On its last full day of trading, the Ladbrokes betting shop in Morden, south-west London, stayed open until 10 at night. It was Friday 24 May 2013, the beginning of one of those spring-summer weekends for which the schedules of global sport combine to throw up a glut of events that can be gambled on. A European football final, a super-middleweight title fight, a Grand Prix, high-season horse races, a golf tournament. The manager of the Morden Ladbrokes, a 55-year-old Londoner named Andrew Iacovou, sat behind his shop’s counter with a computer, a scroll printer, a coin tray and, beside his knees, a safe – waiting to take bets.
A balding and naturally slight man who spent his free hours in the gym, Iacovou had worked for Ladbrokes for more than 20 years. Quiet but not unconfident and well liked by his regular customers, he was one of the company’s 15,500 employees, around 11,000 of whom worked in Ladbrokes’ 2,200 shops. Iacovou had run a Ladbrokes in Wimbledon, a Ladbrokes in Earlsfield and another Ladbrokes in Morden before moving to his current branch, a glass-fronted shop next to a supermarket, just across the A24 from Morden tube. For more than two decades with the firm, he had seen through changes to the staff uniform (tomato-red polo shirts, now) as well as a series of dispiriting adjustments to his daily workload. In the 1990s, when Iacovou first met his wife, Anita, then a Post Office employee, he worked at the Wimbledon branch. It shut to customers at 5.30pm and Iacovou would close down the premises by 6pm, ready to walk Anita home.
His Morden branch, in 2013, was open seven days a week, from 8.30am or 9am until 10pm. Iacovou generally worked five of those days, sometimes six, often from start to finish. For some hours in the afternoon he would be joined at the till by an assistant, a cashier who helped him process handwritten bets that came in over the counter. Otherwise, Iacovou manned the shop alone, relying on his regulars for company. They were mostly male, mostly retired, often on their way to or from the nearby Ganley’s pub.
There was a rosy-faced man in his 60s, called Michael, who sat at a shop kiosk and frowned at length over his spread-out betting slips, ruminating before committing to a day’s wagers. There was a taxi driver, Alan the Taxi, who parked in the rank outside and came in to bet the occasional £5 on football. A fellow cabbie, John the Taxi, didn’t gamble, but he came in and out to use the loo. Both drivers brought with them takeaway coffees for Iacovou, who could not leave the shop unless his cashier was there. The branch had a regular named Ray, who bet horses, and Kistensamy, who bet horses, and Bill, who only bet dogs. There was a relative newcomer, Shafique Aarij, a man in his 20s with pocked skin who had drawn attention to himself by combing his hair, nervously, whenever he played on one of the shop’s electronic gambling machines.
That Friday, Aarij complained to the manager about a problem with one of these machines. Iacovou had to come out from behind his counter to see what was wrong. It was one of dozens of menial but mounting tasks he had to see to: filling the coupon trays; scissoring out form guides from the Racing Post and arranging them on magnetic display boards; alternating posters in the street-facing windows; managing customers who approached his till holding winning slips (and those who came anyway, as losers, to moan); monitoring the amount of money in the coin tray, in the till, and in the safe; monitoring the door, in case someone too young or too unsavoury-looking should try to enter; monitoring the shop’s four gambling machines, in case any of them should break down, the colours on the simulated casino games turn funny or the calibration on the touchscreens slip out of sync. At the end of the day these machines had to be laboriously emptied of takings and the shop otherwise shut down. Though Iacovou’s branch closed to customers at 10, that night he did not get back to his home in Cheam until midnight. He was exhausted, his wife recalled, and he slept in his uniform.
In the morning, Iacovou took the bus back to the Morden branch, arriving at around 8am, in time to meet a colleague from another Ladbrokes who had come to collect a set of spare keys. The pair chatted briefly. There had been a time when they might have been rostered to spend Saturday together in the shop, but no longer. Iacovou was not expecting his cashier to arrive until after lunch. The managers said goodbye to each other and Iacovou began to prepare for trade, turning on the machines and checking that each of their coin and note slots were functioning properly. He put up pages from the Racing Post and took out cleaning products to tidy his counter area. The posters in the street-facing window that morning said “Win”, “FREE BET”, “Guaranteed”, “Debit cards accepted”. Iacovou opened a locked door that separated the shop floor from his service area and sat down at his till. As it turned 8.30am, he pressed a button to unseal the shop’s magnetically locked front door, and was open for business.
The first customer was Shafique Aarij. That morning he was carrying a shoulder bag. He went to one of the gambling machines. As had happened the day before, Aarij signalled to Iacovou that there was a problem with his machine. The manager stood up and started to unlock the door beside his counter. As soon as the latch was turned, Aarij pushed in. He grabbed Iacovou around the neck. The two men struggled. Aarij took a claw hammer from his bag and struck Iacovou over the head with it. He struck again, and again, and then he turned his attention to the safe.
2. A part of British life
It is a rare British high street that has not come to be kitted out, today, in the colours of the bookmakers. In every town, on every retail row, the routine sweep of bank and salon and shrunken supermarket will be studded at almost mathematical intervals by the red of a Ladbrokes storefront or the blue and yellow of a William Hill, likely as well by the blue of a Coral, the blue and red of a Betfred, the pale green of a Stan James or the clover-leaf shade of a Paddy Power. In total, there are around 9,000 licensed betting shops in the UK, around half of those operated by Ladbrokes and William Hill. The two corporations are great and bitter rivals, tracing a contempt for one another back to the 1930s. Difficult as it is to credit now, both companies once shared a snotty attitude about the idea of bookmakers having shops.
