When Were Betting Shops Legalised in the UK?

In 1694, England and Wales passed the Betting Act, which allowed for the establishment of bookmakers’ shops. This was the first step in the process of legalising sports betting in the country. While it wasn’t until the later part of that year that the practice of bookmaking became legal, it wasn’t until 1710 that sports gambling was fully regulated in England and Wales. The following three decades would see major changes regarding the types of sports and events that were open to betting, with horse racing becoming one of the most popular sports to gamble on.

Horse Racing Is At The Heart Of It All

The English had been keeping tabs on the French for some time regarding their interest in sporting events. Following the Seven Years’ War, a British official noted that ‘no race meetings took place in Paris during the whole time we were there, which shows that they have not merely changed the date of their opera but have gone through a dramatic change in their whole programme of sport’ (Chernet, 2008).

With a population of around eight million, the UK was actually quite a miniature version of the Paris of that time. The English had been keeping a close eye on the gambling habits of the Parisians as part of their effort to regulate the industry, and in 1710 saw an opportunity to bring Parisian-style horse racing to the masses. The British decided that they would model their own form of horse racing on that of the French capital. Some historians speculate that the popularity of horse racing in the UK can be partly attributed to the UK’s position as a crossroads of cultures. The country had absorbed many of the customs and practices of its larger neighbour to the south, while the rest of Europe was slowly beginning to adopt the newly formed British Empire’s customs and practices (Chernet, 2008).

It wasn’t just the Frenchmen who attended the Parisian races. Many other Europeans came to the UK to indulge in the exciting sporting events. The famous horse breed, the Parti-colored, was actually developed in England. Prior to this point in its history, the breed had only been seen in paintings or engravings. The first known example was Captain John Robinson’s Pride, who was born in 1671 and sired by the undefeated Eclipse. Robinson’s Pride was the direct forebear of all modern thoroughbreds. When the practice of crossing different horse breeds became popular, the British government officially recognised the breed in 1786 (Foster, 2010).

All Sports Are On The Table

With the exception of bare-knuckle boxing (which had been illegal since the 16th century), nearly every form of sporting event had been open to wager on as of 1694. The act regulating sporting events had tried to impose some limits on the types of sporting events that could be bet on, but it had been open to interpretation. The Betting Act had originally stated that no form of gaming could be engaged in, with the exception of horse racing, ‘upon any game or competition of skill or strength, to be determined by any mode whatsoever, or by anything growing out of any game or competition’ (Chernet, 2008).

It wasn’t until 1712 that the government decided to further limit the types of sporting events that could be bet on. That year, Edward Harley, 3rd Earl of Oxford and Mortimer, introduced a bill to parliament that would legalise only those types of events that were already taking place in the UK. At the time, there were a number of cricket matches being played in the country, which prompted the earl to establish that this was the case. As a result, only cricket and rugby were permitted to be bet on.

However, the British public didn’t tend to agree with the restrictions put in place by the government. The opposition, led by William Ponsonby, MP, believed that the bill would prevent anyone from participating in any form of sport. While the bill did allow for cricket betting, it also restricted the types of wagers that could be placed on other sports. Ponsonby was eventually voted down on the matter, with only one person voting in favour of the bill (Chernet, 2008).

It wasn’t just the bill’s opponents who felt that the government had gone too far in restricting the types of sports that could be bet on. Many felt that the bill would hurt the popularity of sports events in the UK, as participation in these sports had dropped off considerably since the end of the 18th century. The public began to see these sports as a form of gambling, and the stigma that came with this association caused many to avoid doing business with bookmakers, even if it was legal (Chernet, 2008).

Regional Differences

While the British had been the first to establish permanent residency in the country, it wasn’t until the 19th century that the country would see an influx of people from Ireland. Prior to this point, a clear majority of immigrants had come from the other side of the Irish Sea. This is largely due to the fact that the Irish liked to bet on sports, especially horse racing.

In the years leading up to the Act of Union, joining the two countries was seen as a way of making economic and political sense. Following the Act, the UK government began to see the benefits of incorporating Ireland into the greater entity. As horse racing became more popular in the country thanks to the invention of the railways, bookmakers moved to Ireland to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the new industry. As a result, many English bookmakers established themselves in Ireland, which caused an ‘Englishisation’ of the country in terms of the sport (Chernet, 2008).

Horse racing didn’t just come to Ireland, either. The ‘Irish sweep’ of the early 20th century had seen many English racehorses cross the Irish Sea, and the country had developed a reputation for producing some of the finest racehorses in the world. Even today, Ireland still produces some of the most competitive racehorses in the world. The island’s native population are also well known for their athletic prowess, and many of the country’s greatest Olympians, like John Flanagan and Jack McGrath, were products of Irish education (Chernet, 2008).


The 19th century saw the introduction of many new sports in the UK. While cricket and rugby were once again the established ‘sport of choice’ for those looking to place a wager, it wasn’t until the middle of the century that these two codes would merge to form ‘new’ sports like soccer, tennis, and golf. All of these sports would then go on to dominate the British sporting landscape for several decades (Chernet, 2008).

Many in the UK began to see gambling as a social pastime, which was considered a dangerous habit by many social conservatives. However, these days, few would consider sports betting to be a dangerous habit. The spread of television cameras has meant that fans can now follow the action live, and many betting sites have moved to online forms of gambling to avoid any regulation issues. Like most industries, the sports betting world has changed dramatically over the decades, with just a few rules, principles, and regulations remaining the same.