Modern greyhound racing in Britain, with an electronic hare whirraxing round a circular track being chased by greyhounds, began at Belle Vue Stadium, Manchester, in 1926. It became an overnight sensation attracting around thirty-eight million attendees per year in the late 1930s. It mainly attracted male working-class bettors, and sometimes their families, for an ‘American night out’, watching the likes of Mick the Miller, and offering the bright lights and the gambling opportunities that were normally denied them. However, from the start its mushrooming growth led to religious and municipal opposition from those who felt that it was an immoral activity causing poverty, fecklessness amongst youth, corrupting women and children, encouraging the vision of a ‘something for nothing mentality’, leading to criminality. It was not for them a rational recreation. They opposed tote betting and the construction of tracks but were unsuccessful in stopping its growth until discriminatory actions and taxation in the 1940s tipped it into decline as betting on the greyhound moved off-course and into the betting shops, and as scandals developed around the treatment of greyhounds. There are now only two million attendances per year. Yet for a quarter of a century it played an important part in the leisure of a small proportion of the working classes attracted to the middle-class financed tracks. It provided employment opportunities for communities and it was far from being the den of iniquity it was often portrayed as being, despite the presence of a few small on-course gangs like the Sabinis at Brighton.
Historians have studied the evolution of working-class leisure activities in Britain and debated whether or not they were enduring and resistant to change, pluralistic rather than homogenous, and the extent to which they were subject to continuing attempts at social control. These issues also relate to modern greyhound racing and raise several interlinked questions about the origins and rapid growth of the sport, the social class of its bettors, its cultural development, attempts made to subject it to social control, and the reasons for its decline from late 1940s. The main argument of this chapter is that modern greyhound racing it was essentially a niche working-class activity which was often presented as not being a rational recreation, even criminal, by the forces of anti-gambling, and ultimately fell victim to such discrimination. It did not impoverish the working classes and was, indeed, ‘a bit of a flutter’.
Mechanical greyhound racing in Britain grew rapidly and was toasted in 1927 by the hit song ‘Everybody’s Going to the Dogs’. Yet from the start it became a major political battleground between the churches and the National Anti-Gambling League, on the one hand, and by the greyhound racing interests, on the other, over the legitimacy of the sport. It was further ravaged by internecine conflict between the National Greyhound Racing Society tracks, geared towards regulating the sport and making it safe for the public, and the smaller flapping tracks, whose prime interest was to survive by opening as often as possible. This internal conflict made the sport vulnerable to the broader attacks of the anti-gamblers, in the country and in Parliament. These can be seen in the political battles over municipal control of the tracks, Sunday closing, and the closure of the tote between 1932 and 1934. In the end, greyhound racing was always vulnerable, but survived, undergoing further challenges during the Second World War.
Greyhound racing survived the Second World War very much intact and experienced an immediate post-war boom. However, the fuel crisis of 1946–47 led to the introduction of discriminatory fuel controls and restrictions by the first Attlee Labour government followed by taxation on the greyhound tote and upon bookmakers in 1948. This affected both the large National Greyhound Racing Society tracks, that depended upon tote betting for their livelihood, and the small flapping tracks which were more dependent upon the bookmakers to attract bettors to earn them gate money. There may have been other factors at play as the post-war British economy faced austerity, and as the Labour government felt that it was protecting industrial productivity, but the continued hostility towards greyhound racing seems to have led to a tipping point where betting on the on-course tote and with the on-course bookmakers declined and was transferred to off-course betting, which was not taxed. From that period onwards crowds declined, the tote takes declined, and tracks began to close.
Financing, operating and managing the greyhound tracks for racing the dogs, c. 1926–61
Modern greyhound racing was an immensely complex and integrated business. It was largely financed by the middle classes who invested modestly in order to gain from what they saw as an immensely profitable, if precarious, opportunity for gain. The business models that developed were based upon the different sizes of stadium, variable use of the tote, the varying dependence on gate money, varying urban areas they, and the type of clientele they wished to attract. Despite such differences there was a basic uniformity in the design of the tracks, the essential facilities that were provided, and the ceremony involved in preparing for, and conducting, raceday. The National Greyhound Racing and the National Greyhound Racing Club provided a higher quality of racing on the tracks they controlled and the small flapping tracks were conscious of the fact that their tracks did not meet these high standards. Nevertheless, both types of tracks were important in catering for their local public and their local communities, possibly directly employing up to 27,000 people, full-time or part-time, by the late 1940s, as well as indirectly providing work for many thousands more through the building of stadiums, engineering works, and in the breeding and training of dogs.
