Ladbrokes is one of Britain’s best-known bookmakers, and it has arguably the longest history too, dating back so far that their story actually gets a little hazy.
There aren’t so many records or photographs from 1886, but this is how far back Ladbrokes can trace its roots, although it wasn’t until a certain Arthur Bendir arrived on the scene in 1902 that the company really became a bookmaker in the proper sense of the word.
The journey this company has been through is quite staggering once you learn about it, as you might expect from the joint 37th oldest company in Britain, tied with Yorkshire Tea.
Arthur Bendir would never know the half of what his bookmaking business would become, the entire gambling landscape was totally different back when he was alive, but he did very nicely from it nonetheless.
The Ladbrokes story isn’t one of those where a family business does well, it came about through a series of accidents really. It’s never been a company that anyone would have any emotional attachment to, like Fred Done might with Betfred, or like Andrew Black might with Betfair – Ladbrokes is almost like its’ own entity, and this is its story.
The Formation of Ladbrokes
Long before Arthur Bendir got involved, a little-known country house in Warwickshire called Ladbroke Hall was busy training horses to race.
There weren’t very many horses though, initially just those that belonged to one Mr Pennington, and his friend Mr Schwind was training them.
Pennington and Schwind’s idea was to train their own horses, and then back them in races, which wasn’t particularly unusual back then as the concept of laying bets wasn’t really mainstream.
There is almost nothing known about these two gentlemen, other than their being commission agents for the horses trained at Ladbroke Hall, but technically, they started the Ladbrokes story.
That was in 1886, so they were running their little enterprise for a good 15 years before Arthur Bendir, the man who would turn the business into bookmaker, joined the partnership in 1902.
Bendir would only have been around 16 years old when Pennington and Schwind first began their business, but by the time he joined them as a partner he was a 30-year-old man with some big ideas.
Arthur Bendir Turns Ladbrokes into a Bookmaker
Arthur Bendir was born way way back in 1872, in Lambeth, London. He had two older sisters so was the baby of the family, and his parents, Adolph and Amy, were both well into their 30s when Arthur arrived. Sadly, Amy died when Arthur was just 11 years old, and Adolph passed away in 1897 when Arthur was 25.
It was obviously a difficult few years for Arthur, because around the same time he also pleaded guilty to fraud having tried to obtain £1,000 (around £36k today) from the Empress Assurance Corporation, but luckily suffered no punishment.
Although he came from ‘common stock’ as they would have said back then, Arthur Bendir certainly had a brain between his ears. He was already working as an agent of some sort in his mid-20s, but it was with Ladbrokes that he would make his name. After joining the Ladbroke Hall firm in 1902, he quickly turned the business from simply being a commission agent, to a bookmakers, and moved the whole operation to London.
The idea of laying a bet was still pretty novel back then – people would tend to bet against each other rather than against a bookmaker – so what Bendir did was pioneering.
It was also Bendir that changed the name of the business simply to Ladbrokes, after seeing a sign to Ladbroke Hall and getting inspiration.
Back in those days, gambling was a very different thing to what it is today.
The laws were much stricter, so while on course betting was allowed (and indeed, Ladbrokes had pitches at the racecourses), high street betting was not.
Unless, of course, you had membership of a private club and access to a telephone. Telephone betting was legal, but the only people with access to telephones were the wealthy upper classes, so gambling became something of an exclusive hobby; everyone else had to either use illegal street bookies, or not gamble at all.
Arthur Bendir would find betting clients in the private clubs in Mayfair and other wealthy areas of London, and built the business in this way for the next two decades.
He also invested heavily in the original Irish Sweepstakes (now the National Lottery), so made a good deal of money from that shrewd business move, as well as owning racehorses.
By the 1920s, Bendir was a very rich man, owning a house in Grosvenor Square and also owning Medmenham Abbey, which was once a place where monks whispered silent prayers, but ended up as the base of the Hellfire Club at one point, so became a place of drunkenness, debauchery, and who knows what else.
While he was now very much a member of the higher society, Arthur Bendir’s ‘common’ origins did make some people wary of him, not to mention that how he made his money was still seen as clandestine – although it didn’t stop him marrying the granddaughter of the Earl of Kellie in 1921.
Her name was Ernestine Marguerite Erskine, and interestingly, the two had been romantically engaged for years; she had even bore Arthur Bendir’s child back in 1907 when still married to another man. That child was Babe Plunket Greene, one of he 1920s socialites known as the ‘Bright Young Things’. They had another daughter shortly after they married called Janine, known as Jane.
It is not known exactly when Arthur Bendir stepped away from Ladbrokes, but he did retire at some point, and the business was eventually sold to the Stein family in 1956.
Bendir died in 1958 at the ripe old age of 85, which was pretty good going in those days. He survived his wife by just a year, but didn’t live long enough to see the legalisation of off course betting though, which was in 1961.
Once the law changed, it is estimated that 10,000 high street bookmakers opened in Britain in the first 6 months, and Ladbrokes was among them.
Cyril Stein Takes Ladbrokes to the High Street
The Stein family were led by Cyril Stein, and it is he who took Ladbrokes and turned it into the huge high street betting brand that it would become.
