrel, in 1999, to Gibraltar. In 2001 this forced the government to review betting tax and instead they introduced a 15% levy on bookmakers’ profits in an attempt to stem the flow of money offshore.
MODERN DAY BOOKMAKERS
This was a major boost to high street bookmaking but now there was a far larger threat – the internet. Telephone betting had been around for some time but the internet took things to a whole new level. Punters could now gamble from home, work or anywhere with an internet connection.
Online gambling has experienced massive growth but it has also in turn forced the betting shops to up their game. The modern, bright, customer-orientated betting shop is more welcoming than ever and with the introduction of casino-style betting terminals and high value slots it is actually undergoing something of a resurgence.
Whilst all the major bookmakers also operate online, the big boys are opening more and more high street shops too. Tote has disappeared from the high street following the company’s privatisation in 2011 when the sale to Betfred was completed. However, Tote retains an online presence, in part due to its historical link with horse racing and Totepool betting, particularly the huge Tote jackpots. In its place Betfred continue to open retail outlets and whilst the overall number of UK betting shops in 2013 is around half what it was 30 years earlier, the future for the high street sector looks bright.
Further relaxation of legislation in 2008 allowed shops to open closer together and also allowed for more fixed odds betting terminals (FOBT). With the financial crisis meaning lots of empty shops the big bookmakers have been happy to step in, and with the growth in FOBT the bookies are thriving.
The FOBT allow players to play slot machines, roulette and other casino-style games and generate huge income – around 52% of shop profits. Whilst critics argue they are highly addictive, they seem – like betting shops – here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future.