“I don’t think it would be very nice,” said Mr William Hill, founder of William Hill, in 1956, “to see at every street corner a betting shop.” There was never a Mr Ladbrokes; the company was named for a country house where its founders trained horses in the 1880s. Up to the 1960s it reckoned itself too posh for street-level trade. Bookmakers at the time operated under licence only at racetracks, or took bets from private customers by post or telephone. Profits made in this way were undermined by a thriving black market in illegal street betting. Before the tonnes of lurid acrylic got hoisted into place on shop fronts nationwide, British bookmaking had as its most visible identifier a lone man or boy, waiting with a satchel of money on any street corner that had a choice of escape routes.
Betting shops were legalised in 1961. A year later, the Times audited the country, describing the first bookmakers’ shops, and reporting on the genteel (a “clean, sky-blue parlour”) as well as the already run-down (a “seedy, litter-strewn room containing listless youths sucking pencils”). All had windows that were blacked out, at government insistence, to discourage loitering. An employee known as a “marker” would stand by a blackboard, close to a telephone or later a loudspeaker that broadcast racing commentary, chalking up results. Another employee, called a “settler”, calculated odds in their head. Cashiers took in money and sometimes gave it out. Customers could not drink in betting shops, but they could smoke. These were bolt-holes, very often in the backstreets, stuffy but social, somewhere to be.
And they were popular, particularly with working-class men. Once Ladbrokes and William Hill could not ignore the potential profits any longer, they began to open branches, or take over existing ones, and from the mid-1960s on, the two companies’ spread was rapid and aggressive. Between them they absorbed dozens of smaller now-forgotten firms – Solomons & Flanagan, JJ Simonds, Ken Munden, Fred Parkinson.
William Hill had 100 shops by 1970, and Ladbrokes more than 400. “They are part of British life now,” said Hill not long before he died. His company was bought by Sears Holdings Limited in 1971, and then traded on again through a number of conglomerates. Both William Hill and Ladbrokes became PLCs, floated on the stock market. They had 1,000 shops each, then 2,000. Wooden writing benches, pencilled over with decades’ worth of redundant figuring, were removed from branches and replaced by plasticky kiosks. Instead of pencils came that icon of the modern betting shop, the complimentary pen: stubby, flat edged, much-chucked in frustration, apparently of limitless supply.
Regulation changes in the 1980s allowed TVs to be installed in shops, bringing in races and results direct from horse and greyhound tracks. (That killed the role of the fast-chalking “markers”.) Cashiers, in the 1990s, got networked computers. (Thus the “settlers” also became redundant.) Plinky, pound-at-a-time fruit machines came in and then, around the turn of the millennium, the first modern gambling machines – “fixed-odds betting terminals”, or FOBTs (pronounced fobtees), offering a digitised version of roulette as well as other arcade-style games that could be gambled on. The major bookmakers also launched and invested in dotcom operations, but they were not especially light-footed about it, and their profits were eaten into by an online-only service named Betfair that empowered its customers to act as bookies themselves, setting odds and taking bets from one another. Takings fell.
At around the same time, betting on the industry’s totemic sports, horse racing and greyhound racing, dropped away. Staff observed that a younger generation of gambler had come to see track racing as jargon-heavy, too favourable to those with specialist knowledge – dad’s fancy – and they preferred to bet on football instead. Broadly speaking, there was less profit for bookmakers there: in football, unlike in a 15- or 30-rider horse race, only one side could fail to win. Takings fell further. A new piece of legislation, the 2005 Gambling Act, had enforced a limit of four FOBTs per betting shop. The money fed into these four machines became ever more important to each shop’s viability.
Like characters in a certain type of sci-fi film, veteran staff now speak of a happier time – “before the machines”. FOBTs, when they came, were accepting of much larger sums than the fruit machines that preceded them. Up to £100 could be fed in and gambled every 20 seconds, an amount later curbed, under changing government regulations, to £50 every 20 seconds. Losers lost faster, and losing became an identifiably scratchier thing. Staff explained: the customer who backed a too-slow horse or a crap dog might afterwards rail at fate or the gods, or even the employees behind their counters. But they could not plausibly claim to have been cheated. Machine players brought with them a new paranoia. FOBTs are fixed, thus the name – fixed-odds betting terminals. Over time they will pay back to customers 97.4% of the money that is put into them. Even so, it became a common thing for staff to be accused of rigging equipment, of dialling up losing streaks, of modulating people’s electronic luck.
Many shop workers I spoke to had stories about looking on, impotent, as the machines under their charge were angrily destroyed by the customers who had been playing them. Worse, somehow, was when a machine was calmly destroyed. The deputy manager of a William Hill in Hull said: “You just watch, there’s nothing else to do. It’s normal. It’s normal for people to smash up the shop.” (A representative of William Hill said this was “rare”.) A woman working at an Oxfordshire Ladbrokes told me she had watched all four FOBTs in her shop get wrecked by a man swinging a stool; by the next day’s trade, she said, her ruined machines had all been replaced. According to figures I have seen, the number of incidents of damage to machines in Ladbrokes branches rose steadily between 2010 and 2015.
A senior figure at Ladbrokes during this period became increasingly concerned by the situation at shop-level “getting silly, getting crazy”. They told me it was their belief that with the introduction of the machines, betting shops had more or less become “mini casinos”. And how many casinos, they asked, got by without bouncers to cope with aggrieved gamblers? How many were run by individuals on their own?
3. Work alone, or don’t work
Even after the markers were made redundant by TV, and the settlers run off by desktop computers, it was rare for employees to work in their betting shops alone; until it wasn’t. While staff at William Hill were told by company bosses, often and emphatically, that they would not be asked to man branches by themselves at night, Ladbrokes began to draw up what it called a “single-scheduling” policy in 2010. The policy meant that, subject to certain conditions, including a risk assessment of individual branches and a tick-box check of employee competence, shops could be run by one person for periods of the day and night. In fact, in the majority of shops, there would be a mandatory number of hours during which there could only be one person rostered to work.
