A History of Gambling in the UK (until 1960)

A History of Gambling in the UK (until 1960)   1.1. Introduction This chapter provides an historical commentary on how gambling has developed over the years in Britain, how...

A History of Gambling in the UK (until 1960)


1.1. Introduction

This chapter provides an historical commentary on how gambling has developed over the years in Britain, how it has been inextricably linked with many of our major pastimes and how it has been a major leisure pursuit in itself. Gambling as an activity is inherent in the culture of this country and, historically, differing methods of prohibition and regulation have caused social outcomes either to the benefit or to the detriment of society as a whole. We consider the development of gambling from pre-historical times to the advent of our present gambling laws in the 1960s. The history of gambling from that time to the present day is covered in the next chapter.

The economic value of gambling has been recognised for more than a century. In 1899, Thorstein Veblen commented that:

‘The gambling propensity is another subsidiary trait of the barbarian temperament. It is a concomitant variation of character of almost universal prevalence among sporting men and among men given to warlike and emulative activities generally. This trait also has direct economic value. ‘

Veblen’s comment reveals the value of gambling as a leisure activity.

Gambling has permeated British life for hundreds of years. For example:

  • the growth of thoroughbred racing was intrinsically linked to the development of fixed odds betting (as opposed to wagering),
  • gaming houses were one of the main social locations in London and the spa towns in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and
  • lotteries funded many of the country’s main public buildings (e.g. the British Library).

While undoubtedly the financial element, and the propensity for a small minority to become addicted to its pursuit, put it in a relatively unique class of activity, for the majority, gambling has had a long-standing position in British leisure activity.

Over time, successive legislation has prohibited the growth of gambling. For most of gambling’s history, it has been seen by many as a vice-like activity and one to be outlawed. It was only with the Royal Commissions in 1932-33, 1949-51 and finally the emergence of regulation and legislation in the 1960s, that we see a more appropriate regulatory framework.

1.2. Pre-History – divination, game playing and competitions

Gambling is a basic component of the human psyche. This section attempts to highlight the key topics in the development of gambling in pre-historical times.

Gambling can be divided into two main forms:

  • gaming – games of chance where all participants have an equal chance of winning, and
  • wagering – games of skill where participants wager against each other, basing their wager on their perception of each competitor’s skill.

Both of these forms reflect the playing of games and the competition between people.

The act of gambling is a natural extension of these activities. The gambling element, the staking of money on the outcome, is purely the exhibition by the gambler of psychological reinforcement of their view of how the future event will occur.

This element of attempting to predict the future is inter-twined with one of the major origins of gambling. The gaming part of gambling developed from the use of random or chance events for religious purposes in the pre-history era.

Gerda Reith’s ‘The Age of Chance, Gambling in western culture’ (Routledge, 1999), states that it wasn’t until the seventeenth century that the concept of chance actually existed, before this, all random events were deemed to be directed by the gods:

“The random event was everywhere regarded as a sacred sign of the gods which, although meaningless in itself, could be interpreted to reveal a more profound message from the transcendent ‘beyond’. In such worldviews, various forms of divination and fortune telling were utilised as means of communicating with the realm of the sacred’ (p. 13)

The manipulation of objects to provide chance outcomes provided the manipulator with a communication device with the gods. Brenner and Brenner in their book, ‘Gambling and speculation, a theory, a history and a future of some human decisions’ (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990), provide a North American example;

‘Similar practices can be found among the primitive tribes where bones, sticks, arrows, and lots were shuffled and thrown by the tribal seer, who then disclosed the message for the future, a message revealed by the supernatural spirit who controlled the throw.’ (p.3)

Through the creation of a random event, man was able to communicate with the gods and subsequently attempt to foretell future occurrences, the practice of divination or fortune-telling.

The most common form of providing chance events in pre-history was through the throwing of dice-like objects or the drawing of lots. The forefathers of these dice and lots were customised plum and peach stones, marked pebbles and sticks. The most common of all being, astragalus, the name of the heel bone of a hooved animal (most commonly a deer), which provided an irregular sided object to give differing outcomes once thrown.

Astragali are found in copious quantities wherever archaeological digs find examples of pre-history civilisations. The fact that in many cases they have been smoothed off or marked shows that they have been used for either ritualistic or play purposes. There are more notable archaeological examples of these developed play/ritual instruments such as the ivory dice found at Thebes, Egypt, believed to be from 1573 BC and the loaded dice exhibited at the University of Rome which were found in the lava that devastated the Roman city of Pompeii (Wykes, 1964, pp.30 & 36).

By Roman times, it was acknowledged that such rituals were still widespread around the world, Cicero states in his De Divinatoire;

‘I am aware of no people, however refined and learned or however savage and ignorant, which does not think that signs are given of future events, and that certain persons can recognise those signs and foretell events before they occur’ (Cicero 1971, p.223 quoted in Reith 1999, p. 15)

Provided below are a few of these examples which show the importance with which ancient society and its religious texts gave to such activities:

  • In Greek mythology:
    • The gods cast lots to divide the universe among them. Zeus got the sky, Poseidon the seas, and Hades, the loser, the underworld, and
    • In book XXII, Zeus uses a sacred balance to decide whether Hector or Achilles would die.
  • In Indian mythology:
    • In the Mahabharata, the world itself is conceived as a game of dice which Siva plays with his Queen.
  • In the Bible, the drawing of lots is used to decide:
    • the election of King Saul of Israel (1 Sam. 10:20-1),
    • that Jonah was deemed responsible for the wrath of heaven and subsequently thrown overboard (Jon. 1:7), and
    • that out of the disciples Matthias would take over the ministry that Jesus had assigned to Judas (Acts 1:26).
  • The Qur’an specifically outlaws gambling (maysir) however; lot casting was used in

pre-Islamic Arabia in order to determine guilt. References to this can be found in the
Qur’an (Brenner & Brenner, 1990, pp. 1-6).

