At 104 years old, George Atkinson reckons he’s Britain’s oldest punter and also the unluckiest. Legend has it that in seven decades of trying he’s never backed the Grand National winner. A £104 free bet courtesy of William Hill on this year’s race failed to reverse the trend as he opted for AP McCoy’s mount Shutthefrontdoor.
“Why I didn’t back Many Clouds I don’t know,” he laments. “But then, I’d met AP McCoy at Southwell earlier this year – he couldn’t believe I was 104. He’s a beautiful man and I was hoping he and I could retire gracefully with a Grand National winner!”
The grandson of a bookmaker and the son of a tic-tac, George was born in London’s Holloway on March 16, 1911 – George V had reigned for less than a year; Herbert Asquith was Prime Minister – but has lived in the Norfolk market town of Swaffham for the last 14 years.
Down at the local betting shop, where he ventures most days on his motorised scooter, they call him George the Second, such is his reputation for backing the runner-up.
“The other day I backed seven horses and had four seconds,” he reflects. “I can’t understand it – I think my granddad put a curse on me!”
But the very fact that, at 104, he still lives independently and is able to get to the bookies unaided is surely a remarkable victory in itself. He even survived double pneumonia last Christmas.
George’s grandfather, Charlie Atkinson, was a bookmaker; his father, Charles Elijah Atkinson, was a tic-tac; his Uncle Horace, who lost both legs in the Great War, was the bookmaker’s clerk.
“My grandfather used to take me to Hurst Park, Alexandra Park, Epsom, Kempton and Sandown,” he recalls. “I had my first bet when I was 12.
“I used to run bets for an old bookmaker named Jack Price. I did that for three years and never got caught, I was too fast for them.”
He remembers a day during the Great War when his mother took him and his brother shopping: “It wasn’t long before the warning went. In those days it was boy scouts on bicycles shouting ‘take cover, take cover.’ When we looked up there was a Zeppelin coming over and it dropped a stack of bombs on Seven Sisters Road.”
His jobs included a driving instructor with the Empire School of Motoring – “I taught 17 policemen to drive” – and he drove gun carriages in World War Two.
After the war he became foreman for South London Decorators. “I was the first man to use a paint roller (instead of a brush),” he says. “I had to teach the blokes how to wash them out properly. My first job was painting the Royal Albert Hall. I had 18 men there and finished four and a half weeks ahead of schedule.” Other venues he presided over included the Royal Courts of Justice and Scotland Yard.
He’s a widowed father of seven, of whom six survive; three sons and three daughters, ranging in age from 63 to 79. “My mom never told me about birds and bees,” he laughs.
His mother did, though, have good genes in terms of longevity. George’s brother Charles lived to be 104 while another is in his 90s.
Recalls George: “I went to see Charles the week before he died and said ‘Charlie, I’ll beat you!”
He still smokes, still drinks – Guinness, Budweiser, plus “a bit of brandy and port for medicinal purposes” – and still goes to the bookies most days. “That’s my life now,” he says.
At the age of 99 he had his left ear pierced and now sports a silver stud, the result of a £6 bet with a “betting shop big mouth” who dared him to do it.
“I asked him afterwards if he wanted another bet for my other ear,” he says. “He declined!”
So, in all those years of backing horses has he ever had a big win?
“Oh yes,” he replies, “in my dreams!”