For a long time, placing a bet was something that had to be done in person either on course or at a betting shop. There was a brief period where telephone betting was the in thing but it didn’t really last that long.
This is because the internet came along and changed the whole world forever.
That might sound overstated but think about it; how are you able to read this right now, how are we able to instantly provide this list of bookmakers?
Once people understood what this new technology was capable of, everyone wanted a piece of it, and bookmakers were no different. In fact, for them, it opened the door to seemingly endless new products and betting markets or bet types, and the ability to take wagers from people all over the world, not just those who were in driving distance of one of their shops.
The online gambling industry exploded and grew faster than anyone knew how to deal with, especially the government who have been scrabbling to catch up in terms of regulation ever since.
High street bookies got in on the action for sure, but a whole new breed of online only bookmakers began to appear too, and these now vastly outnumber bookmakers with physical shops.
Punters loved it too, because they could place bets with fresh hot knowledge and information, they could take advantage of odds changes as soon as they happened, not to mention easily shop around for the best deals.
There are now so many online bookmakers that it would be impossible to list all of them, so we have listed the ones we value the most.
Are Online Bookmakers Legal?
Online bookmaking certainly is a legal business to run, and most online bookmakers are operating perfectly legally too, but to say that all online bookmakers are legal wouldn’t quite be true.
To operate any sort of gambling business in the UK, you need a gambling license from the UKGC – The UK Gambling Commission – and in order to get a license you need to agree to certain terms, pass thresholds for safety, security, social responsibility etc., and also pay an annual fee.
The UKGC keeps a close eye on all of their license holders and runs regular checks on operating procedures and the like the ensure everyone is staying within the rules set out in the terms of their license. These rules have become much tighter over the years too, with the protection of those vulnerable to gambling harm and anti money laundering being paramount, and any company deemed to be straying outside the boundaries can be subject to huge fines of millions of pounds.
All of the bookmakers that we list on this site have done things properly and are operating legally – most have held licenses uninterrupted for many many years.
However, there are a small number of black market online bookies who are not operating with a license, which means their customers are not protected in any way should the company decide to do a runner or refuse to pay out.
Don’t let this put you off though, because it’s very easy to distinguish between a legal, licensed, safe bookmaker, and one that is operating outside of the law.
There are two ways to check:
- The bookies’ own website
- The UKGC website
Every licensed bookmaker must display their license number with a link to the license itself at the bottom of their website. It’s always in the same place; scroll right down to the bottom of the homepage, and you will see something like this:
This is from Betfred’s website, but they all look pretty much the same aside from the specific details such as address and license number etc. Note that the license number here is also a link.
It’s important that you follow the link because a dodgy bookie could just copy and paste this information without linking to a genuine license, so be thorough.
The other way to do it is direct via the UKGC website, which is as easy as entering the name of the website in their search box and seeing if a license comes up.
The license itself looks like this:
This is Betfred’s license, although you will notice the company name is actually Petre (Gibraltar) Limited. If you clicked on ‘Domain Names’ you would see Betfred in there (Petre is the names Pete and Fred smashed together, because Pete Done and Fred Done are the founder owners of the company). A lot of bookie brands are owned by a company with a different name.
The last thing to note is that licenses can be suspended and permanently revoked, and this would be displayed where you can see the word ‘Active’ in the image above.
A revoked license means the company is no longer allowed to operate in the UK, while a suspension could just be put in place during an investigation before being lifted later. Either way, if either of these is the case it’s safest to find another bookie to bet with.
There are licenses for other jurisdictions too, such as Malta, Curacao, etc. If you are betting from the UK then your bookmaker needs a UK gambling license; even if they are licensed elsewhere, you will not be protected if you bet with them from the UK and they are not licensed here.
Famous Bookmakers and the Men Who Founded Them
It’s alright us telling you about the various bookie offers that are available, and biggest bets or wins or accas that the industry has ever seen, but what about the men that made it possible?
What about the bookies themselves?
A lot of the big name brands we bet with today came from very humble beginnings, but few have remained independently owned as over the years the founders grew old and died or sold their companies on.
The brands have survived though, and most are now household names.
These men, and the bookmaking companies they founded, have all had a huge impact on the sports betting world as we now know it, and from the list of bookmakers below, you can find out a little bit about them, how they got started, and how they became household names.
The Bookmakers Who Built the Industry
A Quick History of Bookmakers in the UK
Gambling is a past time as old as the hills, in fact, the first evidence of a gamble goes way back to China in 2300BC where they would bet on tile games; but while people making wagers between themselves has been going on for as long as humans have been able to communicate, bookmaking is a more recent concept.
The first documented bookmaker was a Lancastrian man called Harry Ogden, who started taking bets at Newmarket in 1795. Ogden was a fan of horse racing and had been for most of his life, considering himself something of an expert when it came to which horses stood the best chance of winning.
With this knowledge he would draw up his own odds for each race and invite people to lay bets, which they did, but the difference was that all of the horses had different odds based on Ogden’s and thus bookmaking was born. Before this, the idea of odds didn’t really exist in the way it does now, people would just bet peer to peer on binary outcomes.
Over the next 40 years or so, all sorts of people were setting themselves up as bookmakers, and the trade began to take form, with good bookies understanding how to build in an edge and balance a book, and bad bookies going broke.
It caused problems too though, because it was unregulated, so arguments about winning or losing bets would often turn nasty, and bookmakers were known to employ bodyguards to avoid being set upon by angry punters or just plain thieves.
The courts were being hounded by people claiming to have been ripped off, or by people claiming that debts had been left unsettled, so the government were becoming increasingly irate with bookmakers – especially since they were not yet being taxed.
