I’m not a gambling man. The two proper bets that I’ve placed in my life both went on a brute called Hedgehunter to win the National. The first time out he was among the leaders till he ploughed into the final fence, and the following year my Spanish bank took so long to process a telephone bet the race had finished before they did. This, of course, was 2005 when Hedgehunter thundered home by a dozen lengths.
Informally though, it’s a different matter. Wagers, predictions, boasts, they all seem to be part of the British psyche. I’ve currently got running bets on 1) a friend proposing before the end of 2011, 2) that a newly married couple with conceive before the Olympic opening ceremony (a useful arbitrary moment) and 3) Aston Villa finishing in the top half of the table – most dubious of all. On Twitter the other day I noticed Malcolm Coles ruminating on a bet about the Euro breaking up and, at work, my girlfriend has developed a passion for football after winning £75 on the NewsQuest Premier League sweepstake.
And while I’ve been tidying my writing notes up, I’ve found some good proof that this informal bet-making is nothing new. Here’s a few historical wagers from way back when.
“Boy Eats Cat”
‘On Tuesday evening a country lad, about 16, for a trifling wager, ate, at a public house in this town, a leg of mutton which weighed near eight pounds, besides a large quantity of bread, carrots, &c. The next night the cormorant [a type of bird] devoured a whole cat smothered with onions.’
(Bristol Chronicle, 13 September, 1779)
“Quick Tea-Drinking at St Ives”
‘On Tuesday last the Mountebanks performed at St Ives, when the quick art of tea drinking was proposed by Mr Andrew as a method of drawing a company together for his benefit. He produced a pound of the best green tea for the first woman who could drink five cups boiling hot the quickest; this proposal set many mouths watering, as well as wishing for so great a prize; accordingly three women mounted the stage with Mr Andrew, in order to perform that which they are well accustomed to, tea drinking. When the noble entertainment began it was amusing enough, but presently over, and the pound of tea was clearly won by an old practitioner, who drank five cups boiling hot off the fire in precisely eight minutes, with as much unconcern and ease as possible, to the no little astonishment and good amusement of every spectator.’
(Cambridge Chronicle, 8 February, 1794)
“Famous Run by Farmer Tiffin”
‘On Thursday se’nnight, Mr Robert Tiffin, farmer, at Outwell, in this county, undertook, for a wager of £20 to run from the mile stone near Outwell toll-gate, five miles on the road to Wisbech and back again in an hour and a half, which he accomplished with ease in one hour and eleven minutes.’
(Bury and Norwich Post, 18 March, 1801)
“Trial of Strength”
‘An extraordinary trial of strength took place at Godalming, Surrey, on Tuesday morning, the 23rd ult. A man named William Giles, aged 50, for a wager of 2s, only, undertook to carry a sack of flour, weighing 285 lbs., the distance of a mile without resting. This he actually accomplished, taking up his load at Eshing Mill, in the above parish, and carrying it up a steep hill, rendered slippery by the snow which had fallen just before, over a stile and a gate, and returning by the high road to the mill again. Giles effected his task with so much ease that he offered to repeat the wager within an hour after he had set down the load, but the spectators were so well satisfied with his prowess that no one could be found to accept the challenge.’
(County Chronicle, 9 March 1819)
‘At the Bell Inn, at Widford, in this county, a delightful amusement has sprung up, quite novel, and which may vie with any of the present day entertainments of “the fancy”. It is that of a set to between two persons which can bear the most pinching, and continue to pinch his opponent for the longest time; observing that if during the engagement any party betray any angry feeling, or swear, the party so offending to forfeit whatever wager depended on the issue. A set-to of this sort occurred on Tuesday last at the above place, between a Knight of the Thimble of small stature and puny appearance, and a stout athletic husbandman. They held on pinching each other, with great pleasure, for upwards of an hour, chiefly upon the fleshy parts of the arm, when at length the arms of the stout man fell powerless by his side, and he was obliged to give in from exhaustion and pain. The gallant Knight immediately offered to combat with any man in England for the championship of pinching,’
(Hertfordshire Mercury, 20 August, 1825)
Image Credit: Ralph Repo