BETFRED is today a well known bookmakers; after the Second World War, when betting was still illegal, south Durham placed their bets with another Fred – Fred Simpson.

Indeed, on a Saturday afternoon in the late 1950s when men had finished work and the horse races began, the “hello girls” on the switchboard at the Shildon telephone exchange didn’t need to ask callers what number they wanted as practically everyone wanted to be put through to Fred in Eldon Lane to place a bet,

And John Simpson was on the receiving end, quite literally.

“Uncle Fred had six telephone lines: Shildon 151 to Shildon 156,” remembers John. “I can see his wooden shed now: two long narrow bench-type desks each with three telephones, Shildon 151 to 156. I’d sit by one of the phones with a large writing pad beside it. The phone would ring, I would answer, write the bets down and replace the receiver.

“No sooner had it gone down than it rang again. This was the pace all afternoon.”

Fred Simpson had started bookmaking when he began work in the 1920s at Eldon Colliery, casually taking penny or tuppeny bets at the coalface. Cash bets were then illegal, except on a racecourse, but Fred built up a network of agents – “bookies runners” – in most of the big industrial concerns in the area. He gave up mining and became a full time bookie, and so needed a pitch at local racecourses to show that he had a legitimate business.

“The best pitches were those by the finishing post, and all the bookies took heavies with them in case there was a dispute over the pitches and the heavies used to fight it out,” says John. “Fred’s three heavies were Fat Sandy, Matty Keller and Black Jack Blackett – he was 6ft 2ins, a big lad, in a suit draped with watchchains. I can see Black Jack Blackett now. We were frightened of him.”

It was well known that Fred also took illegal bets at his office, which was a wooden shed at the end of Edward Street in Eldon Lane. The police knew it too…

“I’m 82 and I was born in Doncaster in 1938 because my father, Jack, was Fred’s younger brother,” says John. “A large new colliery, Thorne, had opened at Donny and when it came to betting, Fred knew pitmen were the big hitters so he had sent my dad down to open a betting shop.

“Once a year, the police would ring my dad and tell him that they would be raiding him tomorrow afternoon, and they needed to catch two or three people, who would get fined a few shillings.” Jack arranged for a couple of friends to be quietly arrested when the police showed up and he paid their fines for them.

“That was it until the next year,” says John. “It kept the police records straight and showed they were successful. That’s what they did in Donny and I imagine it was the same up here.”

When Jack joined the army, his family returned to south Durham so John could observe his Uncle Fred’s betting operation.

“There were a lot of illegal bookmakers, but they were not as well set up as Fred,” he says. “For the 1946 Derby, a horse called Airborne (a 50-1 outsider) was the topical tip of the day because of the airborne troops during the war, and when it won, it wiped them out – but not Fred.”

In the 1950s, Fred was allowed to run accounts for punters as long as no cash changed hands. That’s why everyone in south Durham was phoning Shildon 151 on a Saturday afternoon (as we mentioned last week) to place their bet in Fred’s ledgers.

He also had agents collecting bets which they would place in their “clockbags”. These bags had a clock and a stopwatch in them, and a bet was locked to the clock to prove it had been placed before the race had started. Only the bookmaker – Fred – had the key to unlock the clockbag and see whether the gambler had backed the winner.

Fred also offered betting on the greyhounds, at tracks at Coundon and Spennymoor, and on football fixtures: he usually offered 5-2 for a draw, and a 40-1 shot if you could pick three draws from the day’s matches.

Everything changed with the introduction of the Betting and Gaming Act in 1960 which outlawed runners and their clockbags, but which allowed betting shops to open, only not on main streets.

Fred developed a chain of back street shops in Church Street and Byerley Road in Shildon, Frederick Street in Bishop Auckland, and in Close House, Eldon Lane and West Auckland, and his sister, Vera, ran a shop in Stanhope.

In the 1980s, as bookmaking grew into a national business dominated by big names, Fred’s shops closed. Perhaps the last connection with this local business was the well known Shildon bookies run by Jack Wild, who used to feature in Mike Amos’ Backtrack columns as the “bibliophiles' bookmaker”. He was Fred’s son-in-law.

L With many thanks to John Simpson and his daughter, Debra. Any other bookie stories to tell? Has anyone got a clockbag kicking around in a cupboard?