As Mark Clapson has suggested, despite its ubiquity, little has been written on the breeding, training and racing of greyhounds. The sport developed out of coursing but demanded an immense increase in the number of greyhound to fulfil the needs of the expanding sport in the 1930s. There may have been more than 60,000 greyhounds racing the tracks at any time in the 1930s which, given the fact that their race careers were often three to four years, meant that up to 180,000 different dogs were racing in the 1930s. This chapter focuses upon the costs of breeding, training and racing greyhounds and notes that there were marked differences between the practices and costs of those dogs raised for the NGRC tracks, which were often owned by the tracks themselves as well as rich individuals, and those raised for the flapping tracks that were often bred, trained and raced by working-class owners. The former provided dogs for the classic races whereas the latter essentially provided dogs for the low-prize money graded races. However, by the 1970s, and faced with the decline of greyhound racing, tracks moved towards using contract trainers to supply their racing needs.
Greyhound racing has been described as ‘the Ascot of the common man’, the ‘working man’s turf’ and ‘poor man’s racing’, though it is clear that it drew some middle-class presence, particularly so in its early years when they attended this modernist sport. However, it was largely a sport for the urban working class attracted to a cheap and glitzy ‘American night out’. What is not always understood is that, despite the large number of attendances in its early years, it was very much a niche sport, attended on a regular basis by about 4 per cent of the working class, the vast majority of whom were males. Also as Mass Observation revealed in several surveys, and as other surveys revealed, the working class spent only small amount of money, compared with middle-class bettors, on greyhound racing, and their betting was very much ‘a bit of a flutter’. It was not the impoverishing activity it was often presented as being and was widely accepted in many local communities.
In the early years of greyhound racing there was always the charge that it was a dissipate and morally dubious activity vulnerable to being manipulated by criminal elements because of the opportunities for malpractice that it offered. The ‘human tote’ operated during the ‘Tote crisis’ of 1932–34 seemed to confirm the potential for illegal totes and fraud. However, the facts do not support the general view of the seedy and criminal nature of the greyhound tracks. Several national surveys of the views of the chief constables of England, Wales, Scotland and the Metropolitan Police, which became increasingly sophisticated, reveal that there were malpractices but that it was on a minor scale. Indeed, the Metropolitan Police withdrew from policing the greyhound tracks in the mid-1930s and most NGRS tracks developed their own security under the control of former CID officers. Beyond the Sabinis, who operated at Brighton and Hove stadium, and Alf White, there is little evidence that gangs ran the tracks as had occurred in horse racing in the ‘turf gang wars’ of the early 1920s. In essence, greyhound racing operated a form of consensual policing.
Greyhound racing in Britain declined rapidly from the late 1940s onwards from about 200 tracks and more than thirty million attendances to about twenty-five licensed Greyhound Board of Great Britain (GBGB) tracks and two million attendances by 2017. The main reason for this is the discriminatory taxes imposed upon greyhound tracks that led to betting moving to the off-course bookmakers, which were not faced with such taxes. As a result greyhound tracks closed and those that remained became increasingly drawn into the business of streaming their races into Licensed Betting Offices and into the hands of the large bookmaking organisations. These organisations have taken over the industry and faced with competition from other forms of gambling activities have, often with property companies, closed down tracks that have proved to be uneconomic and built housing where they once stood. In recent years the sport has also had to deal with the controversial issue of cruelty to greyhounds, which has resulted in the issue of the GBGB Greyhound Commitment on 14 March 2018. Faced with this situation, greyhound racing would appear to be marking time and never has this looked to be the case more than when the Wimbledon tracks closed on 25 March 2017.
In the final analysis, greyhound racing emerged in Britain in the 1920s because it provided a cheap form of entertainment for the working classes. It was essentially a meaningful, if niche, leisure opportunity for the working classes which rather supports the view of the plurality, rather than the homogeneity, of working-class leisure. It attracted community support, was ‘a bit of a flutter’, and a major employer in the community. It declined largely because of an ongoing hostility towards it from anti-gambling organisations and because it faced discriminatory taxation which put it into a financial tailspin in the late 1940s, which made it vulnerable to off-course betting and competing gambling opportunities. Yet it was a significant, if not ubiquitous, part of working-class life for more than a quarter of a century.