Game playing is another origin of gambling. While dice and lots were used in religious rituals, as described above, they were also used in popular game playing. The astragalus is so commonly found and in such numbers, that its use could not be purely just for divination purposes. F.N. David, in her book, ‘Games, gods and gambling, a history of probability and statistical ideas'(Dover, 1998), states;

‘There is no doubt now that one of the uses of the astragalus is as a child’s toy…. Whether the child aped the man or the man adopted the toys of his children it is not possible to say, but the astragalus was certainly in use for board games at the time of the First Dynasty in Egypt (c. 3500 BC).’ (p.4)

Dice games provided the most common gambling format. One of the most common legends is that Palamedes invented dice gambling games during the Trojan wars. The ten year siege of Troy, gave the Greeks time to develop amusements to ward of boredom and so boost the morale of the troops (F.N. David, 1998, p.6). Archaeological and historical evidence show that gambling on dice games was endemic as a pastime throughout the civilised world.

It is the Romans who provide us with the most evidence about the widespread growth of gambling. In early Roman society gambling was only allowed during the December feast of Saturnalia, where it was a part of practically every festivity offered (not just dicing, but lotteries and betting as well). By the last years of the Empire, there is prolific evidence of gambling throughout the calendar and at every level of social strata. F.N. David quotes Seutonius’s, ‘Lives of the Caesars’, on the ‘Life of Augustus'(63 BC – AD 14):

‘He [Augustus] did not in the least shrink from the reputation for gaming and played frankly and openly for recreation, even when he was well on in years, not only in the month of December, but on other holidays as well as on working days too.’

One of the most famous examples of gambling in Roman times is the Biblical gambling for Christ’s garments at his execution:

‘When the soldiers had crucified Jesus they took his garments…and said… “let us not tear it, but cast lots to see whose it shall be ” ‘(John 19:23-24 quoted in Reith 1999, pp.46-47)

Civilisations earlier than the Romans, such as the Greeks, the Egyptians and the Indians, have all provided evidence that gambling was an established pastime in their societies. Game play and divination occurred at the same time, using the same tools and in some respects the same methods. Wagering on competitions was also very common globally.

Dice play became very common in Roman times and the formalising of sporting events through the Circus provides a multitude of wagering opportunities. Lotteries were also widely used by the Romans as a method of raising revenue.

They even gave the term gambler a name, aleator. This literally meant ‘gamester’. It was taken as a form of insult. Even in Roman times there was an acceptance that gambling, while all pervasive in society, was still not a communally beneficial economic pastime. It was accepted, but its excesses were frowned upon. Roman law wouldn’t allow winning gamblers to claim their winnings, only losers to recover their losses (Wykes, 1964, p35).

In short, Britain’s history of gambling is not unique, its basis lies in the very history of civilisation.

1.3. The Middle Ages

In this history of gambling in Britain, we have taken the liberty of calling the ‘middle ages’, the time between pre-history and the Roman occupation of Britain and that of the mid-Seventeenth century, a period of well over a thousand years. We do this for the reason that society in Britain remained primarily agrarian during this period. We differentiate the ‘middle ages’ from the later industrialised and leisured economy of the late seventeenth century and beyond as gambling had yet to become commercialised, it was still only an informal pastime – a leisure activity.

Gambling in these middle ages was divided in part by economic class. The rich indulged in wagering on horse racing, cock fighting or other blood sports, chess and by the late fifteenth century, card games. The poor played games of dice (such as Hazard, a game similar to the modern American game of Craps) and with the eventual widespread distribution of currency, pitch and toss games using coins to play with. It is apparent in the anti-gambling legislation of this time that one of the prime concerns of the law makers was the fact that the upper classes were now losing their money and estates to the lower classes through gambling. Restrictions were introduced on what could be lost by gamblers, who could gamble and when, Alan Wykes, in his ‘Complete illustrated guide to gambling ‘(Doubleday, 1964), provides one of the earliest examples of anti-gambling law:

“In 1190 those crusading kings Richard of England and Phillip of France found it necessary to have a law drawn up settling just who could and who could not gamble, and for how much. The two kings naturally exempted themselves from the law. But apart from them, only noblemen, from princes down the scale to knights could play games for money. And they were limited in their stakes to 20 shillings in any consecutive 24 hours. If they staked more, they had to forfeit all their stake money plus another 100 shillings to the church, and as a further punishment they were stripped naked and whipped, “(p.41)

It is also apparent from the legislation, that the laws prohibiting gambling were not concerned with any moral belief that gambling in itself was wrong, just that it distracted those involved from their legitimate occupations. Most importantly, it diminished military preparedness due to the fact that soldiers were gambling rather than performing their military duties. Brenner and Brenner cite the examples of the Statute of Richard II in 1388 which:

‘forced people to buy items necessary to pursue martial arts and stop spending on “tennis, football, coits, dice, casting of stone kaileg, and other such importune games “‘(Brenner & Brenner, 1990, p.58)

Roger Munting, in ‘An economic and social history of gambling in Britain and the USA’ (Manchester, 1996) and Gerda Reith, in her previously quoted book, mention legislation passed in 1397, in the reign of Richard II. This tried to restrict all gaming to non-work days.

