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Towards the end of the 18th Century, Harry Ogden, a Lancastrian, informed onlookers at Newmarket Heath that he was prepared to offer prices against each and every horse in a race. Ogden is widely acknowledged as the UK’s first professional bookmaker.

The term ‘bookmaker’ derives from the practice of recording wagers in a hard-bound ledger (the ‘book’) with the person laying bets ‘making the book’ and betting on sports with bookmakers became commonplace in the UK in the early nineteenth century.

Betting contracts between punters and bookmakers, in which no money changed hands, often led to debts and ill will. Such contracts were made legally unenforceable under the 1845 Gaming Act, a measure that encouraged bookmakers to insist on cash. Betting shops made an appearance with more than 400 betting shops / clubs operating in London, before the 1853 Betting Houses Act closed them down.

By 1870 the place to be on race days was Hyde Park where bookies pinned betting lists to trees, but such gatherings proved unruly and were eventually banned by the police.

Punters were therefore denied the opportunity to wager in cash away from a racecourse - although illegal shops and their network of ‘runners’ ensured gambling continued in an unregulated manner until betting shops were once again legalised in the 1961 Betting and Gaming Act.

Although this put an end to renowned street betting, bookmakers were effectively dingy by government decree, with shops having to have ‘dead windows’ (blacked-out or shuttered) with no visible enticements to gamble.

Punters could still only listen to audio commentary on races until the 1980’s when regulations were relaxed and television screens permitted, with shop allowed to open in the evening and on Sunday’s, along with other improvements such as brighter interiors and hot drink machines.

The perception of bookmakers as seedy shops thus gradually disappeared as they became more customer-friendly and gambling more socially acceptable. Bookmaker shops are now an established feature of any British or Irish high street, with a now clubby atmosphere for people to watch horse racing and other sports.

It might seem strange nowadays, but as recently as 2002 punters had to pay tax on betting-shop wagers, originally 10% (either paid as 10% extra on stake - so a £10 bet cost £11, or with 10% deducted from winnings - if tax was not paid up front). In 1996 this tax was reduced to 9%, before being abolished in 2002 and replaced with a tax on bookies’ gross profits that was not handed down to the customer.

Older punters will also remember rules regarding betting on football, with a ‘minimum trebles’ stipulation, so bets could not be placed on single matches and coupons had to include at least three matches. Nowadays football is the biggest market for bookmakers, with over 50% of their turnover coming from betting on football.

The internet sparked another revolution for the industry, as online bookmakers emerged in the late twentieth century to offer betting first on computers and more recently mobile betting. This has proved to be beneficial for punters far beyond the added convenience, with bookmakers operating with tighter margins in an increasingly competitive online market where people can shop around to find the best odds.

For example, in the early 2000’s it was considered the general norm for a bookmaker to price up a football match to around 111%. Thus, in a match between Liverpool and Arsenal, if the bookie assessed the true chances at 49% for a Liverpool win, 29% for a draw and 22% for an Arsenal win, they would most likely offer 10/11 about Liverpool (implying a 52.4% chance), 2/1 about the draw (33.3% implied) and 3/1 about Arsenal (25% implied chance). A total implied chance of 110.7%

Nowadays the bookmaker would now probably bet this game to just 104% margin (thus their margin - or profit - has been cut from 11% of bets into just 4%). For convenience and value for money, there really has never been a better time to be a punter!

Betting online is now a 24-hour activity, worth billions annually to the economy and you can click the links at the top of this page to read our reviews of what we consider to be the best bookmaker websites, including details of all their sign-up offers and latest promotions.