Single-manning, as staff started to call it, was trialled and then expanded around Ladbrokes’ betting shops between 2011 and 2013. People at all levels of the company told me they were in no doubt as to why it was introduced. “It was a cost-cutting exercise,” said an area manager who was then in charge of 15 branches in the south-east. A senior person in Ladbrokes’ retail department at the time told me: “They recognised there were considerable savings to be made. Why double-man a shop between 10am and 1pm, or after 6pm, when it’s quiet?”
Another well-placed source inside Ladbrokes at the time said they believed that by reducing staff from two to one in more than 2,000 shops, the company saved approximately £15m a year. The Mirror reported that between 2009 and 2011, Ladbrokes’ annual wage bill dropped by a third. (Ladbrokes said this was a result of cuts in staffing at all levels, not specifically on shop floors.)
At shop level, a choice: work on your own, or risk your job. An area manager who worked in the north and oversaw the running of more than 60 branches told the 200-odd employees under his charge: “We can either close this amount of shops and make this amount of people redundant, or we can single-man.” The area manager remembered “a lot of emotion. A lot of staff felt it wasn’t safe.” (Ladbrokes acknowledged that “some of our employees have strong opinions on working alone” and said it encouraged feedback.)
Though most shops would still be able to budget for a second employee – a cashier on minimum wage – during the busier afternoon horse-racing hours, most Ladbrokes’ shop staff could now expect to work alone before midday and after 6pm. At first, those who agreed to single-man were paid extra – something like an additional 40p an hour. (The hourly pay for branch managers, who are known internally at Ladbrokes as customer service managers, varies by area and age. In 2016, for a 23-year-old in the Wirral, it is £8.51 per hour.) A source inside Ladbrokes’ head office at the time pointed out that the additional money was soon stopped.
Internal Ladbrokes sources spoke candidly to me on the condition that I not use their names. So did most of the dozens of betting shop workers I consulted for this story. Entering branches around the UK, and introducing myself as a reporter, I became used to a singular response: behind the counter their eyes would flick, instinctively, to the nearest CCTV camera.
Employees said they feared the sack if they complained in public forums about their working conditions. A Ladbrokes branch manager in Wales said that, when she posted a comment on Facebook in reference to the attack on Andrew Iacovou in Morden, she was contacted within 20 minutes by the firm’s London office and told to delete it or she would enter a disciplinary process. A Ladbrokes employee in Birmingham reported the same. Many of the part-time-working students and other junior staff I interviewed insisted they did not expect to be in their jobs for ever, that a pervasive industry gloom would soon flush them out – but that they needed good references, so could their names be left out of my story? I met working parents, working parents-to-be, second-generation staff who worked in branches with their parents, and other employees who could not risk dismissal, so asked to speak anonymously.
One area manager recalled his shame at telling staff unnerved by working alone that they were really in no extra danger
But they spoke. The area manager in the north recalled his shame at telling staff who were unnerved by single-manning in its early phase that they were really in no extra danger. Back then, said the area manager, “I supported the company line, telling my staff: ‘We need to do this.’” He told any staff who felt unsafe working alone that “if there is a robbery, as long as you hand over all the money, it’s unlikely the robbers will do anything to you. You’re probably at no more risk of a robbery on your own than you are with two people.” A senior figure at Ladbrokes told me that, from the introduction of single-manning in 2010 until the end of 2014, the company kept no figures recording whether a branch was single- or double-manned at the time of a criminal incident.
For a time, said the area manager in the north, single-manning “seemed pretty innocuous”. Persuading his staff became easier when other major betting chains started to single-man. Employees at Betfred, Stan James, Coral and Paddy Power told me they were all asked to work in their shops alone on a frequent basis. “For a while it did work fine,” said the area manager. “And then Andrew Iacovou happened.”
4. The Morden branch
Andrew and Anita Iacovou first met inside a Ladbrokes. It was a Saturday in April 1995, Grand National weekend. Anita had put an each-way bet on a horse called Party Politics. “Intuition,” she said. When her horse finished second, she took her ticket to Iacovou, who was working behind the counter. They started talking. Iacovou was 37 and had grown up not far away, in South Norwood. His father was Greek and his mother English. Anita was 34, second-generation Indian, with dark hair that she tied back in a knot. Iacovou must have been distracted, chatting, because he shorted Anita on her winnings. When she went back to check – £33, wasn’t it? – Iacovou asked her out. They married in 1999 and later had two sons.
In 2005, the family moved to a flat in Cheam. For five years, until 2010, Iacovou worked at a Ladbrokes a walk away, on Tudor Drive. Then he was moved to the branch near Morden tube. “He told me he didn’t feel safe there,” Anita recalled. Twice, during Iacovou’s evening shifts, the windows of his branch were broken by vandals. Anita’s brother, Anil Punjabi, sometimes drove Anita and her sons to pick him up after work. But after a while, Punjabi recalled, Iacovou asked him not to bring the family on these trips, fearing they would be vulnerable in the car outside.
The sensation of safety is not a hard currency; it cannot be passed around in token form. The Morden Ladbrokes had CCTV cameras inside it, a steel-framed front door with a magnetic lock, a latch-lock on the door between the shop floor and the service area, and an employee panic button under the counter. As dozens of shop employees pointed out to me, however, it is still possible to feel unsafe in the middle of a fortress like this, particularly at night, particularly when unaccompanied.
The deputy manager of a Betfred in Sussex was working on her own when one night she was threatened with rape by a frustrated machine gambler. “He told me: ‘You’d like it.’ I remember thinking: ‘There’s nowhere I can run.’” The Betfred deputy rang the police that night, and again the following night, and again the night after that, because the same man kept returning to the shop as soon as her assistant cashier left for the evening. For a while she took anti-anxiety medication, she said, to be able to keep working, and then she resigned. A female Ladbrokes worker in Oxfordshire recalled being told by a customer: “I’m going to come back at 10 o’clock, when you close, and take you.” She was 19. Employees, particularly women – of whom the betting-shop industry has an unusually high number, around 50% in branches – told me they had often asked husbands or friends to sit in shops with them on evenings they were rostered to work alone.
