This book provides a detailed consideration of the history of racing in British culture and society, and explores the cultural world of racing during the interwar years. The book shows how racing gave pleasure even to the supposedly respectable middle classes and gave some working-class groups hope and consolation during economically difficult times. Regular attendance and increased spending on betting were found across class and generation, and women too were keen participants. Enjoyed by the royal family and controlled by the Jockey Club and National Hunt Committee, racing's visible emphasis on rank and status helped defend hierarchy and gentlemanly amateurism, and provided support for more conservative British attitudes. The mass media provided a cumulative cultural validation of racing, helping define national and regional identity, and encouraging the affluent consumption of sporting experience and a frank enjoyment of betting. The broader cultural approach of the first half of the book is followed by an exploration if the internal culture of racing itself.
England, particularly northern England, was the original home of the thoroughbred horse, and thoroughbred breeding was a national industry of great value. The ideal for all breeders was to breed stamina and speed in their horses, but Britain, with its high proportion of two-year-old racers, largely bred for speed at the expense of stamina. Breeders provided the thoroughbreds for flat racing, and were therefore indispensable. Some breeders were breeder-owners, breeding and racing their own horses, and prepared to trade potential profit for the pleasure of ownership. The breeding industry had always been economically risky and although it largely rode out the economic volatility of the 1920s and 1930s the period was fraught with anxiety for breeders, even though the drastic weeding out of useless horses that took place during the 1914–18 War had positive effects on the breeding stock.
Horseracing has a powerful claim to be Britain's leading interwar sport. Study of racing sheds light on a leading national sport that played a key role in the way the British imagined their social world. This chapter examines the relationship between racing and British society and explores the cultural world of racing itself. Racing aroused strong feelings and divisions across class, culture, gender and religion, creating significant cultural dissonance even within classes, although these too show its importance. Horseracing had been a central feature of both urban and pastoral British life since far earlier that any of the other major sports, yet across Britain and across the social classes, attitudes to racing and betting after the First World War also lay along a major fault line dividing British society, representing a struggle for ascendancy between competing value systems.
Racing was one of Britain's leading national sports, and the media gave it more prominence. The study of racing also adds a vital dimension to debates amongst historians about the extent of social harmony, the political and social predominance of conservatism, the construction of gender identities, national sentiment, and the relationship between the economy and sport. Racing was a socially ranked and ordered microsociety that made clear to individuals their place in the social hierarchy. The chapter demonstrates the strength of British cultural conformity and cohesion. Betting had become commonplace to the extent that it provided a compelling world of alternative loyalties to class and politics and drew people together, not against capitalism, the establishment, but against the bookie. Cash betting was an integral part of a working-class identity that helped to define that class. Interest in racing was a key part of working-class sociability, at work, at home or in the pub.
Betting was probably exceeded only by cinema-going as the leading leisure spending activity during the interwar years. A pathological view of betting, and the ethical, moral, social and economic arguments surrounding its consequences, dominated. Recent academic research has also largely focused on working-class, ‘popular’ betting, reflecting contemporary state and press concerns, and interest in the economic difficulties of the interwar years. This chapter portrays British betting culture in detail and shows that there were clear national and regional variations in betting's nature and volume. Attitudes within different social strata, personality and temperament also played a part. The study stresses the important extent to which betting was a social activity, enjoyed communally, and found in both work and leisure contexts, with bets placed in private houses and shops, the pub and Tote clubs. The chapter also shows the extent to which bookmaking was a formal and highly commercial activity.
This chapter deals with the changes in travel over the period, social relationships, behaviour and attendance in relation to social class and gender. While support for racing could be found at all levels of society, the nature of support varied with wealth, status and social class. Changes and continuities in the comfort and facilities of the course, and in the ancillary activities such as sideshows, food and drink provision, tipsters or bookmakers are also explored. The chapter presents an assessment of the ‘moral panic’ associated with the racecourse crime of the early 1920s. The racecourses were a liminal locus for sociality, dressing up in one's best clothes, drinking, betting, some gambling, a temporary relaxation of social inhibitions, and a high level of goodwill and social interaction. Reformist, respectable morality was also challenged by the more overtly criminal element attracted by the large crowds and the liminality of the course.
The top jockeys and trainers, often working-class in origin, enjoyed a middle-class income often equalling that of lawyers or doctors. Within racing's social elite, trainers and jockeys were often looked down upon. Jockeys were banned from betting by the racing authorities, but many used their privileged information about horses to do so. Jockeys may have had highest public status, but it was the specialist training stables who prepared their horses. These were complex businesses, employing jockeys, stablemen and stable lads and giving ancillary employment to vets, saddlers and other trades. Trainers came from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds. They used experience, knowledge and understanding to train and feed horses individually according to their capacities, placed them carefully in races to maximise chances, and had sound socio-economic stable management skills.
The inter-relationships between racing and British culture, society and the media were ambiguous, complicated and subtle. This chapter explores the highly complex, sophisticated and resolutely populist cultural representations of racing and betting in the mass media, whose ideological power and dominant, negotiated and oppositional influences play a crucial role in fostering British sporting identity. Racing and the media were interdependent, shaping and reflecting the increased interest in racing and betting, whilst at the same time, in fiction and film, presenting a partial, distorted or imagined view of racing culture. The commonality of racing culture portrayed in the mass media helped both to define the collective identity of the British and to shift their interests more towards a frank enjoyment of leisure.
Racing contributed significantly to national economic turnover, and in turn wider British economic pressures impacted on racing. The racing industry was amongst the largest and most sophisticated of leading British industries between the wars, yet was also highly conservative, and often unprofitable for its investors. Racing was a traditional sport with long-standing roots in local communities, and many racecourses were of ancient date. The long-term trend of flat-race runner numbers was rising over the interwar years. Some data on the numbers of breeders, owners, jockeys and those involved in the training of racehorses are provided. The complex inter-relationships between the presentations of racing and betting in the media, and the ambiguous, complicated and highly nuanced ways in which attitudes to betting on races varied socially, culturally and politically in British society are also discussed.
Betting was an intensely social activity, which avoided direct competition within families or communities by focusing interest on indirect competition between horses and jockeys. Betting aroused powerful emotions and strong opposition in wider British society. This chapter examines the nature of the opposition to betting. Those who disliked it, found it irrelevant or disagreed with it and those who enjoyed betting, accepted it or felt involved with it. Between the wars gambling was growing in popularity, while anti-gambling and anti-betting feeling was losing some of its power. Opposition to betting and gambling therefore also covered a range of arguments concerned with the economic, physical and social damage they caused. Most people recognised that excessive gambling could lead to poverty, and that if gamblers gambled more than they could afford this could have social costs.