For historians of gambling, the most often quoted piece of gambling legislation from this time is that of Henry VIII’s prohibition where he picks upon the clergy to:

“leave diceing and chesseing un-done on pain of durance vile”(Wykes, 1964, P.41)

And demands that gambling should only be allowed at the royal court except for over the Christmas festivities. The Act states that:

‘no manner of artificer… apprentice, labourer, or any serving man, shall from the said feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, play at the tables, tennis, dice, cards.. or any unlawful game, ‘(Ashton, 1898 quoted in Reith 1999, p. 69)

In the period we have called the Middle Ages, legislation addressed gambling as a pastime that reduced the lower classes work ethic and provided the potential for the upper classes to lose their wealth.

Legislation was used to enforce the social order.

By the end of the sixteenth century, with industrialisation, urbanisation, the emergence of the merchant classes and the development of leisure, gambling became a more formalised recreational activity.

1.4. The commercialisation of gambling – the late seventeenth century to early nineteenth century

The Industrial Revolution did not start until the latter half of the eighteenth century, a hundred years after the start of this ‘commercialisation’ period. The industrial revolution provided a framework for the commercialisation of gambling.

The seventeenth century saw the start of horse racing and betting, the use of lotteries and the development of gaming establishments. These became mainstream activities with the advancement of the industrial revolution.

1.4.1. Lotteries

Lotteries have been around since the beginning of time. Roman emperors used them as a form of fundraising. Private lotteries, although there is little evidence to prove it, must also have been in existence throughout history.

In France there were national (as in State sponsored) lotteries as early as 1539, when Francois I signed the Edict of Chateauregnard which introduced a city-wide lottery for Paris, eventually extended nationally:

“as a remedy against depraved games and to prevent the bourgeois, merchants and others from blaspheming God, frittering away their time, labour, virtues and necessities on games of chance. “(French national lottery website, www.francaise-des-jeux.fr)

The lottery was to fall into obscurity until 1700 when Louis XIV resurrected the idea as a means of generating funds for specialised projects and charitable works.

State augmented lotteries came into being in Britain with Queen Elizabeth I providing Royal Charters for the establishment of a lottery in 1569 and 1585. It is recorded that the first lottery of 1569 offered £5,000 as well as immunity from arrest except for a major crime, (Brenner & Brenner 1990, p. 10). James I allowed lotteries to be run by the Virginia Company in 1612 to finance their settlements in the New World. Charles I allowed his courtiers to run lotteries in 1627, 1631 and 1689 to finance the supply of London’s water.

The first real national lottery in England (1694) was authorised by Parliament not just initiated by the Crown. In 1721 legislation was introduced to outlaw private lotteries. Parliament realised that lotteries could be used as a revenue raising device, and a monopoly had to be ensured to enable the greatest possible revenue to the State.

Lotteries were to be used in Britain until 1826 for three purposes:

  • firstly, (1694 until 1769), to encourage the public purchase of State bonds through a series of interest lotteries. This is where the lottery ticket took the form of a government bond. In the first lottery the bond cost £10, paying 10% over 16 years. The lottery element was that 1 in 40 of these tickets, chosen by lot, would provide a far higher interest rate. This proved a very popular gambling medium and from 1719 onwards, interest was only paid to winning tickets, very similar to our present day Premium Bonds,
  • reducing government debt (1769 until 1869). A large percentage of the income went into the public purse, the remaining being paid out in prizes. These lotteries were usually an annual event, and
  • specific fundraising, lotteries were used to fund the building of Westminster Bridge between 1694 and 1768 and the building of the British Museum in 1753.

The demise of the first national lottery period in Britain came about due to the exorbitant cost of lottery tickets, usually about £10, far beyond the reach of the common man. However, an alternative method was found to provide the gambling product to the masses. ‘Insurance’ was invented. This was where brokers would buy blocks of tickets from the government and sell fractions of these tickets (and a promise of a fraction of the prize) for a more accessible price. The brokers would add a mark-up and so make their profit. Brokers also indulged in side-betting on the outcome of the lottery. Both of these activities meant that for the brokers their financial future was dictated by the lottery and inevitably they began to try and influence the outcome of the result. By 1775 there was public outcry at the rigging of the lottery. This unrest continued and by 1808, a Parliamentary Committee decided that it would be better if government revenue was found through other means. A mixture of the financial burdens of the French Wars, 1793-1815, and the vested interests of those involved in the lottery, managed to keep lotteries going until the Lotteries Act 1823 outlawed them, effective from 1826. It is not until 1993 that we see the next national lottery introduced into Britain.

1.4.2. The development of horse racing and betting

Horse racing as a pursuit has been around for as long as people have been riding. Riders raced their horses in competition against one another and many tribes used races to test their warriors’ prowess and skill. As the horse became an integral part of the military, so the need for breeding quality horses became of more importance to society. All over Europe, Royal studs were created for the purpose of enhancing the quality of horses available to Kings and their cavalrymen. Racing was used to improve bloodstock.

Organised races, however, do not appear in the British history books until the sixteenth century. Carl Chinn, in his book, ‘Better betting with a decent feller'(Wheatsheaf, 1991, p.6) states that although folklore dates the first meeting of the Lanark races in Scotland to 1160, it isn’t until James IV of Scotland is mentioned attending races on the Sands at Leith in 1504 that the first real historical records of racing appear. The first British thoroughbred race ever held was the Chester Cup in 1512. Racing was recorded at Doncaster a few years later. Over the next two hundred years organised racing became more and more popular with regular meetings being held all over the country.