They introduced a Gaming Act in 1845 (updated in 1853) to solve these issues, which prohibited bookmaking taking place anywhere other than beside the racetracks and by anyone other than a license holder… and of course, licenses were not free.
It was a way of attempting to control gambling, and a 2 year prison sentence faced anybody caught bookmaking illegally, but it was a difficult law to police in reality, so an awful lot of illegal bookmaking still went on.
Rise of the Racetrack
An unexpected side effect of these new laws, was that the race tracks became destinations for friends and families looking for a fun day out.
Working class folk had just started getting the occasional days holiday, and the omnibus was now available as well as trains and stage coaches, so people had more free time, better transportation options, and a little bit of extra money to spend. In those days, a day at the races was just the ticket.
People flocked to the race tracks in their thousands, and of course, this meant big business for bookmakers who were inundated with punters.
Racing was accessible to people of all classes where it had once been the preserve of the rich, but for working classes, it was still thought of as a special day out as it wasn’t something they could afford to do regularly. They had neither the time nor the money for such frivolity on a regular basis.
When greyhound racing was introduced to the UK from America it provided a much cheaper more accessible alternative for people who liked to bet on the races but couldn’t make it out to see the geegees.
The sport first took place at Belle Vue in Manchester in 1926, and it boomed almost immediately, with new tracks opening up and the working classes flooding to them to enjoy cheaper entertainment closer to home.
Of course, workers rights had advanced a lot in that time too, so the average man had more money to spend and more free time in which to spend it.
Horse racing remained popular too, but the class divide between the two sports was clear to see.
This is how horse racing and greyhound racing became the staple markets for bookmakers. It was only on course that sports bets could legally be taken, and no other sports happened on course, so if you wanted to bet on them, you still had to do it illegally.
The difference between a legal bookmaker and an illegal bookmaker might not have been noticeable if you didn’t know the law.
Provided your illegal bookmaker was honest enough to pay out – and any bookie who wanted to stay in business long term was – the practicalities were the same.
The only real difference is that while legal bookmaking occurred on the racecourses, illegal bookmaking occurred in pubs, factories, and kitchens around the country.
Anyone could open a small book, you only needed someone on either side of the bet to balance it out, so many small time illegal bookmakers would operate with a fairly small number of regular punters just to make a bit on the side.
Others would have bigger ideas, even employing young lads to go around on their bikes collecting bets from people and bringing back the money. Even bookmakers who plied their trade legally on the racecourses would operate illegally in other markets.
It was just something that was more or less accepted by the average person in the towns and villages up and down the country. Disputes were usually settled independently and didn’t cause enough of a problem anymore to give the government a headache, and local bobbies were as keen for a bet as anyone else (although some would need to be paid off from time to time), so on it went.
This is actually how many of the people on our list of bookmakers got started, either working for or related to an illegal part time bookie.
This all changed in 1961 though, when off course bookmaking was made legal in the UK.
The First High Street Bookmakers
The 1960 Betting and Gaming Act changed everything for gambling in the UK.
Although some on course bookmakers were initially sceptical and saw this change as either unwanted competition or a danger to society (William Hill was one of those), they soon came around.
Betting shops flew up on high streets countrywide, although they weren’t the lounge like coffee shop style technology hubs they are today.
Many of them were nothing more than bare uninviting rooms with racing pages taped to the walls and odds displayed behind a counter. They were often dark and dingy and generally not very pleasant places to be.
Fred and Peter Done of Betfred (another bookmaker on our list) were one of the first to do something about this, laying carpets in their shops to make them more comfortable and keeping them clean – which was considered above and beyond in the late 1960s.
The markets that were available were very different to now too.
Even until relatively recently, the number of markets available to bet one were relatively small. Horse racing and greyhound racing were the sports that bookmaking was traditionally created for, although some football bets had started to creep in after the 1960 Betting and Gaming Act, with perhaps the odd market in other popular sports like cricket when big competitions came around.
Before the law change any bets on other sports would have needed to be made illegally, unless you wanted to bet on the football pools which had been around since 1923 – but that was a different thing entirely. Even after the law change it took many years for market diversification to gather pace.
You have to remember, that even television was a pretty new concept back then, and there weren’t endless channels that ran for 24 hours a day. You got a couple of channels that were only broadcasting between certain hours, and what was shown on them was limited, so people simply didn’t know about as many sports as they do today, and access to information about foreign leagues or niche sports simply wasn’t available.
The bookies would draw up their own odds too, based on their and their odds traders’ knowledge and experience. There was no technology to do it for you like there is today, so if you didn’t know enough about a market you didn’t offer odds on it or you might get your fingers burnt. Bookies lived by their wits.
Gradually, new sports were introduced and new bet types were created too, making the betting landscape far more interesting for punters. At the same time, technology was making it easier to run a larger book, with the introduction of computers that could store vast amounts of information and calculate margins at lightning speed, not to mention colour television, dedicated sports channels, cheaper energy.
All this meant that bookmakers could upgrade their betting shops to install seating, games machines, coffee machines and snacks, televisions to watch live sport on.
By the 1990s bookie shops were unrecognisable from the hovels they started out as – although anyone who remembers wading through fag butts, used bet slips, and coffee cups to get to the counter will tell you, they still weren’t the nicest of places. Nevertheless, you could sit there for a while and watch some sport, make a few bets, chat to other punters, and enjoy yourself.
Then of course, the internet came along, the online bookmaker was born, and a new era began. Bookmaking is no longer the trade it was, unless you head to the courses themselves ironically enough, where apart from digital boards and the ability to hedge via Betfair (yet another on our list of bookmakers), the bookies are doing what they have always done.
They are using their heads and their people skills to draw up odds, balance their book, and attract punters to make bets.