Going to the dogs: celebrating fifty years with Professor Keith Laybourn

Keith Laybourn drew on a lifetime of learning and experience for his valedictory lecture this month to an audience filled with colleagues and friends, as Janette Martin reports.

Keith Laybourn: celebrating 50 years at Huddersfield. Click for larger image.

Diamond Jubilee Professor Emeritus Keith Laybourn delivered his valedictory lecture, marking fifty years’ service at the University of Huddersfield, to an audience filled with friends, colleagues and former students.

Keith’s theme was ‘The politics of working-class gambling in Britain’, and true to form the audience was treated to a humorous and wide-ranging 90 minutes of anecdote and insight. We learned that greyhound racing and the football pools were subject to the class legislation that saw working-class betting placed under greater restriction than more elite forms of gambling.

His paper was illustrated with evocative quotes and commentary. Take for example a piece in the Daily Express analysing the crowd attending a race at Belle Vue, Manchester in October 1927, which reported:

‘I saw a woman with a baby in her arms laying a shilling. Children in their teens betted as freely as their elders. Boys in school caps … girls in hats and red ribbons of secondary schools pushed their way through from bookmaker to bookmaker asking the odds and staking where they secured the best prices. Working girls of the typist and shop-assistant class wagered by the half-crown or five shillings… All the land seems to be going to the dogs.’

We also learned that in 1941 the Labour politician Stafford Cripps, shortly to become Leader of the House of Commons in the coalition government, blamed failed wartime production targets on the working-class appetite for greyhound races and gambling.

My favourite part of the lecture was the biographical detail at the start, in which the audience learned that, as an underage child, Keith worked as a bookie’s runner and some of his best customers were local policemen. He spoke eloquently of the Barnsley of his childhood, which was still shaped by mining culture and centred, on the working men’s club and the co-op. We also learned that he was first published in his school magazine, Broadway Technical Magazine, after writing a short ditty on the theme of domesticity.

‘I often stop and think about the good old kitchen sink,’ he recalled.

After such a start, Keith Laybourn was destined for great things – not least as President of the Society for the Study of Labour History. The audience also learned the origins of his signature hat… but that would be a whole new story. And if you missed the lecture you can always read the book: Going to the dogs: A history of greyhound racing in Britain, 1926-2017, MUP, 2019.

Dr Janette Martin is vice-chair of the Society for the Study of Labour History.

Keith Laybourn spoke to the SSLH website about his life and career in 2021.