James I is said to have founded the centre of British horse racing, Newmarket Heath. He is reported to have been a fan of hunting and the geography of the Heath provided for excellent racing. After the suppression of race meetings as dangerous assemblies in Cromwellian times, the Restoration sees the first of many Royal patrons of the sport, Charles II. Charles II promoted racing, especially at Newmarket, through his sponsorship of the prizes for races, usually in the form of silver bells or bowls and by entering his own horses in races. Roger Munting describes:

‘early racing took the form of matches, direct head to head competition with one owner matching his horse against another. Invariably there was a wager on the outcome, and any number of side bets. Betting was in reality the very purpose of racing ‘(Munting, 1996, p.13)

Betting on horse racing at this time was known as ‘match betting’ and was un-organised and without recourse to bookmakers. Members of the public would strike bets with each other and even offer odds. Two horse races, Chinn points out (p.7) do not make for favourable conditions for a bookmaker. Bookmaking, as we know it today, first appeared in the nineteenth century.

The eighteenth century saw the establishment of horse racing as a true recreational activity in Britain. Records of racing at Newmarket and other courses begin to be kept from 1709 onwards and in 1714; Queen Anne had the first permanent course laid out at the Royal estate at Ascot. By 1739 the rapid expansion of horse racing had begun to worry the government and the Gaming Act of that year included provisions for the restriction of the growth of the activity. Such was the demand for racing and low-stakes gambling that by 1722, over 122 towns and cities were holding race meetings. The Act stated:

‘the Great Number of Horse Races for Small Plates, Prizes or Sums of Money, have contributed very much to the Encouragement of Idleness, to the Impoverishment of the meaner Sort of Subjects of the Kingdom’ (Reith, 1999, p.73)

The Act was one of the first attempts by the aristocracy to keep horse racing the preserve of the rich. Public interest in the sport had removed the cachet of it for the rich and reduced prize levels significantly. Subsequently, the Act insisted that every race would have to have an entrance fee and a prize of £50, enough to disqualify a large proportion of would-be racehorse owners from entering their horses. Chinn adds two other reasons why the legislation was introduced:

‘First, race-meetings were occasions which attracted large and potentially disorderly crowds. Second, because of their popularity, they attracted working-class people to them and so induced them to miss work and to become idle – a heinous sin for the poor, but not the rich. ‘(Chinn, 1991, p.8)

The Act was to prove completely ineffective and illegal race meetings were held regularly. Nothing could seem to stop the public’s desire for horse racing.

Two of the great racing institutions were formed in the eighteenth century, the Jockey Club and Tattersalls. The Jockey Club was formed in 1751 in an attempt to bring some order to the un-controlled racing world. By formulating rules for racing and developing procedures for how race meetings should be conducted, the Newmarket based organisation formalised the sport and facilitated a fixture list of regular race meetings around the country.

Tattersalls was formed in 1789, in an attempt to introduce order to betting. Betting, until the start of the nineteenth century, was basically wagering between two people. By the eighteenth century very few courses had well established facilities and while in the next century, whole marquees and enclosures would be given over to betting, at this time a simple post (a betting post) was used to designate where bettors should congregate on the course. Sweepstake races (where the owner of each horse put up a stake which was pooled to form the prize money) developed in the latter half of the century. These were to prove far more exciting than the traditional head-to-head races. Popular examples of these multiple horse races were to become the first three ‘Classic’ races; the St. Leger, first run in 1776, the Oaks in 1779 and the Derby in 1780. These, and other races, were to prove so popular that, with the development of a regular fixture list, a futures market was created. Horses performance could be bet upon in a race months before it occurred-known as ante-post betting (i.e. before there was betting at the betting post on the day of the race). Richard Tattersall had set up a horse dealership near Hyde Park in 1773; by 1789 he had opened up a subscription room for people to indulge in ante-post betting. Chinn describes:

“The subscribers were a select group of aristocrats who were prominent figures in horse-racing and the prices which they offered and laid among themselves in “The Room” became the market leaders in ante-post betting.’ (Chinn, 1991, p. 36)

Bookmaking as we know it today did not become popular until the first quarter of the nineteenth century. This is due to the transition from head to head matches raced in heats, to races with large field sizes such as the sweepstakes. This was spearheaded by the ‘Classic’ races, which were added to by the Two Thousand Guineas in 1809 and the One Thousand Guineas in 1814. With these large fields, the embryonic form of bookmaking which had developed in the last half of the eighteenth century and focussed on betting ‘one with the field’ (where a layer would offer odds for one horse and one set of odds for the rest), was to prove un-appealing to the bettor as when the field sizes grew the odds for the ‘rest’ fell. Bookmakers developed a system whereby they offered prices on all horses. This enabled them, if equal money was placed on each horse, to always make a profit. Obviously it was impossible to always get equal money to be placed on each horse so the job of the bookmaker was to vary the price of each horse to attract (by offering longer odds) or deter (by shortening the odds) wagers. This form of bookmaking, which both Clapson and Munting state that William Ogden was the first proponent of in 1790, quickly became the universal standard in Britain.

