As part of its masterplan to squeeze every last penny from the universe, Ladbrokes insisted that all of its shops kept ‘Big Bet Records’.
During each month of my 1983-85 employment by the company, myself and other shop managers had to compile a dossier of every bet from major punters like Cyril and Leroy. Plus any other characters who either laid out large sums or won more regularly than chance would dictate. These records were sent to the head office, in Harrow, for analysis. The idea was to glean any knowledge that might allow the shops to better monitor and control ‘unprofitable’ punters, possibly by barring them, or cutting the odds on their bets.
I used to wonder what the HQ boffins made of one of the Ripple Road frequenters, a middle-aged bloke who we nicknamed The Window Cleaner. For obvious reasons. In he would come, most mornings, with his ladder and pail. He talked breezily to the staff while he wrote out his bets and collected his winnings. Uncannily, he collected so often, and over such a period of time, that it was clearly not luck.
Les was the sole punter I ever knew to make money consistently. He had found a way to make it pay. While every other Joe paid my wages. Les was confident about his ability, bordering on arrogant at times. He sniffed my interest, and would ask me, teasingly, how I reckoned he did it. A puppet on his strings, I went through all the reasons I could muster. Course and distance winners? Times? No. No. Ground or course specialists. Nope. Placed last time with best ever speed figure? Afraid not. Trainer’s yearly habits? Beaten favourite last run? You’re not even warm, he would smile.
House names in his road? Horses names containing eleven letters? A hotline to God, or Mystic Meg?
Why would he tell? With hindsight, I think he paid for information. From the stable or somebody who studied this stuff for a living. He was sensible, by not betting heavily enough to attract attention from local characters. He would hand over bets ranging from £10 up to £40 tops. Maybe he doubled or trebled up by using other bookies around Barking.
He was a minor diversion. For my part, I was far more focused on the betting system that I was building up, with attendant notebooks and records, than I was interested in the job.
The shop almost ran itself, with four good cashiers. Beryl was the oldest, a proper Eastender, and apparently the fiercest, until I clocked that her bark was worse than her bite. Tina was on her second marriage, and had a Spanish flash to her eyes that her gentle smile belied. She moaned about the skyrocketing mortgage rates, and revealed that her parents had to help with the payments. Mandy was ambitious, and dreadlocked. She wanted to be a manager, and used to sing Lionel Ritchie’s ‘Dancing on the Ceiling’ 24/7. Allison was the youngest, blond and besotted with her boyfriend. She would incessantly hum George Michael’s ‘Fearless Whisper’. Some mornings, in between jobs, Maureen would come into work with me, and use the coloured marker pens to create the board display (betting adverts) that was my responsibility.
I made the females cups of tea, and asked them about their lives, and listened, in between the Ritchie-Michael renditions. Beryl was definitely impressed with me one afternoon. A couple of louts came in with cans of beer. They were loud, pissed, and visibly intimidating other punters. One of them had a bet, and I told him as calmly as I could pretend that we didn’t allow alcohol to be drunk on the premises. “You need to finish those cans if you’re going to stay.” He wasn’t Leroy, but there was a bullying nastiness about him. Albert Einstein, but without the brains, or any other attributes Einstein possessed.
Five minutes on, and no change. Beryl looked at me. “Oh fuck”, I thought. Sensing the Sword of Damocles poised finely over my nut, or nuts, I walked out into the shop, trying to look assured. “Sorry lads, you’ll have to take those cans outside. Or I’m calling the old bill.” No point laying down the law without backing myself. Grunts and sneers from Einstein and his mate.
“Suit yourself.” I went back in, picked up the phone, and made out that I was talking to the local nick. Looked up and they were gone.
Walking into work the next morning, daydreaming, I heard the hacking noise that precedes spitting. Looking up, I saw a large green grolly flying through the air towards my feet. Einstein, the donor, was with his wife or girlfriend, who was pushing a child in a pram. I wonder if the kid still remembers the purple streaks in the phlegm expelled by Einstein. Brilliant role model.
Two other occasional punters stick in the memory. Both worked at the Corals HQ, which was a few hundred yards away, between our shop and Barking rail station. Gary worked taking credit bets on the telephone, and had sussed out for himself which Corals punters were worth following. Taking the lead from his number one man, Gary wagered £50 on Petong to win two big races at Ascot and Goodwood in 1984, at 8/1 and 10/1. He collected £400, then £500. Big money in the 80s. Higher up at Corals was Wally Pyrah, who would go on to appear regularly on the Channel 4 racing programme. Gary was the shrewder of the pair.
Even though my interest in horse racing had become huge, I remained wary, aware that my knowledge was insufficient. I would rarely risk more than five pounds on a bet. Small fry. I won about £165 on a yankee one Saturday, which was encouraging. But the three grand saved up on the ice cream round remained intact, and it was suggested by several people that we should buy a home, rather than rent. There was a property ladder to climb, according to Maggie Thatcher’s wider culture.
A mortgage broker visited us in Ilford one evening, and estimated that we could borrow up to £30,000. I was flabbergasted. He was clearly off his rocker. Why would anyone lend that sort of money to two relatively limited earners? Simple, said our man, all jacket and tied. The collateral value of your property will underpin the loan. I am a slow learner, and it took a few months before that technical description turned on a brain light.
The betting shop business itself had started to become more mundane with each passing day, and so any kind of a change was welcome. Our rent money enriched nobody but the landlord, and, as almost everyone chimed, each mortgage repayment would bring ownership of the new home one small step nearer. It seemed to make sense.
To get some value for our money, we looked outside London, in Chelmsford. The location of the old ice cream round, where Maureen’s friend Sue lived with her husband Martin, and my old mate John Devane had met his future wife, Carol. Once voted by its own residents as Britain’s most boring town.
We found a top floor maisonette. Price £27,000. Within easy walking distance of the railway station, as I would have to catch a train six days a week. And the fire station was very near, in case our place caught light.
Pictured below, 79A Rainsford Lane was ours from September 1984, and stayed in Godier family ownership until my brother sold it in 2005.