Helen Vernet

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Helen Monica Mabel Vernet (1876–1956) was the first woman in the history of horseracing in Great Britain to be granted a license that permitted a person "of fit and proper character" to legally carry out business as a bookmaker on a racecourse in accordance with the Betting Houses Act of 1853 and subsequent amendments.

The daughter of Arthur Bryden (d. 1897), a solicitor, of Broxmore House, Whiteparish, Wiltshire by his wife Rosa Matilda, daughter of Sir Arthur Percy Cuninghame-Fairlie, 10th Baronet,[1][2] in 1896 she married Armyn Littledale Thornton,[3] a stockbroker by profession. Apparently, this was not a happy union from the outset as the marriage ended in annulment. As a result of a marriage annulment rather than a divorce, in accordance with Matrimonial Causes Act 1857, both parties were free to marry again, which Helen in due course did when she married yet another stockbroker, Robert Vernet, in 1905.[4][1]

Reportedly, as a child she inherited some £8,000 following the death of her father; as a result, when she became of age and with capital of her own, she quickly developed a taste for gambling and a fondness to go racing as often as she could. Unfortunately, Helen Vernet was not yet a skilled enough operator of the kind she was later to become, gradually dissipating most of her inheritance in the process of her activities.[2]

In the days when Tote pool betting was not yet a feature on British racecourses and the rough and tumble of the betting ring was very much a male preserve and socially out of bounds to the opposite sex. Helen Vernet had noticed that many women who like her went racing, also liked to have a bet. The problem was that for those women in the Tattersalls enclosure and grandstand areas wanting to place a small wager the only available bookmakers were located along the rails. And, because entry to such areas on a racecourse was more expensive than to the general public enclosures, bookmakers along the Tattersalls rails were more inclined to accept larger bets. Indeed, when approached, they would often refuse to accept small stakes of less than a Pound in value.[3]

So, following the end of World War I in 1918 and the recommencement of horserace meetings in Britain, she made it known that she was willing to take small bets from female acquaintances who like her, attended local race meetings throughout the English Home Counties. Unfortunately, as word got around and demand for her services visibly increased, her illegal and unlicensed activities soon came to the attention of the authorities – and she was duly "warned off"[4] – being the procedure whereby a person of proven dubious character is banned from attending official racecourse meetings in Britain for a set period of time.

However, her activities had not gone unnoticed and she was soon recruited by bookmaker Arthur Bendir, who had been running the Ladbrokes bookmaking firm since 1902. Under the direction of Bendir, in 1913 Ladbrokes had established an office in the heart of London’s Mayfair with the intention of servicing the horserace betting needs of an elite client base drawn from the ranks of the British aristocracy and upper classes who frequented the nearby exclusive gentlemen's clubs of White's, Boodle's, the Carlton, the Athenaeum and the Royal Automobile Club.[5] It was thought that because of Helen Vernet's family social connections, she would be well placed to discreetly attract upper-crust female racegoers of the time and then, by association, plenty of their equally well-heeled partners.[6]

While prior to 1961, and the passing of the Gaming and Betting Act that allowed the introduction of off-course betting shops to the UK, all horserace betting on an up-front cash basis was restricted to racecourses only. However, betting on a previously agreed credit settlement basis between bookmaker and client was not. Indeed, in his 1985 autobiography "The Life and Secrets of a Professional Punter" Alex Bird, renowned British professional horserace punter of the post-war 1940s and 50s, profiled both Ladbrokes and Mrs Verney (as he called her) as follows …

“In the late 1940s I did not think about opening an account with Ladbrokes. Their form was in a different league to the rest of the bookmaking world. They were not involved in the competitiveness of the ring. Their clients were mainly members of the aristocracy and without calling the odds, Ladbrokes representatives like Mrs Verney, a grey-haired dignified woman who looked about seventy if she was a day, were merely there to accept bets for very large amounts, without any fuss. Mrs Verney stood by the rails at Newmarket and no one would ever have guessed that in the hurly burly of the racetrack, she was taking bets. While other bookmakers shouted out their odds she hardly ever spoke.”

Under the guidance and tutelage of her mentor, Arthur Bendir, Helen Vernet was made a partner in the firm in 1928 and was paid a reputed £20,000 per year in salary and commission as Ladbrokes on-course rails representative.[7] While never one to hoard money, she enjoyed an elegant and comfortable lifestyle that afforded the Vernets the opportunity to eventually settle at 49 Eaton Place in London’s Belgravia and holiday regularly on the French Riviera where she liked to gamble at the casino tables. But nevertheless, she insisted on working almost until her death in 1956 at the age of 80, even to the extent of attending race meetings in a wheelchair due to the crippling effects of arthritis.[8]

Helen Vernet died on 30 March 1956 at her Eaton Place home [9] and while she did not die penniless, she did not die rich either. After all, she had a taste for the finer things in life and an abiding love to take chances which meant that as fast as she got money, she spent it – living life to her available means - if not occasionally above it.

While there are apparently no photographs of Helen Vernet in the public domain there is however a Punch carton of her, drawn by George Belcher, that dates from the mid-1930s.[10] and depicts her and an accompanying male clerk ready to do business on some unnamed racecourse – the caption reads:

"To see her standing on the rails - One woman in a world of males - Serene, as you hand your choice both ways - Far older than the odds she lays."

Further reading[edit]

  • Bird, Alex; Manners, Terry (1985). Alex Bird : the life and secrets of a professional punter. London: Queen Anne Press. ISBN 978-0-356-10589-5. 
  • Huggins, Mike; Open Access Publishing in European Networks (2003). Horseracing and the British, 1919-39. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 978-0-7190-6529-3. 
  • Ramsden, Caroline (1973). Ladies in racing : sixteenth century to the present day. London: Paul. ISBN 978-0-09-116990-9. 
  • Kaye, Richard; Peskett, Roy (1969). The Ladbrokes story. London: Pelham. ISBN 978-0-7207-0310-8. 
  • Magee, Sean; Aird, Sally (2002). Ascot : the history. London: Methuen. ISBN 978-0-413-77203-9. 


  1. ^ Debrett's Peerage, Baronetage and Knightage, 1907, pg 563
  2. ^ Burke's Peerage, Baronetage and Knightage, 2003, vol. I., pg 1261
  3. ^ Debrett's Baronetage, Knightage and Companionage, 1931, Dean & Son, pg 214
  4. ^ Debrett's Peerage, Baronetage and Knightage, 1907, pg 563

External links[edit]