No discussion on betting in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century can be complete without comment being made on the craze for betting at this time. Gambling had exploded as a leisure activity. Betting was an integral part of horse racing, but bets and wagers were also placed on a wide variety of sports and pursuits, including:

  • bets on endurance – the Count de Buckeburg bet that he was able to ride a horse backwards from London to Edinburgh,
  • bets against time – an Irish gentleman bet £20,000 that he could walk to Constantinople and back in a year, the Counte de Artois bet Marie Antoinette that he could erect a palace in six weeks,
  • bets on games – such as coin tossing games like pitch and toss and chuck farthing, pub games like quoits and nine pins,
  • bets on animal competitions – such as cock fighting, dog baiting, bear-baiting,
  • bets on human competitions – such as bare knuckle boxing/pugilism, and
  • bets on sport – foot races developed as betting contests. (Cunningham states in his book , ‘Leisure in the Industrial

Revolution’ that ‘Athletics was even lower in social tone, being associated with the pub and gambling ‘(1980:p. 134)). Cricket also grew in popularity due to the gambling on it (Munting states that; ‘the early laws of cricket were drawn up in 1744, at the Star and Garter in Pall Mall, to provide consistency because of the betting involved’ (1996:p. 16). The rules of golf were also developed to serve the gambler.

Betting was an everyday event amongst all strata of society. The emergence of leisure, as organised recreation for the masses helped by industrialisation provided disposable income for the first time. For the growing middle classes, betting was one form of gambling where a distaste for money, an affectation of the middle class of the time could be easily shown off. The social conflict of the time, in terms of social hierarchy due to birth and social hierarchy due to wealth was to be fought in part through gambling. For the majority of the population though, betting on the outcomes of sports and events was an escape from the increasing ennui of industrialised life and a chance of excitement, it was to become a regular part of the social fabric still with us today.

1.4.3. Gaming Houses

Gaming, the playing of games of chance with cards and dice for money, had moved away from solely being the preserve of those at the Royal Court to become a commercial activity.

For the upper classes, Gaming Clubs were licensed by patents provided by the royal Groom Porter. These patents were only handed out after due consideration of the social standing of the operator and of his potential clientele. The gentleman’s clubs of the day, while offering food, wine, music and dancing also served the upper classes’ desire to gamble. The main Clubs of the time were:

  • Whites – opened in 1652 by an Italian, Francesco Bianco, as a coffee shop. Reith (1999) states it opened in 1698, but this is probably due to the fact that by then it had gained a reputation as a sophisticated centre for gaming. It was to become the club of choice for members of the Tory party,
  • Almacks (which later changed its name to Brook’s) – opened in 1764 as a gaming establishment. Its clientele of Charles Fox, Horace Walpole and William Pitt, soon made it the club of choice for members of the Whig party, and
  • Crockfords – opened in 1827, became the most famous of all the clubs. Set up by William Crockford (born 1775), an experienced gambler, it boasted the Duke of Wellington as chairman of the management committee and the Earl of Sefton as a founding member. Their business strategy was to offer the best food and wine in the most luxurious surroundings available anywhere in London. Membership was targeted at only those best known and highest born, 1,200 of whom willingly paid the huge sum of £25 per year for membership.

Munting provides us with insight into the background as to why there was such a growth in these gentleman’s clubs:

‘Clubs and gaming houses were patronised by the social elite, politicians and Royalty. England was an increasingly rich society, though the riches were far from being shared. A prosperous agriculture, developing industry at home, and the exploitation of trade and colonies abroad added to the wealth of a good many well-to-do. ‘(Munting, 1996, p. 19)

In the sixteenth and early seventeenth century we see a move from the countryside to London by the upper and emerging middle classes. Much of the production of wealth was still done outside of the capital but the spending of this wealth was to be done in London. This included gambling and the stock market, which originated in a City coffee house, very much like the first betting shops and gaming houses.

The early nineteenth century also saw the emergence of domestic tourism. This was primarily driven by the Continental European customs of British royalty of the time, who visited spas and the seaside for health and relaxation purposes. These included Bath, Cheltenham, Leamington, Tunbridge Wells and Brighton. All of these resorts had gaming houses.

Bath became a social centre second only to London and the second biggest gambling centre in the country. Bath’s success as a centre for gambling was recognised in the anti-gambling legislation of the time:

“The Act of 1739 even contained a clause peculiar to Bath, specifying that most of the £20 fine payable for playing or arranging illicit games, when played in Bath, should contribute to the hospital in that city. ‘(Munting, 1996, p.20)

This Act was to ban the keeping of any place where games such as hearts, faro, basset and hazard were played. The following year the government added the banning of all dice games and in 1745 added roulette to the banned list. These prohibitions had little impact on the gentleman’s clubs who used the defence that all gaming which happened on the premises was purely of a private nature and so outside the law.

As the working classes were not fortunate enough to be able to pursue their gaming activities in the luxurious and safe-from-arrest surroundings of clubs they had to make do with what were commonly known as ‘copper hells’ – the rich gambling in ‘gold’ or ‘silver hells’. These were very different establishments altogether. Their illegality meant that they had to be hidden from the prying eyes of the constabulary. Many had elaborate entry systems of multiple doors and grills. Their link with illegality meant that they were often associated with other illegal activities such as unlicensed drinking and prostitution.

By the early nineteenth century, British gambling could be characterised as:

  • stratified by class – generally the rich would play high-stake games of cards and dice in clubs, while the poor played low stake games in their hells. Betting on horses for the rich, was done at clubs or betting houses such as Tattersalls, the poor did so primarily at race meetings. Pubs were the main gambling dens of the poor, where they would gamble on pitch and toss or other such games and buy their fractions of lottery tickets. The rich would frequent coffee-houses to gamble on the newly formed stock market and buy stocks in new companies trading abroad,
  • illegal for the poor, allowable for the rich – the Act of Henry VIII banning the lower classes from gambling except for at Christmas time was still law. The Acts of 1710-1745 were targeted at the poor through the high monetary limit they put on banning gambling debts,
  • prevalent – while there is no research data available on how prevalent gambling was at this time, gambling’s association in sport and social recreation, as evidenced above, indicate that it had a large part in the social fabric, and
  • commercialised – gambling had begun to take place in specific locations with commercial entities run for the purpose of providing gambling. While these seemed to have started as either coffee shops or pubs, they soon developed into gaming houses (later casinos) and betting houses (later shops). What was to change was the ‘house’ becoming a player, whereas previously these houses provided facilities, they now developed the games and wagers so that they took a percentage of the amount waged.