Certain branches in certain areas were from the start deemed too dangerous to be single-manned. The neighbourhood around Andrew Iacovou’s Morden shop was not judged by Ladbrokes’ risk-assessment team to present any special danger. Part of the way Ladbrokes decided this was by considering unpleasant incidents that had already taken place inside a shop. It rated such incidents by degree. Verbal abuse from a customer was a “level one”; physical abuse a “level two”; physical abuse that resulted in hospitalisation a “level three”. Suffer enough twos or threes and head office would take a shop off the single-manning list, at least for a short while. Andrew Iacovou’s Morden branch had not had enough level twos or level threes.
Anita worried for her husband. You did not have to search especially hard for stories about violence in British betting shops at the time. A machete robbery at a Betfred in Ashton-in-Makerfield in March 2013. A man who had entered a Ladbrokes in Southampton in April 2013, and leapt over the counter with a kitchen knife. Between them, the Iacovous had an arrangement: Andrew would call Anita from his shop, usually at about 8.30am, when he would have settled in, and then again at intervals through the day. On Saturday 25 May, Anita did not receive the expected call. She rang the shop and got no answer. She continued to call.
Trying to work out what had happened later, police investigators rewatched CCTV footage recorded in the shop. They saw Shafique Aarij struggle with Iacovou behind the counter. This was at 8.33am. They saw Aarij hit Iacovou with a hammer, multiple times. Blood spotted his face, and he wiped at it. Within minutes of the attack Aarij had left the shop. Examining the shop’s safe, police saw that its handle had received a hammer blow, but had remained locked. They knew from shop records that £296.86 had disappeared from the till. Aarij must have taken this when he fled, at around 8.35am.
8.45am. 9am. 9.15am. For between 45 minutes and an hour, nobody outside the Morden branch was aware that anything unusual had happened inside. Andrew Iacovou lay in such a way behind his counter that he could not be seen from the shop floor. Customers came and went. Someone played on one of the machines. Eventually Kistensamy, one of the regulars, approached the counter and saw a body. He ran to the supermarket next door and raised the alarm. An ambulance came. Iacovou was pronounced dead by paramedics at 10.28am.
5. “A tough year”
From branch to branch, rumours of a murder spread. Staff at a William Hill in Glasgow heard that an employee had been stabbed. At a Coral in Hemel Hempstead it was said that someone had been shot. In a Facebook group for industry professionals (the group is called “I No Longer Fear Hell, I’ve Worked in a Betting Shop” and has over 14,000 members) Iacovou was discussed within hours of his death. “What happened? Robbery gone wrong? Was he single-manning?” The suggestion that Iacovou had lain undiscovered for so long was especially distressing to people. This was one of their great fears.
In the Facebook group, a discussion about possible strike action led nowhere. A hopeless, gravedigger humour set in instead. “If you’re single-manning and something happens,” someone asked, “who will call for help?” Someone replied: “Ghostbusters.” Members discussed the wild inconsistency with which glass security screens were installed in shops, many premises going without (“Show me one bank that doesn’t have them for cash transactions”). They compared notes about how easily a magnetically sealed front door could be forced by a determined intruder (“I weigh 11 stone and … ”). They remembered the old days (“I started in ’94 … home by 5.30pm in the winter”) and exchanged grim warnings about the future (“Next time it could be any one of you”). One especially distressing rumour about Iacovou spread between them: that before he died, the manager had been able to press the panic alarm beneath his counter, and that this alarm, while it had registered at Ladbrokes’ central security office, had somehow gone unanswered.
I was told by well-placed sources that this rumour was accurate. When the alarm registered at Ladbrokes’ security office, a live CCTV feed from the shop was checked by a control room operator; but the operator saw only Aarij, not Iacovou. The operator also saw the cleaning materials that Iacovou had put out on his service area. It was assumed that Aarij was a cleaner who must have pressed the panic button by mistake. (A Ladbrokes spokesperson said that after this killing, “changes were made with regard to how our security control room responds to incidents”.)
In Cheam, Anita Iacovou heard nothing all morning. At 2pm, police visited her at the flat. Ladbrokes’ security chief came too, as did a second Ladbrokes’ representative. Anita was asked to step in to her bedroom to speak with a policewoman. Anita said, instinctively: “He’s in the hospital.” The policewoman said no, Andrew was dead. Anita said, “You’re joking,” and the policewoman said no. The two children were at home. Anita called them into the room to tell them what had happened. There is not a lot more she can recall of the afternoon. She knows she turned to the two Ladbrokes representatives, in the family living room, and asked: why was he ever left there alone?
Aarij, 21, was found by police five days later, hiding at a friend’s home in east London. When interviewed at Sutton police station, Aarij accepted that he had gone to the betting shop in Morden that morning to steal money. That he had armed himself with a hammer beforehand. That he knew there was likely to be only one person on duty. When police asked why he had killed Iacovou, Aarij told them: “When the siren was ringing I got scared and I became upset and then I was not in my senses.” Police charged Aarij with murder. At trial in November 2013 he was found guilty. In January 2014 he was sentenced to life in prison, with a minimum of 26 years.
Ladbrokes paid a modest sum to Anita Iacovou and her family. (A well-placed source put it at £140,000.) Ladbrokes also launched a JustGiving page in Iacovou’s memory, kicking off donations with £10,000. The company paid for Iacovou’s funeral, in July 2013. During Aarij’s murder trial, Ladbrokes arranged for taxis to take Anita and her family to and from court. In its December report for shareholders, the company described 2013 as “a tough year”. Delicate mention was made of the murder. It was called “a random violent attack”
The area manager in the north recalled: “The thinking was we sell it as a one-in-a-million anomaly that can never happen again.” A senior figure at Ladbrokes at the time confirmed this. “Those were conversations that were being had at senior level. It was taken as: ‘The shell doesn’t land in the same place twice.’” Another senior figure at Ladbrokes at the time said: “There was a naivety.”
