Bookmaker Howard Chisholm describes how his family’s business shed its murky past to become the multi million pound operation it is today. MIKE KELLY reports.
THE scene inside high street bookmakers these days can seem like a gamblers’ holiday camp.
Refreshments, multiple widescreen TVs, gambling machines, all contained within a bright airy environment. The particularly flash ones are grandly compared by some to Las Vegas and while that might be over-egging it there can be no denial that since 1961 when betting shops were legalised, they’ve changed beyond recognition.
Up until May 1, 1961 it was illegal to simply operate a betting shop. Between the Betting Houses Act of 1853 and the Betting and Gaming Act of 1961, introduced by Harold Macmillan’s Tory Government, bookmakers were supposed to restrict their trade to racecourses.
In practice, every village, town or city had an illicit gambling den or dens hidden away in its quieter streets. And not always hidden all that subtly.
The authorities did not always enforce the laws, which were particularly harsh on the “runners” — the network of loyal servants who collected bets from local pubs and factories and ferried them to the bookies’ headquarters. If caught, runners faced a £5 fine on the first offence, an £8 fine on the second, and imprisonment on the third.
In most towns, the police would warn bookies when they were about to stage a raid, so that the real runners would be sent away and a bunch of stand-ins told to wait on street corners with £5 in their pockets. The police earned a small bonus and everyone went away happy.
In Northumberland, one of the people operating in this murky world was Charlie Chisholm – with a name like that how could he be anything other than a bookmaker?
He had for years worked on the racecourses so was in a good position to take advantage of the new law with sons Charles and Carl Chisholm, who joined the family business after completing their National Service in the 1950s.
In 1961 after the law change they opened offices in Ashington, Bedlington and Newbiggin behind a butcher’s shop, barbers and hairdressers. By the 1970s they’d extended to 10 shops and today Chisholm Bookmakers has 49 shops from Northumberland down to North Yorkshire, employing 240 staff and with a turnover of £40m a year.
The three founders of the company have long since passed away and it is now run by Howard Chisholm, son of Charles, grandson of Charlie, who went into the business after getting a degree in applied mathematics from Bangor University.
“Very useful in my line of work,” he quipped. Howard, 53, who joined the company at the end of the 1970s, has witnessed a wealth of change in the business.
He said: “Back in the 60s, my grandfather was very limited with what he could do. Although betting in shops was made legal, I remember him having to black out his windows in order to not encourage gambling. There were also no TVs in those days, no refreshments and no copies of the Racing Post up on the walls.”
A reporter who visited the early betting shops in 1961 compared them to austere little post offices, “complete with bleak wooden shelves and partitions”.