The English Love of Gambling: A Brief History

Gambling has long been a part of English culture, both popular and upper class, as have been attempts to curb it:

Such attempts had been enshrined in legislation since 1397 when cards were outlawed on work days. A further statute of Henry VIII confined all gambling to Christmas when, assuming the lower orders would be celebrating anyway, its disruptive effects would be minimal.

In the modern period, numerous Acts of Parliament have been aimed at regulating and restricting gambling, illustrating the extent to which it is entrenched in English culture. The 1664 ‘Act against deceitfull disorderly and excessive Gameing’ states that ‘many Mischiefs arise from immoderate Use of Games’. It did not condemn ‘innocent and moderate’ gambling, but took aim at ‘the maintaining and encourageing of sundry idle loose and disorderly persons in their dishonest lewd and dissolute course of life’ and the ‘debauching of many of the younger sort’. At the time, as the Act shows, people were gambling using cards and dice and betting on table tennis, bowls, skittles, shovelboard, cockfighting, horse racing, and dog fights.

Further Acts aimed at restricting gambling include the Gaming Act 1710, the Gaming Act 1738, the Gaming Act 1845, the Metropolitan Streets Act 1867, and the Street Betting Act 1906.

In the 18th century, taxes were imposed on packs of cards and dice. An 18th century statute outlawed the games Ace of Hearts, Faro, Bassett, and Hazard, ‘except in Royal palaces’. By 1847, the number of betting houses in London was estimated to be between 100 and 150:

These were outlawed with the 1853 Betting Houses Act, moving gambling onto the streets. Further legislation led to a crackdown on street betting, and it was completely outlawed with the Street Betting Act of 1906.

As Mike Atherton notes: ‘Despite the prevailing attitudes, the desire among the working classes to gamble was too powerful, and the legislation designed to prevent them from doing so was simply ignored’. ‘Paradoxially’, writes Roger Munting, the Street Betting Act of 1906

may have brought children into closer contact with gambling as often they acted as runners for illegal bookmakers. Furthermore, greyhound racing in major towns from the 1920s was another medium exposing children to the world of popular betting.

Cheap gambling machines were used by children in the 1930s, despite being illegal, and games machines became even more popular in the post-war period. A 1990 national survey found that 44% of 15-19 year olds used slot machines. In South West England in 1993, 62% of children were found to regularly gamble on slot machines.

In terms of legal, adult gambling, 1961 was to bring major changes, with the legalisation of betting shops. Up to 10,000 opened within the first six months, and March 2018 data shows that there are still more than 8,000 operating today.

As the English television horse racing pundit John McCririck notes of the legalisation of betting shops:

Gambling was being dragged out of the Dark Ages, when the only legal bets were made on the racecourse, or the phone. Street betting had been rampant and everyone knew it. Bookies’ runners ferried bets between punters and bookmakers, collecting in pubs and clubs (commonly in the urinals), and on street corners.

Betting shops, then, were meeting an already existing demand, rather than creating a new market. As Stan Hey writes: ‘The prohibitionists and religious observants have lost the battle, for with the global reach of shops and betting websites, gambling in Britain is now a 24-hour activity, worth more than £30bn annually to the economy’. There is, of course, also the National Lottery, the first draw of which took place on November 19, 1994. This has been added to by the Health Lottery and the Postcode Lottery.

Despite the huge reach of gambling in modern England, it, of course, still has its detractors. Writing in The Independent, a favourite newspaper of the liberal middle classes, Terence Blacker fulminates against the National Lottery, which is, he argues, ‘a national disgrace’. ‘This institution seduces punters into a pernicious fantasy of overnight riches and contributes to our something-for-nothing culture’, rants Blacker.

You would think, from reading Blacker’s words, that gambling in England is a modern phenomenon. In reality, it has been a part of English culture for centuries, and you can bet it always will be.

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