1.5. The prohibition of gambling – early nineteenth century to 1951

The growth of gambling was not without its detractors. The public outcry of the late eighteenth century which followed lotteries abolition in 1823 did not end there. Carl Chinn tells how in 1828, an association was set up in Doncaster for the ‘Suppression of Gambling Houses and Gaming Tables’. Chinn notes that:

Its members objected to the ‘notorious and shameless’ manner in which these facilities were used during race-week; they abhorred the ‘profligate and debased characters which such a practice draws together from all parts of the Kingdom’; and they loathed the ‘consequent plunder of the unwary and gross violation of the laws ‘.(Chinn, 1991, p. 66)

Anti-gambling pressure began to reflect the social structure. The growing middle classes protected their own socio-economic positions from the perceived threat of gambling by complaining that gambling allowed men to ruin themselves and their families, allowed for the overt mixing of the social classes and encouraged drunkenness and debauchery. Gambling was not only immoral in that it allowed a ‘something for nothing’ attitude but brought with it immorality in the associated vices entertained in the hells or at the races.

During the 1830s a concerted effort was made by various anti-gambling groups to demand legislation. This was assisted by a number of events, such as:

  • well publicised betting frauds,
  • the publication of anti-gambling literature or fictional literature which portrayed lower class gambling as immoral (such as Nimrod’s Anatomy of Gaming),
  • resentment at the corrupt lotteries held from 1793, and
  • the mass losses of the South Sea Bubble affair.

This culminated in the House of Lords setting up a Select Committee on Gaming in 1844, and the introduction of the Gaming Act of 1845.

This Act fully reflected the struggle at the time. The middle classes demanded its abolition to protect the working classes and the upper classes, though not wanting to see gambling abolished, wanted the debasing of their noble pursuits by the working classes stopped.

The 1845 Act’s main provision (which was still in force until the Gambling Act 2005) was that it made all contracts and agreements regarding gaming and wagering, nullified and unenforceable. The reasons for this clause include:

  • removing the State’s involvement from the business of settling gambling debts. The court system had begun to get clogged with a large number of outstanding cases,
  • a moralist practicality. Those foolish enough to gamble should suffer the consequences and not expect the State to help them, and
  • promoting the ‘work ethic’ by not supporting financial gain through gambling.

The clause also removed what many thought was the grey area between the activity in the relatively immature Stock Market and traditional gambling. Unchecked speculation on the Stock Market had so far led to the disaster of the South Sea Bubble of 1720 and although there had been attempts to outlaw the types of ‘stock-jobbing’ which had caused it, many felt that many types of financial speculation were still very akin to gambling. Clapson details:

‘it was widely believed that a campaign a gainst gambling and the principle of gambling would remove the most venal speculations from the Stock Exchange, or would ‘purify’ capital. As a legal commentator argued to the Select Committee, “a great deal of the gambling in the Stock Exchange would cease if the Act which prevents persons being obliged to pay their losses occasioned by speculation were repealed”. In other words, if the state were to remove the legal rights which enabled the successful party to push for debt recovery from the loser, the incentive might be reduced. This was the substance and intention of the 1845Act.'(1992,p.21)

In effect, the 1845 Act, targeted the excesses of the upper classes by removing their legal wrangling from the courts and much of the profit incentive from gambling on the Stock Exchange. It didn’t, however, prohibit any of the gambling activity which the upper classes indulged in. But attacked the ‘hells’ of the working classes by giving the constabulary more powers to deal with them.

Taking their lead from the likes of Tattersalls and other such establishments set up for the rich, betting houses had, in the words of Charles Dickens, sprung up in every street. The proliferation of such houses, intimidated the moral guardians in the middle classes. Such blatant gambling on the high street had to be outlawed.

David Dixon in his book, ‘From prohibition to regulation, bookmaking, anti-gambling and the law'(Clarendon, 1991), states that:

‘the major legislation of this period was the Betting Act 1853, ‘the fountainhead of legislation’ on betting. In twenty sections of ‘complicated tautological jargon’ which occasioned much litigation over their intended scope, this Act made it ‘illegal to keep or use any house, office, room, or other place, for the purpose of the owner or occupier a) betting with persons resorting thereto, or b) receiving money in advance in respect of bets …’It was announced as an attempt to deal with problems associated with working-class gambling without infringing on betting facilities enjoyed by those higher on the social scale. Therefore, the prohibitions introduced did not apply to betting amongst members of a club or to credit betting by correspondence (and later, by telegraph or telephone), which did not involve ‘resorting’ to premises.’ (p.39)

This Act, along with the anti-gaming provisions in the 1845 Act, outlawed all forms of commercialised gambling for the working classes, except for betting on-course at a race meeting (relatively few in number and still an expensive recreation for the masses). This was seen as a victory for the anti-gambling lobby; however, it just displaced the activity to another location.

Street betting was to become just as, if not more popular than betting in betting houses.

