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Customers could not drink in betting shops, but they could smoke. These were bolt-holes, very often in the backstreets, stuffy but social, somewhere to be.
And they were popular, particularly with working-class men. William Hill had shops by , and Ladbrokes more than His company was bought by Sears Holdings Limited in , and then traded on again through a number of conglomerates.
They had 1, shops each, then 2, Instead of pencils came that icon of the modern betting shop, the complimentary pen: Regulation changes in the s allowed TVs to be installed in shops, bringing in races and results direct from horse and greyhound tracks.
Cashiers, in the s, got networked computers. The major bookmakers also launched and invested in dotcom operations, but they were not especially light-footed about it, and their profits were eaten into by an online-only service named Betfair that empowered its customers to act as bookies themselves, setting odds and taking bets from one another.
Broadly speaking, there was less profit for bookmakers there: FOBTs, when they came, were accepting of much larger sums than the fruit machines that preceded them. Losers lost faster, and losing became an identifiably scratchier thing. But they could not plausibly claim to have been cheated. Machine players brought with them a new paranoia. FOBTs are fixed, thus the name — fixed-odds betting terminals. Over time they will pay back to customers Many shop workers I spoke to had stories about looking on, impotent, as the machines under their charge were angrily destroyed by the customers who had been playing them.
Worse, somehow, was when a machine was calmly destroyed. The deputy manager of a William Hill in Hull said: According to figures I have seen, the number of incidents of damage to machines in Ladbrokes branches rose steadily between and And how many casinos, they asked, got by without bouncers to cope with aggrieved gamblers?
How many were run by individuals on their own? The policy meant that, subject to certain conditions, including a risk assessment of individual branches and a tick-box check of employee competence, shops could be run by one person for periods of the day and night. In fact, in the majority of shops, there would be a mandatory number of hours during which there could only be one person rostered to work.
People at all levels of the company told me they were in no doubt as to why it was introduced. Ladbrokes said this was a result of cuts in staffing at all levels, not specifically on shop floors. At shop level, a choice: An area manager who worked in the north and oversaw the running of more than 60 branches told the odd employees under his charge: At first, those who agreed to single-man were paid extra — something like an additional 40p an hour.
The hourly pay for branch managers, who are known internally at Ladbrokes as customer service managers, varies by area and age. Internal Ladbrokes sources spoke candidly to me on the condition that I not use their names. So did most of the dozens of betting shop workers I consulted for this story. Entering branches around the UK, and introducing myself as a reporter, I became used to a singular response: Employees said they feared the sack if they complained in public forums about their working conditions.
A Ladbrokes employee in Birmingham reported the same. Many of the part-time-working students and other junior staff I interviewed insisted they did not expect to be in their jobs for ever, that a pervasive industry gloom would soon flush them out — but that they needed good references, so could their names be left out of my story?
I met working parents, working parents-to-be, second-generation staff who worked in branches with their parents, and other employees who could not risk dismissal, so asked to speak anonymously. The area manager in the north recalled his shame at telling staff who were unnerved by single-manning in its early phase that they were really in no extra danger. Persuading his staff became easier when other major betting chains started to single-man.
Employees at Betfred, Stan James, Coral and Paddy Power told me they were all asked to work in their shops alone on a frequent basis. Andrew and Anita Iacovou first met inside a Ladbrokes. It was a Saturday in April , Grand National weekend. Anita had put an each-way bet on a horse called Party Politics. When her horse finished second, she took her ticket to Iacovou, who was working behind the counter.
Iacovou was 37 and had grown up not far away, in South Norwood. His father was Greek and his mother English. Anita was 34, second-generation Indian, with dark hair that she tied back in a knot. Iacovou must have been distracted, chatting, because he shorted Anita on her winnings. They married in and later had two sons. In , the family moved to a flat in Cheam. For five years, until , Iacovou worked at a Ladbrokes a walk away, on Tudor Drive. Then he was moved to the branch near Morden tube.
But after a while, Punjabi recalled, Iacovou asked him not to bring the family on these trips, fearing they would be vulnerable in the car outside. The sensation of safety is not a hard currency; it cannot be passed around in token form. The Morden Ladbrokes had CCTV cameras inside it, a steel-framed front door with a magnetic lock, a latch-lock on the door between the shop floor and the service area, and an employee panic button under the counter. As dozens of shop employees pointed out to me, however, it is still possible to feel unsafe in the middle of a fortress like this, particularly at night, particularly when unaccompanied.
The deputy manager of a Betfred in Sussex was working on her own when one night she was threatened with rape by a frustrated machine gambler. For a while she took anti-anxiety medication, she said, to be able to keep working, and then she resigned. A female Ladbrokes worker in Oxfordshire recalled being told by a customer: Certain branches in certain areas were from the start deemed too dangerous to be single-manned.
Part of the way Ladbrokes decided this was by considering unpleasant incidents that had already taken place inside a shop. It rated such incidents by degree.
Suffer enough twos or threes and head office would take a shop off the single-manning list, at least for a short while.
Anita worried for her husband. You did not have to search especially hard for stories about violence in British betting shops at the time.
A machete robbery at a Betfred in Ashton-in-Makerfield in March A man who had entered a Ladbrokes in Southampton in April , and leapt over the counter with a kitchen knife. Between them, the Iacovous had an arrangement: Andrew would call Anita from his shop, usually at about 8. On Saturday 25 May, Anita did not receive the expected call. She rang the shop and got no answer. She continued to call.
