GAMBLING was effectively legalised in 1960, but before then a shadowy network of bookmakers and runners existed, trying to find ways around the law.

Memories 502 told how on a Saturday afternoon in the 1950s, the whole of south Durham seems to have been phoning five numbers beginning Shildon 151 and ending with Shildon 156 to place a bet with Fred Simpson, who ran a bookmaker’s in Eldon. As long as no cash exchanged hands, gambling was legal, so gamblers had to have an account with Freddie on which their winnings and losings were totted up.

But not everyone had a phone.

Harry Ellison in Bishop Auckland, now 77, remembers how when he was about 10, his grandfather, Ernie, was a bookies’ runner at Canney Hill. He would collect the bets up there, particularly from the Sportsman Inn, and place them in a clockbag.

As its name suggests, a clockbag was a cloth bag with a clock attached to it. The bets were written on slips of paper which were locked inside the bag. The clock recorded the time they were locked in, proving they were placed before the race began. The bookies’ runner – or his lad – ran the clockbag down to the bookmaker, who had the only key for it. He would unlock it and work out, once the race had been run, who had won and who had lost.

“My grandad took the clockbag down to Lec Vickers in the town centre,” says Harry. “I think Lec worked with Freddie Simpson.

“I would get a shilling from my grandad for taking the bag to Lec. Between Woolworths and Neville Reed’s suit shop (in Newgate Street) there was a little doorway and a passage, and I would go down there and give them the clockbag.”

Harry’s dad was Wilf “Tiffy” Ellison, who got his nickname because when he was young the family had a successful greyhound, called Tiffy, that raced at the Coundon track – gambling, in those days, was not just horses and football, as the dogs played a big part.

Tiffy – the man, not the dog – worked at Leasingthorne Colliery, near Coundon, but damaged his knee so he couldn’t continue the physical work. After a spell in Wolsingham sanitorium with TB, he became a bookies’ runner in Bishop Auckland town centre.

“There were one or two in the town taking bets, including a woman,” remembers Harry.

Tiffy worked for Tom Calvert of Witton Park – Tom seems to have been the big rival bookie of Fred Simpson.

The town centre in those days was crowded with pubs and the market place was full of stalls, and both pubs and stalls contained many people wanting to place a bet.

Bondgate alone had pubs called the Bay Horse, the Edinburgh Castle, the George, the Golden Fleece, the Spirit Vaults and the Wheatsheaf.

“The main place was the Fleece Hotel because it was one of the few places that had a phone – they may even have put the phone in specially for him, I don’t know,” says Harry.

“He went upstairs, phoned the bets over and after the race, came downstairs with the results and paid out the winners in the bar.”

This was very unusual for cash to be handed out in this way, and probably against the law. The police, though, usually turned a blind eye to such enterprises as long as nothing got out of hand, so Tiffy must have run a tight ship.

And it was quite a lucrative business.

“My father got half-a-crown commission on every £1 staked,” says Harry.

In the days of pounds, shillings and pence, a crown was five shillings so half-a-crown was two shillings and a tanner (or sixpence).

“On a Monday night, he would be in the Fleece for the darts and doms league,” says Harry. “If he was playing, I would go down and collect the money for him, and there would be £70 or £80.

“Most of them placed bets of £2 or £3, but there was one lad, who had a restaurant, and his bets were £20 or £30.”

The 1960 Betting and Gaming Act outlawed bookies’ runners and their clockbags and allowed betting shops to open, but not on the main streets.

Tom Calvert and Fred Simpson each opened a handful of shops in the back streets of the town centre and in the south Durham villages. Tom Calvert, for instance, had bookies’ shops in South Church, Coundon Grange, Tindale Crescent and in Bondgate, next to Zair’s café and just down from the Fleece which had been the heart of the business in the days before it became lawful.

L Any other bookmaking tales? Or what about stories of the lost pubs of Bishop Auckland town centre? All contributions welcome. Please email