Coral Bookmaker History (Joe Coral)

Coral Bookmaker History Joe CoralThe bright blue logo of the Coral bookmaking brand has adorned the high streets of the UK for as long as most of us have been alive.

The betting industry might have changed dramatically over the years, but those five white letters accompanied by a yellow, red and green flag have barely changed at all.

When a company has been around as long as Coral has, the history can be forgotten, but with such an interesting back story this is one bookie whose story is well worth telling.

It all started with a Jewish immigrant called Joseph Kagarlitsky, who was born in 1904 in Poland to a Russian father and a Polish mother.

His father sadly died while he was very young, so his mother moved the family to England in 1912 in search of a better life.

This young man would become Joe Coral, and Joe Coral would go on to establish one of the biggest bookmakers the country has ever known.

How Joe Coral Became a Bookmaker

Joe Coral's Registration Card

Joe Coral’s Registration Card

Being an immigrant in the early 20th century was tough. It still is today, but it was especially hard back then.

Joseph Kagarlitsky could hardly blend in with a name like that, so he decided to change it to something more English sounding.

The rumour goes that his sister was reading a book called Coral island, and along with shortening his name to Joe, he felt this sounded pretty good, and thus Joe Coral was born.

Although he had a head for numbers, Joe did not get on well at school, often skipping classes and eventually leaving at 14 to get a job. These were different times.

He started work as a lamp maker, but after coming into contact with a few bookies he also began work as a bookmaker’s runner on the side.

A runner’s job was to take bets on behalf of the bookmaker so they could increase their takings and make betting easier for punters, but it was also very illegal.

This was the start of Joe’s journey as a bookmaker, and also the start of his long running issues with the authorities.

His work as a bookies runner eventually got him sacked from the lamp makers, so he went into advertising instead, but the shorter hours allowed him to begin taking his own bets at a billiards club in Stoke Newington. This too would have been classed as illegal bookmaking, but in 1927 he went legit, left his job, and set up pitches at both the Harringay and White City greyhound tracks.

The sport was in its boom years at this time, and Coral stuck with it throughout his career, with the brand still being closely associated to greyhound racing even today.

Joe Coral was now a legally operating professional bookmaker, but he still managed to get into trouble with the law. He was fined £20 (about £1,500 today) for failing to register as a resident alien in the UK.

And that was not the extent of his illegal activity.

Operating Illegally

Bookmaker Pitches at the Greyhounds

Bookmaker Pitches at the Greyhounds

Although there was a legitimate side to Joe Coral’s business, he had plenty of black-market action going on under the radar as well.

Having now built up a business with ready funds as well as a strong reputation, Joe could employ other people, and he wasn’t shy about doing it.

He estimated that by 1930 he had between 70 and 80 people running around collecting illegal street bets on his behalf, and this was very much ‘back alley’ betting. Interestingly, around the same time he took over many of the pitches run by Bill Chandler, who went on to establish the Walthamstow greyhound track and whose grandson, Victor Chandler, launched BetVictor.

All of this activity attracted the attention of undesirables of course, and in those days, violence was still used by gangs to control territories. At barely 5 feet tall, Coral couldn’t very easily fight his way to the top, so he relied on his reputation as a friendly, fair, and honourable man to see him through.

One notorious gangster by the name of Darby Sabini nevertheless took umbrage with Joe Coral doing so well, and caused him a bit of a headache for a while until he ultimately moved his operation to Brighton, giving Joe a lucky escape from a situation that could have ended very badly.

Watch Peaky Blinders or Brighton Rock and you will understand what we mean – Darby Sabini is portrayed in both of them.

With him out of the way, Coral’s business grew and grew, and by 1939 he was one of the largest regional bookmakers in the UK.

The second world war got in the way of course, but surprisingly, Coral still managed to do ok. Alongside his illegal bets, he now had many more legal racetrack pitches as well as a credit betting office, and he added postal bets once the war was over.

He advertised this service in the ‘Sporting Papers’ (betting papers) and although off track betting was still illegal at this point, these postal bets were allowed as no money exchanged hands, just postal orders.

After countless fines for not properly updating the authorities on his personal situational changes as an ‘alien’, Joe became an official citizen of the UK in 1952, aged 48.

He had finally been accepted by the British government, and business was very good too – but it was about to get a whole lot better.

First High Street Betting Shops

Joe Coral Ltd Bookmaker Shop

Credit: Kelvin Brodie (1968)

This is where the Coral brand as we know it today really began.

The Betting and Gaming act of 1960 made off track betting legal, which was initially a cause for concern for Joe Coral, but he didn’t waste any time in setting up his own high street betting office.

His first was a sweet shop owned by one of the men who took illegal bets for him, which he took over and turned into a bookie. Just two years later he had 23 bookmakers in London.