Trying to work out what had happened later, police investigators rewatched CCTV footage recorded in the shop. They saw Shafique Aarij struggle with Iacovou behind the counter. This was at 8. They saw Aarij hit Iacovou with a hammer, multiple times. Blood spotted his face, and he wiped at it.
Within minutes of the attack Aarij had left the shop. Aarij must have taken this when he fled, at around 8. For between 45 minutes and an hour, nobody outside the Morden branch was aware that anything unusual had happened inside. Andrew Iacovou lay in such a way behind his counter that he could not be seen from the shop floor. Customers came and went. Someone played on one of the machines. Eventually Kistensamy, one of the regulars, approached the counter and saw a body. He ran to the supermarket next door and raised the alarm.
Iacovou was pronounced dead by paramedics at From branch to branch, rumours of a murder spread. Staff at a William Hill in Glasgow heard that an employee had been stabbed. At a Coral in Hemel Hempstead it was said that someone had been shot. This was one of their great fears. In the Facebook group, a discussion about possible strike action led nowhere. A hopeless, gravedigger humour set in instead. One especially distressing rumour about Iacovou spread between them: I was told by well-placed sources that this rumour was accurate.
The operator also saw the cleaning materials that Iacovou had put out on his service area. It was assumed that Aarij was a cleaner who must have pressed the panic button by mistake. In Cheam, Anita Iacovou heard nothing all morning. At 2pm, police visited her at the flat. Anita was asked to step in to her bedroom to speak with a policewoman. The two children were at home. Anita called them into the room to tell them what had happened. There is not a lot more she can recall of the afternoon.
She knows she turned to the two Ladbrokes representatives, in the family living room, and asked: When interviewed at Sutton police station, Aarij accepted that he had gone to the betting shop in Morden that morning to steal money.
That he had armed himself with a hammer beforehand. That he knew there was likely to be only one person on duty. When police asked why he had killed Iacovou, Aarij told them: At trial in November he was found guilty.
In January he was sentenced to life in prison, with a minimum of 26 years. Ladbrokes paid a modest sum to Anita Iacovou and her family. Delicate mention was made of the murder. The area manager in the north recalled: It was taken as: When a new branch opened in the Leicester area that year, it was added, like hundreds of others, to the list of Ladbrokes that could be run by one person.
In early , a woman in her 20s was interviewed for a job at the branch. During her interview, Miss X asked about the possibility of the shop being robbed. Really, though, nobody in the betting world can look forward to the spring, when chancellors generally shake down this industry with indecent rigour. At the time, a Ladbrokes spokesperson complained: In a decade when the high street has come out strongly in favour of thrift and convenience, betting shops have clung on as an unlikely modern super-presence.
Of course, they are not much use to the thrifty. If you mislay your little receipt, write it off. Who are all the shops for? Their expressions often sullen. Privately, informally, staff divide the modern class of betting-shop punter into two broad groups: He just seemed to want a place to be, and often cleaned up the discarded betting slips to help out.
Bookmakers buy lots of television advertising time to promote gambling through their websites and mobile-phone apps, while their vast estates of retail outlets go just about unmentioned. Betting shops can seem marginal places today, even through the eyes of those who run them. Yet as pubs vanish, churches vanish, libraries vanish, the marginalised have not vanished.
I soon realised that I only had to speak to men on the street — those who looked to be of retirement age and who looked to be doing nothing in particular. They had dispersed, since his death, to the Paddy Power a few hundred metres away, to the Stan James across the road, to the Ladbrokes on Tudor Drive, to the William Hill further along the A Who are all these shops for?
Four ought to be enough. An unintended effect of the Gambling Act may have been to encourage bookmakers to open more shops, and to move existing shops from the back streets to more visible parts of cities and towns.
Locals in Great Yarmouth recently campaigned to stop a ninth betting shop opening in the town centre. Last year, residents of Thornton Heath tried to resist a 14th betting shop opening within a single postal district. The Association of British Bookmakers, or ABB, the industry body that represents the major chains, said that the overall number of betting shops has actually decreased in recent years, and added: After , bookmakers began to open their shops earlier in the morning and later at night.
According to the ABB, this was to broadcast and take bets on evening sporting events. But senior industry employees told me that it was to create extra hours of machine use — a feeling shared on shop floors. When I questioned the ABB about single-manning and other working conditions in betting shops, a spokesman pointed out that those who work in petrol stations and newsagents often do so alone. Other industry sources said that lorry drivers and taxi drivers worked solo, too.
The comparisons were not unfair, but they did not take full account of the nature of betting shops, or their peculiar presence. Known to be everywhere, known to have cash. As likely as not staffed by a woman, more likely than not staffed alone. They were often near pubs, nightclubs, takeaways, cab ranks. They stayed open late. Ever since the extension of opening hours, branch workers told me, they had been more likely to have to deal with customers who were drunk or on drugs.
They also told me about the other sort of difficult customer: An employee of Ladbrokes in Birmingham, Harry Vale, was taken aback in to be asked by his area manager to start buying food and drink for people who came into his shop.
But, then, Vale was pretty new to the business at the time, and a great many industry conventions can seem baffling to the uninitiated. That they had to be on the shop floor at all times.