Shortly after Morden, an internal investigation was launched, and Ladbrokes’ single-scheduling policy found to be adequate. When a new branch opened in the Leicester area that year, it was added, like hundreds of others, to the list of Ladbrokes that could be run by one person. In early 2014, a woman in her 20s was interviewed for a job at the branch. A court later imposed restrictions on the reporting of this woman’s name – she would come to be known internally at the company as Miss X.
During her interview, Miss X asked about the possibility of the shop being robbed. Weren’t betting shops targeted all the time?
“They just want the money,” Miss X was told. “Hand the money over and everything will be fine.”
She got the job.
6. The rise of the machines
Keen to turn up new markets, bookmakers not long ago started offering odds on the chancellor’s spring Budget. What colour would George Osborne’s tie be? How many times would the phrase “Labour’s economic mess” be used? Really, though, nobody in the betting world can look forward to the spring, when chancellors generally shake down this industry with indecent rigour. Betting firms have for some years paid an unusually high rate of tax – more than £1bn annually. Between 2011 and 2015 the operating profit before tax of Ladbrokes’ retail arm fell from £152.3m to £116.1m, and its tax obligations in that period only went up. When Osborne’s 2014 Budget raised the duty on takings from FOBTs from 20 to 25%, it was reckoned to cost the industry something like an extra £70m a year. At the time, a Ladbrokes spokesperson complained: “The pips are squeaking.”
And yet, these hundreds of branches of Ladbrokes, all those William Hills and Paddy Powers and Betfreds – they were everywhere, around Birmingham’s Bullring, up and down Aberdeen’s Union Street, Cardiff-wide, packed into London’s boroughs. In a decade when the high street has come out strongly in favour of thrift and convenience, betting shops have clung on as an unlikely modern super-presence. Of course, they are not much use to the thrifty. But they’re not especially convenient either – placing a bet is a transaction far more easily accomplished invisibly, online, than in a material shop, where you’ll likely trample in over a carpeting of abandoned bet slips (these boxy, overbright spaces always tend to look as if a major parade has just passed through) and in that climate of tension and boredom, biro out a prediction longhand. Win, and you’ll have to go back. If you mislay your little receipt, write it off.
They would once have been as densely packed as pubs, stopped at with the religious regularity of churches, taut with etiquette, like a public library – but walk into one of Britain’s 9,000 betting shops in 2016 and you will rarely find it full or even busy. Who are all the shops for? Usually men. Their expressions often sullen. There’s a William Hill in Hull in which, by unspoken agreement, Turks stick to one side of the shop and Kurds to the other. In one Ladbrokes in Sheffield, the white, Asian, eastern European and Somali customers mix well. Privately, informally, staff divide the modern class of betting-shop punter into two broad groups: the Older Gentlemen (in for the horses) and the Machine Gamblers. At Andrew Iacovou’s branch in Morden, there was an elderly regular from the West Indies, known to the others as Rocky, who didn’t gamble on either horses or the machines. He just seemed to want a place to be, and often cleaned up the discarded betting slips to help out.
Bookmakers buy lots of television advertising time to promote gambling through their websites and mobile-phone apps, while their vast estates of retail outlets go just about unmentioned. Betting shops can seem marginal places today, even through the eyes of those who run them. Yet as pubs vanish, churches vanish, libraries vanish, the marginalised have not vanished.
Walking around near Morden tube, three years after Iacovou’s murder, I wondered if I would be able to find any of his former customers. I soon realised that I only had to speak to men on the street – those who looked to be of retirement age and who looked to be doing nothing in particular. They all knew Iacovou’s Ladbrokes. They had dispersed, since his death, to the Paddy Power a few hundred metres away, to the Stan James across the road, to the Ladbrokes on Tudor Drive, to the William Hill further along the A24.
Who are all these shops for? Better to ask what they’re for. When the Labour government in 2005 made law a maximum of four FOBTs per betting shop, it had meant to limit peoples’ exposure to the machines. Four ought to be enough. But a betting firm such as Ladbrokes will retain only about £2 from every £100 spent on its FOBTs. The machines are profitable only on a high-volume/low-margin basis; that is to say, after factoring spend on staffing, real estate, and renting the machines (most of which are owned by third-party companies), there’s no money in them unless they’re played widely and played often.
An unintended effect of the 2005 Gambling Act may have been to encourage bookmakers to open more shops, and to move existing shops from the back streets to more visible parts of cities and towns. Locals in Great Yarmouth recently campaigned to stop a ninth betting shop opening in the town centre. Last year, residents of Thornton Heath tried to resist a 14th betting shop opening within a single postal district. In 2010, on Birmingham’s Stephenson Street, a Ladbrokes opened next door to a Ladbrokes. There are 26 branches of William Hill in greater Hull, and when I asked why, a spokesman explained it was “to cater to local demand”. (The Association of British Bookmakers, or ABB, the industry body that represents the major chains, said that the overall number of betting shops has actually decreased in recent years, and added: “Over 60% of existing betting shops have been trading from the same location for over 20 years.”)
After 2005, bookmakers began to open their shops earlier in the morning and later at night. According to the ABB, this was to broadcast and take bets on evening sporting events. But senior industry employees told me that it was to create extra hours of machine use – a feeling shared on shop floors. “Four walls around the FOBTs,” was how one manager described her branch. “We’re chaperones for the machines these days,” said another manager, “everyone knows that.”