This change in the law led to bookmakers becoming eligible to go public, and again, Joe was quick of the mark, turning Coral into a public limited company (plc) in 1963.

Over the next 7 years his company grew exponentially, expanding into casinos, hotels and even bingo halls, until a change in tax laws meant that he would lose 25% to the government on every £1 he made.

This was initially problematic for Coral, who struck a merger deal with another big bookie at the time, Mark Lane, with Lane’s shops folding into the Coral business in order to provide an instant boost to revenue.

This made Coral the 3rd biggest bookmaker in the whole country, behind William Hill and Ladbrokes, and combined with their hotel, bingo and casino operations, they became known as the Coral Leisure Group.

Joe’s sons, Nicholas and Bernard, had long been working in top tier positions within the firm, but now they began to take more of a leading role as Joe was entering his 70s, although he never relinquished control or retired.

By 1981 though, things had begun to go down hill. Despite now operating more than 650 betting shops and making plenty of money, profits were down thanks to the group losing all of their casino licenses among other things, and this made them an attractive prospect for bigger fish.

The big fish that got them, was Bass Leisure, who acquired Coral Leisure Group in 1981.

Even with his company sold to a bigger one though, Joe remained as president of Coral, right up until the day he died in 1996, at an impressive 92 years old.

Coral No Longer a Family Business

Bass LogoJoe’s sons had left the company around the same time as the sale to Bass, so once Joe had passed away, the Coral brand was no longer being run by a bookmaker, but by businessmen with no connection to its history.

It was the end of one era, but the beginning of a new one – one that involved a lot of new owners as well as the dawn of the internet.

While still part of Bass Leisure, Coral managed something of a coup when they arranged with the Tote to allow tote bets to be made in their own shops.

This had never been done before, with punters wanting to make a tote bet having to do so at a Tote betting shop or track side booth. It was a big moment for the industry.

Not a great deal else changed for the brand during their time with Bass, but in 1998 rival betting firm Ladbrokes moved in to buy them, triggering a succession of owners that is difficult to keep up with.

Owner From/Until
Joe Coral 1926 – 1981
Bass Leisure 1981 – 1998
Ladbrokes Coral 1998 – 1999
Management 1999
Coral Eurobet 1999 – 2002
Management 2002 – 2005
Gala Coral Group 2005 – 2016
Ladbrokes Coral 2016 – 2018
GVC Holdings 2018 – 2020
Entain 2020 – ???

Bass Leisure was going through huge restructuring, effectively splitting into two, and Coral wasn’t going to go in either direction, so it was sold to Ladbrokes for £363 million.

However, Peter Mandelson – who was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry at the time – ordered Ladbrokes to sell Coral after the Monopolies and Mergers commission found the sale would be anti-competitive.

A management buyout followed, costing £390 million, putting Coral solely in the hands of the people who were running it day to day. This was completed in 1999, the same year that Coral acquired a smaller firm called Eurobet, and changed their name to Coral Eurobet.

A few years later another management buyout meant the company changed hands again, although the only difference was the names of the shareholders, and then in 2005 Gala agreed a deal worth £2.18 billion, and the two brands became the Gala Coral Group.

Coral Go Digital

Coral Early Website

The dust from all this changing of hands would settle for the next decade or so, but in 2016 Ladbrokes once again came in for Coral, and this time were much more successful – although the £50 million they made buying and selling them back in 1998 would pale in comparison to the £2.7 billion they had to splash out this time.

This massive change in value was partly due to the mergers, but the internet had a large part to play too.

Coral had been advertising online since 1997, but although they would show odds for big markets like the FA Cup, customers had to telephone the company to actually make their bets, they still couldn’t actually bet online.

However, by 2001 they had a fully functioning online betting platform set up under their Coral Eurobet moniker, and since then the online business had been growing steadily.

By the time of the Ladbrokes takeover in 2016, online betting was well established and was doing booming trade, so the outlook for betting companies was extremely positive, hence the willingness to pay so much more.

So Coral became part of the Ladbrokes Coral Group for a time in yet another name change, but like all the others this one didn’t last long.

Ladbrokes Coral was bought by GVC Holdings in 2018 for around £4 billion, at which point both brands became separate entities operating individually, albeit being owned by the same holding company.

One more name change was to come, however, although it didn’t directly have anything to do with the Coral Brand. GVC changed their name to Entain in 2020 to better represent the goliath they had become.

These days, Coral is massive online and still operates 1,700 betting shops on our highstreets too. In fact, they pioneered the new coffee shop style bookies that all other brands have been emulating.

The brand sits alongside many other well-known betting, casino and bingo brands, all operating under the umbrella of Entain, and among them are some of Coral’s former business partners; Ladbrokes, Gala, and Eurobet.

When Joe Coral was sat in that dingy billiards hall, or running between punters collecting bets for the bookie he worked for, he could never have imagined what he was about to create.