Although some bookmakers moved to Scotland, (where betting house prohibition was not made law until 1875) France and Holland to conduct bookmaking by post, the majority just moved into the realms of quasi-illegality. Operating from private houses or any other premises they could co-opt, bookmakers employed an army of runners who collected the bets and paid out winnings to and from a mass of willing punters. Dixon states that by this time we see the emergence of a leisured working class. The industrial revolution meant that for the first time, large proportions of the population, especially those employed in factories, had defined work hours and shared non-work hours with non-family members. They also had excess income which they could use on leisure associated purchases. As sport was a major pastime and the advancement in printing and telecommunications meant there was a varied and largely distributed press reporting recent sporting events, it is not surprising that betting was such a popular pursuit.

By the 1890s, the National Anti-Gambling League was created. By the turn of the century they had proved themselves a very effective pressure group. While they had failed in their attempts at banning bookmaking at racecourses, their continued campaign against illegal Street betting had gained a lot of support within Parliament. So much so that they were able to get a Select Committee on Betting formed in 1901-2. Since the 1853 Act, attempts to outlaw street betting had been made in various municipal and local Acts, but no single piece of legislation had managed to achieve this aim. The Committee was to report, not unexpectedly as it was membered by a large proportion of self-confessed anti-gamblers and NAGL members, that it realised that the total suppression of bookmaking was impossible, but the removal of it from public places was necessary to protect the poor. It wanted it localised solely to the racecourse. It is worth noting that during the considerations of the Committee, two proposals were made, rejected but later introduced:

  • that bookmakers be licensed, regulated and taxed (made law in 1960), and
  • that totalisator systems be introduced at racecourse to give people an alternative to bookmakers (made law in 1928).

The subsequent 1906 Street Betting Act, outlawed all street betting, but was to prove ineffective. The numbers betting remained, according to anecdotal historical evidence; it was just the numbers of arrests for illegal bookmaking which increased.

The First World War was to prove to be a catalyst for the change from outright prohibition as seen in the 1906 Act, to the use of regulation as a method of controlling activities like gambling. The regulatory regime introduced in the war economy increased understanding of how administrative regulation could control perceived social excesses. Alcohol is a good example, with the regulation of drinking hours and the licensing of pubs proving so effective that they were still in place until the Licensing Act 2003. The legislation of social control shifted from prohibition to regulation.

It is the response of the police which was to prove the greatest help in changing the gambling laws. Since the inception of the 1906 Act, public evasion and disobedience of it had been widespread and persistent. The bookmaker was a part of the social fabric and his services were demanded by a considerable proportion of the populace. The fact that this activity was illegal was a problem for the police. In enforcing the law they opened themselves up to criticism for being class-discriminatory, whilst officers were tempted to accept bribes rather than impose the law. Both of which did not help police – public relations.

These views were expressed in a Royal Commission on Lotteries and Betting that sat between 1932-33. This Commission had primarily been set up to consider problems relating to lotteries and pool betting but as the evidence of the complete failure of the anti-betting legislation became apparent, its emphasis changed. Dixon quotes Deputy Commander Bigham, a witness to the Commission, who responded when asked how street betting could be stopped:

‘I am afraid that I cannot make a suggestion which will be practically effective for stopping betting of any kind'(Dixon, 1991, p.322)

and the comments of the social investigator, John Martin, who:

‘doubted if the 1906 Act had “ever prevented a single bet being laid in the course of its existence. “‘ (Dixon, 1991, p. 322)

The Commission would go on to recommend that it did not see legalising betting shops as the solution. The pre-1853 experience and that of the newly (1926) legalised Irish shops, mixed with a belief that licensing would involve too much government involvement, dissuaded them. The Commission came to their final recommendation by maintaining the belief that the source of most difficulties involved with betting was the direct contact between the punter and the bookmaker. This led them to recommend a system of special letter boxes so that people could post their bets. This meant that while the Commission had accepted that the present laws didn’t work and that previous laws had been flawed, gambling would be politically ignored for another sixteen years. The Second World War and creation of the welfare state would occupy much of government’s time in between.

The second Royal Commission was established in 1949 to, in part; follow on from the first one and to gauge whether the public’s opinions on gambling had changed. Its Chairman, Henry Willink said that:

‘the investigation was part of a broader consideration of the “greater humanisation of the law” (Dixon, 1991, p. 329)’

Dixon uses a quote by Hopkins that suggests that there had by now been a sea-change in the public’s views on moral issues:

‘The majestic stucco facade of Victorian morality had, for a good many years successfully withstood mounting structural strains…But the multiple shocks of the post-war world at last threw it over. And as the dust cleared, it revealed the English embarking on a series of extensive surveys of the site. ‘(Dixon, 1991, p.336)

Dixon also states that another reason was the government’s growing interest in the revenue potential of gambling.

The Commission was to differ significantly from its predecessor in that it rejected the idea that serious social and economic problems could be caused by gambling. It also argued that prohibition was not the answer but recommended that regulation and licensing were.

Much of the Commission’s report still echoed the concerns and problems which had been found before the war and reiterated the public’s and police’s wish to liberalise the situation. Its recommendations were for the legalisation of licensed betting shops with appropriate methods of control and supervision. It also recommended that those who had been operating illegal betting offices up until this point should be allowed licences.

It would not be for almost another ten years before the recommendations of this Commission were implemented in the gambling legislation of 1960.

