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    The Saga of Bella Thomasson: Pioneering Underground Bookmaking in Bolton
The Saga of Bella Thomasson: Pioneering Underground Bookmaking in Bolton

The Saga of Bella Thomasson: Pioneering Underground Bookmaking in Bolton

Since the era of the Tudors (15th-17th centuries), horse racing has stood as a cherished pastime of the English nobility. The inaugural documented horse racing event took place in Chester in 1539. During this time, all significant horse racing occasions were conducted under the patronage of the royalty. Even King Charles II himself participated as a jockey, and Newmarket gained prominence during his reign. In 1711, with the active support of Queen Anne, Ascot Racecourse was inaugurated.

To regulate and oversee this sphere, the Jockey Club was established in 1750. It was positioned as an exclusive society, a gentlemen's club. This laid the foundation for the extended dominance of the aristocracy in horse racing, with individuals from the lower classes excluded. Exceptions were made for jockeys, grooms, and service personnel.

The Victorian era in England (1837-1901) witnessed the flourishing of industry in large cities, a surge in population, and an increase in the incomes of the lower classes. Horse and greyhound racing emerged as the sole officially sanctioned forms of gambling. A growing number of people from working-class neighbourhoods could now afford to participate.

The expansion of railways facilitated easy transportation to racetracks, and the telegraph expedited the swift exchange of information. Between 1837 and 1869, the number of racing horses doubled, the prize funds escalated, and horse racing evolved into a national sport.

However, this period also saw instances of fraud and malpractice among bookmakers. In response, the Gambling Act of 1845 was enacted, rendering all betting contracts null and void. The assumption was that these contracts were based on interest rather than monetary agreements, making it difficult for the losing party to settle their dues. This essentially marked the demise of traditional bookmakers who could no longer orchestrate bets.

The void left by legitimate bookmakers was swiftly filled by unlicensed counterparts. By 1850, approximately 150 unlicensed bookmakers were operating in the working-class districts of London alone. Any worker or employee could now place a bet without being physically present at the racecourse, receiving their winnings promptly if successful.

In 1853, the Bookmakers Act was introduced, effectively outlawing these unlicensed operators. Henceforth, official betting could only take place at the racetrack. Despite this attempt to quell public interest in the game, bookmakers persisted, albeit more discreetly. They operated underground, avoiding advertising and conducting activities in closed offices, streets, private homes, shops, and pubs.

Photo: https://www.theoldie.co.uk
"Betting on the Favourite", woodcut drawn by W. L. Sheppard, October 1870. Betting on the course was legal until 1961. Street bookmakers were illegal

The remarkable tale of Anne Arabella Thomason, affectionately known as Bella Thomasson (1874-1959), unfolds as a testament to her indomitable spirit and entrepreneurial acumen in the clandestine world of bookmaking in Bolton.

Bella's journey began when, post-marriage, she actively assisted her husband in accepting bets from workers at a metallurgical plant. Accumulating savings through this venture, the couple eventually invested in a seemingly innocuous fruit store. In reality, it functioned as a discreet and well-organized illegal bookmaker's office, earning a reputation for its punctual and equitable pay outs.

During an era when bookmakers were officially prohibited, they persisted underground, engaging in a continuous game of cat and mouse with the law. In 1901, the British Government's decision to impose a betting tax and intensify surveillance on illicit activities led to a surge in arrests.

In 1905, Bella's husband, Stephen Thomasson, faced arrest and trial for his involvement in the illegal bookmaking activities orchestrated by his wife. Given societal norms of the time, the responsibility for such actions rested on the husband. Stephen paid a £25 fine and pledged not to utilize their shop for bookmaking again.

Undeterred, Bella continued her illicit bookmaking operations, now disguising them as a tobacco store. Together with her husband, they installed a telegraph, ensuring they possessed the latest race results. The First World War ushered in changes nationwide, halting horse and dog races and causing a decline in the betting business. Concurrently, Stephen's health deteriorated.

Post-war, Bella resurrected her bookmaker's office, "Bella," in the city centre, this time partnering with Albert Hampson. An employee would read race results aloud, fostering a lively business ambiance. Timely and equitable payments became Bella's hallmark, with a notable instance of a pay-out occurring two years after a race's conclusion. The bookmaker's office "Bella" gained widespread recognition, establishing itself as a trustworthy and reliable partner in the clandestine world of betting.

 Photo: McCordan Museum
Office interior, 20s

During the era recounted, bookmakers relied on runners equipped with leather bags housing clocks to collect bets. A unique practice emerged in businesses and pubs: bets were amassed, the bag sealed, and the clock set to denote closure. This meticulous system ensured wagers were placed before races commenced. Amidst fierce competition and staunch opposition to racketeering, an unrecorded yet well-organized business thrived.

In 1959, the indomitable Bella Thomasson bid farewell. Remembered as an elegant woman, perpetually tastefully attired, she possessed a composed and resolute demeanour. Bella's venture served as a prototype for subsequent licensed offices, leaving an enduring legacy.

In 1961, the Conservative government, led by Harold Macmillan, ushered in a transformative era by legalizing bookmakers' activities. The subsequent year witnessed a staggering 154% surge in betting turnover, with approximately 13,000 offices dotting the country.

Ironically, aspirants seeking licenses had to showcase their expertise in the field. Past prosecutions for illegal bookmaking activities emerged as the prime evidence, forming a paradoxical twist in the journey from underground operations to legalized establishments.

Photo: http://www.furfur.me/

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