Although few gamblers today know much about “Joe Coral,” most are familiar with Britain’s Gala Coral Group, Ltd. With 1,700 licensed betting shops, it is the third largest bookmaker in the United Kingdom. And with over five million registered bingo members, it’s the biggest bingo operator in the world. Although the company’s corporate web site indicates that its history started with the purchase of 130 Gala Bingo Clubs in 1997, the “Coral” side of the story is far older and more interesting—a tale of struggle, fortitude and business savvy that should not be forgotten.
The Polish Immigrant
In 1904, Joseph Kagarlitsky was born in into a Jewish family in Warsaw, Poland. He was a sickly child, whose childhood illness caused him paralysis in both arms. The boy’s father, Abraham, passed away before he reached adolescence, so in 1912 his mother, Jessica, migrated with Joseph and his brother to England, hopeful of finding a better life. They took the surname “Coral” and Joseph became known simply as “Joe.”
At the age of 14, Joe Coral dropped out of school in order to work. His talent for mathematics landed him a job as a clerk in a lamp-making company. There he met numerous bookmakers and soon became one of their “runners” as a side job. Of course, running bets for bookies had been illegal since 1853, but that didn’t bother Coral; he badly needed the money for his family. As it happened, spending time with the bookmakers lost him his day job for “concentrating on the wrong ledger.”
For a time, Coral worked at a small London advertising agency, During the General Strike of 1926, he began taking bets at a billiards club in Stoke Newington and by 1927 he struck off on his own to set up a legitimate trackside betting booth at the Harringay and White City greyhound racing tracks. He allegedly borrowed the start-up money from a local cafe owner, and he took on a partner, his friend Tom Bradbury-Pratt. They also established an illegitimate side to their business, developing within three years a network of 70 to 80 agents to collect bets on their behalf at pubs and shops and in back alleyways.
One error in Coral’s career path became obvious when he was arrested and fined £20, not for illegal bookmaking but for failure to register as an “alien resident” of the U.K. He had not obtained citizenship, and the Thames Magistrates Court took a dim view of his presence. For more than two decades, Coral would live under the fear of arrest and deportation. But there was one mitigating factor. In 1932, he married a British national, Dorothy Helen, and together they would raise three sons, two of whom, Bernard and Nicholas, would later follow in the family business.
Surviving the Worst
Coral had to deal with another threat to his operations in the 1930s. Gangster Charles “Darby” Sabini, the so-called “King of the Racecourse Gangs,” dominated London’s underworld and racecourses in southern England during the early 20th century. The only way to survive was to stay on the good side of Sabini, who had “extensive police and political connections including judges, politicians and police officials.”
Coral successfully defended his “turf” and managed to grow it by 1939 to include additional speedway and greyhound tracks, making him one of the largest regional bookmakers in England. Although World War II interrupted his betting business, Coral opened a credit betting office in Stoke Newington in 1941 and relocated it to London’s West End when the war ended. Then, taking advantage of the legality of wagers made by check, he began advertising “betting by post” in major sporting newspapers, including the Sporting Life and the Sporting Chronicle.
Police believed Coral was running illegal street betting and financing gambling clubs without declaring the income. In 1932, the “alien” had been fined £40 for failing to notify the police of change of address. In 1935, he had been “cautioned” for failure to report his marriage. In 1943, another citation came for not reporting an address change. By the 1950s, Coral had racked up 39 driving offences and a conviction for perjury when he lied about his relationship to his mistress when registering the birth of one of their two illegitimate children.
Not surprisingly, the courts wanted to deny Coral’s application for naturalization. But senior figures in the Home Office relented in 1952. Traffic violations and unproven suspicions were insufficient grounds to keep the bet-taker from citizenship. One official reportedly said, “For a bookmaker in Stoke Newington he is not a bad sort of fellow.”
Growing the Business
Eight years later, everything changed. The Betting and Gaming Act of 1960 finally legalized off-course cash betting and allowed licensed betting offices to be introduced to the high streets and back streets of England and Wales. In 1961, Joe Coral opened his first licensed shop. He attracted customers by laying large commissions and soon gained a reputation as London’s best bet.
In 1963, “Corals” became a public limited company and quickly diversified into casinos, bingo halls and hotels. By 1970, annual profits had risen to £1.5 million. Corals’ success attracted the attention of the entertainments group and brewing giant Bass, who offered to buy the firm. As part of the deal, Coral himself was able to stay on as president of the bookmaking operations and a major company director.
The injection of capital from Bass allowed Corals to expand to 650 betting shops, and by the end of the 1970s, they were among the four largest bookmakers in the U.K. Joe Coral remained connected with operations through the 1992 deal that saw the “Tote” betting pool system introduced at off-track Coral shops. The company founder then fell into dementia. He died from lung cancer in University College Hospital, Camden, in December of 1996, shortly before the formation of the Gala Coral Group. He would certainly have been proud of what his little greyhound betting booth had become.