1.6. Conclusion

1.6.1. The prevalence of gambling and why it has been prohibited

This chapter shows that gambling has always been a part of life in this country. From the very first time that people wagered on races between the tribe’s best horses back in the pre-Roman era to betting on international horse races over the internet. From the development of dice games such as Hazard played in local inns and hostelries into the casino games played for large stakes in exclusive gaming clubs. Or the national lotteries which paid for London Bridge and the British Museum to the present day National Lottery which has helped bail out the Millennium Dome. Gambling as an activity and a pastime has been a continuum. At no point have people ever lost the desire to gamble and when it was prohibited they did it illegally. Like any other basic activity, people have always indulged in it. It is not an activity specific to these isles, but one common around the world.

Of all the reasons to prohibit and outlaw gambling, compulsive gambling, an affliction affecting a very small number of people which exhibits itself as an obsessive compulsive disorder focused on gambling, has never been used.

Some of the reasons for the historic regulation of gambling can be summarised as:

  • chance as religion – in early times, religious practitioners used random events to exhibit the wishes of their gods, it was argued that gambling games which used random events debased this,
  • chance as a religion – those who gambled were putting their beliefs in random events and not in God,
  • non-productiveness – a gambler is involved in a pastime that performs no economic function, a gambler does not (when gambling) pursue the economic role destined to him by his position in life nor produces anything of benefit to society,
  • distraction – gambling provides a distraction from a gamblers’ occupational activity, normally this meant that it stopped the armed forces from fulfilling their training duties and so degraded their preparedness for war,
  • Calvinistic (Protestant) work ethic – the Calvinists believed that the chances of one’s entrance into heaven was improved only through one’s endeavours on earth. The Calvinists believed that a mixture of diligent hard work and prayer was the way to ensure entry into heaven. Many other strains of Judaeo-Christian thought also broadly agree with this principle that hard work was godly and Christian. Gambling however, allows the rapid redistribution of wealth. Gambling, it was argued, allowed people to get ‘something for nothing’,
  • ensuring the class structure – gambling’s ability to rapidly re-distribute wealth was not something the social structure of Britain, over much of its history, aspired to do. So often were the ruling classes losing much of their wealth and estates to those not born to inherit it, that legislation was passed outlawing gambling debts above certain amounts. The Act of 1664 made gambling debts of £100 unenforceable, the Act of 1710 made debts of £10 unenforceable and the Act of 1854 finally made all debts unenforceable. These laws were brought in purely to defend the wealth of the upper classes from their losses at gambling and so ensure the status quo,
  • defending the proletariat – by the twentieth century, Fabian or socialist thought had come to bear on the question of gambling. Supporters of these ideologies believed that the proletariat should not be spending their time in wasteful activities, such as gambling but in learning about class struggle and politicising themselves. This viewpoint was not directed solely against gambling, but against all leisure activities, and
  • Puritanism – since the Civil war, in British culture, has been wary of activities considered to be ‘fun’. A whole raft of legislation, prohibited many things including whistling, dancing and hunting. Having fun or indulging in leisure is only a relatively recent concept and one which pre-industrial revolution society frowned upon.

Attempts at prohibiting gambling have always been in general, top-down, rarely the will of the people rather the desire of the group wishing to control the people. Gambling has mostly been seen as a vice, an exhibition of loose morals, a device to circumvent the socio-economic system or undermine the current regime.

The staking of money, whether it is a premium or a share deal, on the outcome of an unknown event is arguably gambling, but has never been considered so by the populace. It could be said that gambling has been seen as acceptable only in certain areas (insurance and speculation) and by certain people (the rich). Once the poor were involved it was time to legislate and protect them.

The need for regulation

No one in the gambling industry will deny the need to regulate. Experiences in post-war Nevada and post-1960s Britain have shown how easy it is for organised crime to infiltrate gambling. Such infiltration meant that law abiding operators were tainted by the brush of criminality. They did not enjoy the illegal advantages of their competitors and had to contend with criminal business methods when competing for business.

The very process of most types of gambling opens itself up to infiltration by criminal activities. Criminals can launder money through the relatively easy exchange of money for tokens (chips) and back again, they can skim money (the non-declaration of either correct handle or hold so that they can derive an origin-less [clean] source of cash), or they can avoid taxes and duties through running a non-regulated business. This is all without considering the prospect of running a crooked game, the easiest gambling scam of all. For a criminal the above makes an enticing business proposition. However, much post-1960 gaming legislation has stamped out the majority of crime that existed.

When challenged by the advent of organised crime, the two main jurisdictions of the time, London and Las Vegas, came up with an answer that has served both relatively well over the last 50 years. Licensing individuals, companies and premises involved in gambling.

Licensing (in the pre-Gambling Act 2005 days) means that those involved in the operation of gambling have to prove, and remain, “fit and proper” people. They are not allowed to break the law in any way nor be associated in any way with law breakers. Only the crime free can be involved in gambling. This has enabled the British gaming industry (and in some respects the Nevadan industry too) to be virtually crime free for over thirty years.

This has meant that social policy initiatives, such as the refusal of gambling activities to the under-aged or the mentally weak can also be imposed. Regulators have the control and the power to implement such initiatives. Gambling is now the preserve of the PLC and the limited company. These companies operate like any other in the leisure industry, serving shareholders through the legal pursuit of their trade.

Operators are likely to welcome appropriate regulation for a number of reasons including:

  • customers will only feel safe in a regulated environment,
  • regulation can provide a barrier to entry,
  • regulation gives a level playing field for everyone, and
  • legal operations are needed by legally operated companies

It is vitally important that the concept of crime-free gambling is grasped. Such has been the media interest in gambling and crime over the last forty years, that it is inevitable that misconceptions have become pervasive within society. This does not help an industry that wishes to move forward.

Source: Gambling Consultant (UK)



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