Cyril Stein was the son of a Russian immigrant known as ‘Honest Jack’, who worked for the London and Provincial Sporting News Agency, relaying information between off-course bookmakers and racetracks.
Cyril ran his own credit betting office in the West End of London (there were loop holes which allowed betting on credit before the law change in 1961, William Hill ran a similar operation), but by the age of 28, he heard about an opportunity.
By 1956, the Ladbrokes business wasn’t doing so well; Arthur Bendir was retired by now so whoever was running the show was clearly not as astute a businessman.
Cyril Stein got together with his uncle, Mark, also a bookmaker, and together they raised £100,000 (about £1.1 million today), to buy the firm out.
It proved to be excellent timing, because once off course bookies were allowed to open up on the high street, Cyril Stein wasted no time in opening a number of betting shops, and we all know how well that turned out.
At this point, Ladbrokes was still seen as a place for gentlemen to make a bet; they liked to say that they gave preferential treatment to people who featured in the pages of Debrett’s (a publication that featured the higher echelons of society), and apparently, Queen Elizabeth even had an account with them before she was crowned.
But with betting now easily accessible to the masses, Ladbrokes would need to provide a good service to people from all backgrounds if they wanted to grow.
Stein took the company into the 20th century with several innovations, but it was making Ladbrokes the first licensed bookmaker to offer fixed odds on football matches that really did the trick (William Hill had actually been doing this for years, but on the quiet).
By 1967 the company was flying, and Cyril floated Ladbrokes on the stock market, before once again getting the attention of punters by coming up with what are thought to be the first ‘novelty’ markets. Ladbrokes offered odds on who would be the next Arch Bishop of Canterbury in 1974, although they had previously taken bets on political markets too.
Ladbrokes had over 1,100 shops by 1973 as well as owning bingo clubs, casinos, Vernon Pools, and racetracks, but they ended up expanding their operations to include all sorts of other businesses in other sectors too; such as Texas Home Care, Hilton Hotels, and more.
The company was becoming bloated though, and in 1993, shareholders pressured Cyril Stein to step away and let somebody else take Ladbrokes in a new direction.
Stein did so, although he went back into the casino business buying the St James Club in Mayfair in 1995. He died a very old, and very rich man in 2011, aged 82.
Ladbrokes in the Modern Age
From the 1990s onwards it was all change at Ladbrokes, with the digital age fast approaching and a much more corporate approach to the brand.
No longer was the company being driven by the vision of a single owner, but by CEOs and boards and people in suits with no real connection to the brand or its history.
Sad, in some ways, that Ladbrokes became nothing more than a brand name when you remember how it came to be, and its previous reputation as a bookie for the well to do; but less sad for the shareholders as the business turned around and then some.
With new blood in charge, Ladbrokes divested a lot of the non-gambling related businesses, focussing on betting and hotels initially, but eventually zoning in on gambling 100%.
They bought a few more casinos and other gambling related venues, but their biggest purchase was that of Coral bookmakers, in 1998.
It didn’t last long however, as Monopolies and Mergers Commission decided the acquisition was anti-competitive and ordered Ladbrokes to sell their newly acquired shops as quickly as possible. They already had around 2,000 of their own, and could only keep 59 of the shops they purchased from Coral, those located in Jersey and Ireland.
Next, Ladbrokes briefly rebranded as The Hilton Group in an attempt to go global, but a few short years later they were selling all of their assets outside of Europe, include scores of casinos and hotels, reverting back to being called Ladbrokes in 2005.
The Ladbrokes website was already up and running at this point, having been launched in 2001, alongside a telephone betting service that had proved popular, and as the company saw profits from their remote businesses increase, their interest in brick-and-mortar businesses outside of their betting shops were dropped like stone.
The business chugged along nicely for a decade or so until in 2015, Ladbrokes renewed their interest in Coral, with the idea of a merger being tabled.
This time, things went much more smoothly, although the Monopolies and Mergers Commission still had something to say about it, forcing the newly named Ladbrokes Coral Group to sell around 400 of their 4,000 combined shops, which Betfred and Stan James happily took off their hands.
The formation of Ladbrokes Coral would kick start a domino effect of other companies merging and acquiring each other, leading to the huge gambling groups we have today.
Indeed, Ladbrokes Coral themselves were not immune from this trend, as GVC, an equity firm, swooped in to buy acquire them just 18 months after their merger.
GVC would go on to buy other brands such as sportingbet and bwin, and eventually rebranded as Entain at the end of 2020.
It was a busy time for Ladbrokes then, who continued to operate independently throughout all of these ownership changes, although their presence on the high-street was reduced as the market changed to more online based trading.
It hasn’t altered their pioneering mentality though, with ‘Laddies’ coming up with numerous new promotions and betting features to keep their modern-day punters interested and entertained.
It’s probably fair to say that the brand has long since lost its’ upper-class shine, and if anything is probably a little bit faceless these days, but customers still love Ladbrokes, especially us regular ‘common’ bettors, so in some ways you could say Ladbrokes’ story has come full circle, since it was founded by ‘common stock’ in the first place.