7. The Ladbrokes experience
When I questioned the ABB about single-manning and other working conditions in betting shops, a spokesman pointed out that those who work in petrol stations and newsagents often do so alone. Other industry sources said that lorry drivers and taxi drivers worked solo, too. The comparisons were not unfair, but they did not take full account of the nature of betting shops, or their peculiar presence. Known to be everywhere, known to have cash. As likely as not staffed by a woman, more likely than not staffed alone. They were often near pubs, nightclubs, takeaways, cab ranks. They stayed open late. Ever since the extension of opening hours, branch workers told me, they had been more likely to have to deal with customers who were drunk or on drugs. They also told me about the other sort of difficult customer: the non-customer, bewildered, unstable, otherwise desperate, drifting in because they could not reliably expect to idle anywhere else during unsociable hours without being ushered on.
An employee of Ladbrokes in Birmingham, Harry Vale, was taken aback in 2013 to be asked by his area manager to start buying food and drink for people who came into his shop. Not just complimentary cups of tea but full meals, from McDonald’s or Greggs. “We had a ringbinder with their favourites written down,” Vale said, adding that the free food initiative, dreamed up in 2013 and introduced in multiple branches around the Midlands, did not seem to him the wisest arrangement when it came to the issue of vulnerable or unstable people hanging around in betting shops. But, then, Vale was pretty new to the business at the time, and a great many industry conventions can seem baffling to the uninitiated.
For instance, there is “banking”, an industry-wide practice by which betting-shop staff are asked to take excess cash out of their safes and then travel, often with thousands of pounds hidden about their person, to deposit it at the nearest bank or Post Office. (“We’re only supposed to take £5,000 at a time,” said a branch worker in Oxfordshire, adding that she had once taken as much as £9,000 on a single trip, distributing it about herself in different pockets.)
And then there was “the Ladbrokes Experience”, a company initiative launched in 2013, not long after the Morden murder, that would have Ladbrokes staff come out from behind their locked counters and interact with customers. “We had to go to our teams and brief this,” recalled the area manager in the north, “after Andrew Iacovou. That they had to be on the shop floor at all times. That the only time they were allowed to stay behind the counter was if they felt they had a very specific threat.”
Mia Whitaker, 21 that year, was working in a Ladbrokes in the Moor area of Sheffield. She had good reason to want to stay behind her counter, her own Ladbrokes experience having been made horrible by two regulars, young taxi drivers, who came in to play the FOBTs or to watch sport. When Whitaker passed them on the shop floor, she recalled, “they would try to touch my bum and my chest”. They offered taunting comments and gestures, coming in at night and when she was alone in the branch.
Whitaker complained to her line manager, and later to Ladbrokes’ central security office. (Ladbrokes told the Guardian: “If an employee raises concerns, we would investigate and where necessary take action.”) The security office sent a trespass order to Whitaker’s shop, meant for the two men, but when it arrived by post Whitaker said none of her colleagues would present it. Her manager suggested instead that he have a quiet word with the drivers – they were regular customers. Whitaker didn’t have the nerve to present the trespass order herself. The taxi drivers knew what her hours were, and where her bus stop was. So for more than a year after that, until Whitaker left the job, the men kept coming into their local betting shop, where they could expect to play the machines, or to watch the evening darts, and to harass the 21-year-old who was nominally in charge.
Looking back on this later, after a season of contained and uncontained chaos in the betting shops, Whitaker would have reason to be relieved that things only went so far.
8. The wild west
One weekend, the manager of a Ladbrokes in Scotland was robbed by two men while she was alone in her branch. She later described the experience. “One had a hammer,” she said. “One had a screwdriver. One of them pinned me in a corner with a hammer above my head, while the other one emptied the till. To me it felt like hours. I was thinking: ‘I’m not getting home from here.’ I thought of the man in London. I thought: ‘They’re taking me out in a box today.’ I thought: ‘I’m never going home.’”
In June 2013, a month after Andrew Iacovou’s killing, a Ladbrokes in Cardiff was robbed by two men, one carrying what police described as “a small axe”. In July, a Ladbrokes in Newcastle was robbed by a man with a seven-inch vegetable knife. In August, a Coral employee in Ewell, Surrey, was robbed in their branch by two men, claiming to be armed. In September, thieves threatened to “chop up” a Coral employee in his branch in Gorton, Manchester. They stole money and a plug-in telephone.
Branch workers around the country described to me a feeling during this period that they were being kept out on the shop floor as a hindrance, but no real impediment, to incident; on display like scarecrows, and about as formidable a deterrent. “Pleasure doing business with you,” a thief who robbed a William Hill in Whitstable in 2013 told staff on his way out. A member of a gang that robbed a Ladbrokes in Darlington in September that year returned to the same shop, the same day, to claim the £134 he had won on a FOBT while casing the joint. The same month, a man robbed a Ladbrokes in Welwyn Garden City by walking in with a bottle wrapped in wires and tape and telling the woman staffing the shop it was a bomb. She hid behind a door while the thief put the package on the counter and left with £500. After the bomb squad had been and gone, and the thief traced and arrested, it transpired he was out on licence for another robbery, of another Ladbrokes, with another lone-working employee, in 2010.
“It had become like the wild west,” said a senior figure inside Ladbrokes at the time. “Robberies with shotguns. Staff and customers getting beaten up. People getting hospitalised. We were getting staff coming back to work [after incidents] with PTSD. They were shell-shocked.” The Morden killing had already confirmed in this employee the opinion that nobody was realistically safe to work alone in betting shops. “But I was not allowed that view. I said [to my superiors]: ‘This is not good.’ I said: ‘This is wrong.’ But I was not allowed that view. So you make your noises and you get on with your job.”
Others made noises. A petition, launched online, “to make it compulsory for high-street bookmakers to have two members of staff present during opening hours”, gathered 3,824 signatures by November 2013. Nothing changed, and people got on with their jobs.
