Friday, 12 June 2009

Settling in a Bookies Office

It's early January, 1956. A strange new world, for me, learning the tricks and trade of "settling".

Betting on horses was something I'd done on a few occasions, such as the Derby and Grand National races. Most people might have a small flutter on these two races but there are many thousands who have a bet every week; or every day; even maybe every hour or so! This was now my job: to take these bets and to "settle" them. Easily said, less easily accomplished.

There were no betting shops in 1956. It would be another five or six years before licensed betting shops started to open. The only way people could bet in the 1950s was either at the racecourse or with a "credit account" with a bookmaker. There was a third way, but it was illegal.

This third way accounted for a good 50% of the business of my boss's setup: bookie's runners betting. A bookie's runner was a person, usually a man, who collected bets from everybody and anybody. This chap would take a slip of paper with the bet written on it, together with the cash for the bet.

The 'runner' would pass all these slips of paper to the bookie, in various ways. The bookie would reward the runner by paying him a 'commission' of, usually, 1/6d (one shilling and sixpence) for every £1-worth of bets. The runner, if he had a good 'pitch' would earn a nice income irrespective of whether these bets won or lost.

1/6d in the £ was 7.5% of the stakes. The risk was that the runner, if caught taking these slips, could end up in jail. Very few were ever caught. One reason for that is the police were usually on the payroll. Yes, the bookie gave a regular 'drink' to the local cop-shop and in return the cop would warn us that our 'runner' was due to be 'nicked' tomorrow! This enabled the bookie to warn the runner, who would then arrange for a substitute to take his place on occasions like this. The 'substitute' runner would thus be a 'first offender' and would draw only a small fine from the magistrates. All very nicely organised; everybody was happy.

These runners were usually sharp-witted people. Some would have a network of sub-agents who would collect bets and hand them to the main runner. The largest sources of these illegal bets were in factories and pubs. Most of these betting slips were collected prior to the first race of the afternoon and placed in strong leather or canvas bags, specially made for the purpose. They were called 'clock bags'.

The runner would close the bag and it would be locked, with a time-clock showing the time of sealing. The bag would then be taken by car or taxi to the bookie's office. The office staff would open it, check the time stamp and add up the total stakes. It was the settler's job to work on these grubby betting slips.

Bets were written on bits of paper, cigarette packets, bits of old cardboard or any other scraps of paper.

The other business was by telephone. Some runners would phone their bets through if they accepted a slip after the clock bag had been closed. However, most phone bets were from private 'credit' clients. These people were slightly more sophisticated punters and would have a set credit limit. They would receive a weekly account of all their bets and were required to pay up any losses each week.

So, there you have it. I was in this small, smoke-filled room, with up to six other people, answering the phone and taking down bets. I would also be working out these various wagers as the minutes ticked by in the afternoons. Whilst racing was in progress it was a pressurised job. All the action was crammed into around three or so hours in the afternoon. Non-stop concentrated effort to keep pace with the racing.

An important aspect of being a bookie's clerk, or settler, was liability. This meant we had to watch out for any bets that might cost the bookie too much. For example, if a punter had placed an accumulator bet and the first three horses had won there might be a large amount building up on the next horse on the bet. Say that the bet was a £1 win accumulator on four horses. The first horse has won at, say, 8-1 and the second has won at 10-1; this would mean that there was now £99 going onto the third horse. If this 3rd horse odds were about 5-1 or so this could put a liability of around £600 on the fourth and final horse of the accumulator.

In such circumstances the settler would tell the bookie and it was then the bookie's decision as to what to do. He might say "Give Ladbrokes £50 to win on the 3rd horse" - thus 'hedging' part of the bet. On the other hand, he might consider the third horse to have no great chance of winning and would simply let the bet run.

Life was never dull in these smoky dens. Phones jangling all afternoon, the ticker tape rattling away as the betting and results came through. The screech of chalk on the blackboard as our 'boardman' wrote up the results for the settlers to work from.

It was all go, go, go. Cups of tea, usually made by the boss, often went cold. Cigarettes frequently burned away on the ashtray as the phones were constantly in use.

This was a steep learning curve period for me. Fortunately, my pal Dicky Cox was a great help. He had introduced me to Arthur Horton, the bookie boss, and he thus wanted to me to get on with the job as quickly as possible. Dicky was an amazingly fast settler; mental arithmetic was his stock in trade. A good friend. One day, some years later, I would be in a position to help him in a similar way.

Tricks and traps of the trade in the next instalment.


The Bug said...

Thanks for your comment on my blog - I agree that any hair at all is a good thing!

I enjoyed this post very much - I'll have to go back & read your earlier ones. I'm a HUGE Dick Francis fan (or should I say, Mrs. Francis - the books aren't the same since she died). I've read every book except his biography. I have no idea how accurately he portrays the horse world, but I do enjoy reading about it.

PhilipH said...

Thanks for dropping by. And yes, Dick Francis is a hugely popular writer and he has a sound background in horse-racing, having been a top-class rider, "over the jumps" in the 1950s.

In fact, when I began working as a bookie's clerk Dick Francis was riding the Queen Mother's horse, Devon Loch, in the 1956 Grand National. He was well clear over the last fence when the horse seemed to try to jump a non-existent fence! He did a belly-flop, struggled up again but lost the race. One of THE most dramatic Grand Nationals of all time.

Regards, Phil

The Bug said...

OK, now I have to read his biography...