In February 2014, the Labour MP for Islwyn, Chris Evans, raised the matter in a Westminster debate. Evans had once been a low-level betting shop employee himself. He proposed that the government might consider legislation to insist that staff in shops be equipped with panic alarms, so that they could at least call for help if they got into trouble. The Tory MP for Shipley, Philip Davies, responded first, voicing concerns about “putting too much obligation on betting shops”. (Davies has more than once been accused by newspapers of receiving personal benefits from links to the gambling industry – allegations he has denied.) Davies said that “we could end up, not with single-manned betting shops, but with no betting shops, and nobody in work”. Evans said: “All I am looking for is simple, common-sense, cheap things … ”
The debate puttered out.
March 2014: a Stan James in Oxford, one armed robber saying to the other, of a lone-working employee made to kneel on the floor, “Shoot him. Shoot him.” April 2014: a Paddy Power in Cheshunt, robbed by armed men in balaclavas on Grand National Saturday. July 2014: a Ladbrokes in Leyland, Lancashire, a female employee locked in the toilet while the shop was robbed of £2,500. September 2014: a William Hill in Brighouse, West Yorkshire, a man carrying a piece of metal piping. October 2014: a Coral in Glasgow, a man carrying a piece of paper. “I don’t want to hurt you, just give me the money, I’ve got a knife,” Kenneth Duncan wrote on a betting slip that he handed to 20-year-old Amber Johnstone. “I’m 5ft 6in. I look my age,” Johnstone told me. “I think the guy noticed a young girl on her own in the shop and saw it as a perfect opportunity.” Duncan made off with £375. Johnstone could not sleep for months afterwards, and eventually entered therapy.
Spokespeople for the bookmakers were often careful to stress to the public, after such robberies, that not much money was kept in any one location. “It is never as much as people think,” said a Coral spokesperson, after the 2013 robbery in Ewell. There were strict limits on the amount of cash kept in branches – not more than £2,000 in a Ladbrokes, that figure varying slightly from chain to chain. Limits were strictly enforced – thus the compulsion for employees to pad themselves with cash mid-shift and scurry to the nearest bank – though branch workers questioned at times just what these limits were in place to protect. It must have been with limited relief, for instance, that bottom-rung staff at William Hill read in a recent brochure for shareholders that the company had managed to reduce the average amount of cash lost during robberies – down something like £80 per raid on the year.
9. “I can’t believe I’m alive”
After years of proud defiance, in 2014 William Hill informed its staff that they would now be asked to work alone in their shops during the evening. A spokesman told me: “As the over-the-counter part of the business declined, and costs and taxes increased, it made sense to operate to the right level of staffing.” A Hull-based deputy manager recalled: “We were told over fancy sandwiches in a hotel.”
William Hill described staff reaction as “mixed”. To the deputy manager and her colleagues, the move felt like a stunning reversal. The policy was rolled out across two-thirds of William Hill’s shops. By October 2014, executives at the company felt warmly enough towards single-manning to defend it from possible regulation. In a consultation with the government’s Gambling Commission about betting shop licence conditions, William Hill stated it would be “an undue and unjustifiable interference for regulators to dictate staffing levels” in betting shops. The deputy manager of a William Hill in Bletchley, Buckinghamshire, had not long before been released from hospital, his face unrecognisably bruised and his lung punctured after an attack by two machine gamblers who would not leave when he tried to close up his shop. He had been alone. “The blame for this criminal act should lay firmly with the perpetrators,” a William Hill spokesman told me, adding: “It would be wrong to use this case to make a point on lone working generally.”
That spring, the Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton and Wallington, Tom Brake, invited representatives from Ladbrokes to his Westminster office. One of Brake’s constituents had raised concerns about the industry’s response, or lack of it, to Iacovou’s death. The trio of Ladbrokes reps huddled with Brake around a table at Portcullis House and explained a possible new safety initiative. Special software would be installed on betting shop computers, Brake was told, programmed to alert Ladbrokes’ central security office if staff did not use their mouse or keyboard for 45 minutes. In the meeting the MP asked the representatives if they would consider more substantial measures, such as abandoning single-manning. Brake recalled being told no: “The finances didn’t stack up.”
The mouse-movement initiative was “a nonsense”, a senior figure inside Ladbrokes at the time admitted. “A lot of things can happen to someone in 45 minutes.” (It was never implemented.)
Multiple sources suggested that more tangible measures were being considered, such as portable panic alarms. As well as being equipped with a button to contact Ladbrokes’ central security office, the alarms contained motion sensors. Lie flat for more than 15 seconds and an alarm would be triggered. In theory, no staff member wearing an alarm would suffer Iacovou’s fate of prolonged non-discovery. Devices were distributed to about half the company’s shops in 2014 and 2015, at first to the locations deemed most at risk of violent incident. Miss X’s Ladbrokes, in the Leicester area, was not among those branches to get alarms.
She was working the evening shift on Friday 5 June 2015. It was a quiet night. TVs in the shop broadcast foreign horse racing and a tennis match on clay at the French Open, but there were no customers in to gamble on it. Miss X whiled away the time behind the counter on her phone. At 8.58pm, a little more than an hour before closing, a regular she recognised called Vijay Singh came into the shop and started playing on the machines. He wore a black T-shirt and faded jeans, and had his dark hair spiked with gel. Singh played for about 25 minutes, gambling and losing around £400.
At 9.24pm, he signalled to Miss X that there was something wrong with his machine. Miss X opened the locked door that secured her service area from the shop floor, and checked the machine. She found no fault. She returned behind her counter and picked up her phone. Minutes later, Singh again said there was a problem with his machine. This time, when Miss X emerged, he grabbed her by the wrists. Singh pushed her backwards through the service area and forced her into a bathroom at the rear of the building.
Twenty minutes passed.
At 9.49pm, Singh emerged from the rear of the shop with blood on his jeans. On his way towards the exit, he tried to open the till behind the counter, but could not. Instead he picked up a bag of loose coins and left.
Another 20 minutes passed.
Nobody was aware that there had been an attack in the branch until Miss X regained consciousness, at around 10.10pm, and dialled 999 herself. Hiding in the bathroom, she told the dispatch controller she had been beaten, throttled, threatened with murder and sexually assaulted. Her nose was broken and her neck was fractured.
Waiting for officers to arrive, she said to the controller: “I’m so scared.” She said: “He was on the machines. I think he lost a lot of money.” She said: “I’m in so much pain … I’m bleeding so much … I can’t believe I’m alive.”
The controller asked if there was anybody else in the shop with her.
“No, I’m afraid not.”
Half a second’s pause. “You’re just working there on your own, are you?”
10. A judge’s verdict
It was the week leading up to another Grand National weekend, in April 2016, when I visited Anita Iacovou in Cheam. Her youngest son answered the door. Anita apologised for not being able to stand up; she was suffering from a medical condition that made mobility difficult. Beside her in her chair in the front room she had packets of boxed medicine, a pile of letters and a tabloid newspaper, turned to the runners and riders for the big race. Anita said she was still fond of betting shops, and that she had been down the road to the nearest one that morning. Reaching for the tabloid, she pointed out her pick for the Grand National: number eight, an outsider with odds of 40/1 called On His Own.
The Morden Ladbrokes where her husband worked had not reopened since the day of his death. Sheets of pale plastic had been put up in the windows where the posters had once been. Anita knew what had happened in that other Ladbrokes in the Leicester area in the summer of 2015 – the Daily Mail had telephoned her afterwards to ask her opinion. She had followed developments in the Midlands since then, with pity and even some guilt. Anita recalled that, at her husband’s funeral in July 2013, she had asked the priest to speak a few words about the fact of Andrew working alone when he died. Senior figures from Ladbrokes were in attendance that day. There was a definite thickening of the atmosphere, guests recalled, when the priest sermonised about the value of money against the value of a human life. The family expected something substantial would change afterwards, and when it didn’t, and then the attack on Miss X happened, Anita said that Andrew’s death had been denied its only possible positive outcome.
As we spoke in her front room, Ladbrokes was about to stage its spring AGM. Without knowing it, Anita had been on a list of possible “problem attendees” at these gatherings ever since 2013. According to a source, it had been feared that she would show up, asking awkward questions; but really Anita’s fight was quieter than that. She only wanted to feel that her husband’s death had meant something.
William Hill continues to single-man its shops. A spokesman told me the company was “continually monitoring” the situation, but it was “very unlikely” they would all be dual-manned again. Betfred, Coral, Paddy Power and Stan James continue to single-man. Ladbrokes, in the weeks after the attack in the Leicester area, quietly suspended single-manning in surrounding shops, but it was soon reinstated.
The company’s CEO, Jim Mullen, decided last year that single-scheduling would become voluntary for staff working after 7pm. This opt-out policy would be extended gradually across the Ladbrokes’ estate and extra staff hired, employees were told. They could expect it in every branch by January 2016. In January 2016, the date for completion was pushed back to October 2016. Scepticism had already set in behind counters about that word “voluntary”. Some had already tried to opt out of single-manning, they told me, and had been pressured into reconsidering. “Threatened with being relocated,” a manager in north Wales reported. “It’s a choice that doesn’t really seem like a choice,” said a manager in Edinburgh. (Ladbrokes said: “We would never tolerate victimisation of an employee for raising a concern of any nature.”)
Vijay Singh was arrested on 7 June 2015, two days after his attack on Miss X. He was in hiding at his brother-in-law’s house, where bloody jeans were found stuffed in a cabinet. When Singh’s brother-in-law was interviewed by police, he disclosed that the first thing Singh had said after coming out of Ladbrokes on the night of the attack was: “I’ve just killed somebody.” Only later did Singh learn Miss X had survived the ordeal. When he was brought to trial at Stafford crown court in May 2016, charged with attempted murder, sexual assault by penetration, and theft, Miss X testified for the prosecution.
The trial lasted just over two weeks – ample time for more incidents to occur. In Manchester, police pursued an eastern European man who had spent “several hours” playing a FOBT in a city-centre Ladbrokes, waiting for the manager to be left alone, before pulling a knife. In Ware, a pregnant Ladbrokes employee was robbed in her shop. Meanwhile, in Stafford, at the end of a draining trial, the jury in the case was sent out to deliberate.
They were gone for hours. The court’s public gallery emptied, and a representative from Ladbrokes, who for days had been transcribing the events of the trial on a laptop, went for his lunch. I walked to the nearest betting shop – a Ladbrokes on Stafford’s main shopping parade, next to an off-licence and below a solicitor’s office. At the back of the branch, behind the counter, a young employee read a newspaper. He had a chunky plastic panic alarm clipped awkwardly to the collar of his red polo shirt. On the shop floor, an old man waited for the two o’clock at Kempton. By the door were the four FOBTs, one taken up by a middle-aged man playing a puzzle game called The Sky’s The Limit, another taken by a thirtysomething playing roulette. The other machines were idle, their high-definition screens programmed to flash through routine announcements: ads for the games that might be played on them, and bald warnings about the risks of playing these games incautiously. One machine flashed a message, black-on-red, that told customers not to gamble when upset. The other said in capital letters: “STAY IN CONTROL.”
After five hours’ deliberation, the jury returned with a verdict. Singh was guilty. Judge Michael Chambers, presiding, described the crimes as “horrendous” and said that Singh could expect “substantial imprisonment”. Preparing to dismiss the jury, Chambers thanked them for their time and said that, as he was sure they would agree, one aspect of the case had been especially troubling. How, Chambers wondered aloud, could Ladbrokes ever have allowed a young woman to be working on her own that night? The judge called it “foreseeable” that someone like Singh would take advantage of such a situation. “In my view,” Chambers said, “Ladbrokes’ actions in this case can be viewed as extremely negligent.”
The judge then turned from the jury to look at the public gallery, where the Ladbrokes representative sat behind a laptop. “I hope,” the judge said, slowly and clearly, “you will record that.” The representative typed.