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Britain's Got Gamble

For the last thousand years – and earlier still – we’ve been a nation that loves a gamble. There hasn’t been a point in history where Britons haven’t been splashing their cash on dice, cards, horses or even – in the case of a couple of Georgian gents – cats. Gareth Bracken has the history lesson Gambling in 21st century Britain is a multi-million pound industry and if you look back through the ages it’s easy to see how we reached this point. Britons throughout history have always enjoyed a cheeky punt, even if it’s often been behind the backs of the authorities. From the knucklebone dice of the Anglo-Saxons to the bare-knuckle enforcers of London’s Victorian gambling houses, the lust for a wily wager or barmy bet has never abated. It is, quite simply, in our blood.

PRE-1100: ROLL THEM BONES

In primitive society it is believed that religious rituals took place that involved items like stones, sticks and bones being thrown to the ground and their landing positions used to predict future outcomes. This then developed into a form of gambling, with personal sacrifices, i.e. stakes, being offered to attempt to encourage positive outcomes. Eventually the rewards on offer evolved into actual material gain, for example the position of the items would decide who got the best piece of meat after a hunt.

Aside from betting on chariot races at the circus gambling was banned in Ancient Rome, apart from during the week-long festival of Saturnalia. It’s therefore logical that the Romans didn’t contribute a huge amount to the gambling fabric of Britain, although they are credited with helping to introduce dice games to the country.

Dicing was a favoured activity of the Anglo-Saxons, as was a game called Knucklebones. Also known as Fivestones, one variation involved flicking pig or sheep knuckles into the air and attempting to catch them on the back of one’s hand. Bets would be placed on the outcome with the player who caught the most declared the winner. Gambling was popular in this period of history, and the grave of a royal figure found in 2003 contained more than 50 bone gaming pieces and two deer antler dice.

1100-1700: SHUFFLE UP AND DEAL

According to John Aston in his 1899 book The History of Gambling In England, a text that continues to be reprinted and referred to today: “In early English times we get occasional glimpses of gambling with dice.” He goes on to describe an edict from 1190 that banned anyone in the army below the rank of knight from playing games for money. Knights and clergymen could play as long as they didn’t lose more than 20 shillings a day. This marked the beginning of a succession of examples, spread over hundreds of years, of the rich, royal or powerful attempting – often hypocritically – to curtail the gambling habits of the masses.

The much bloodier bull baiting was introduced to Britain around this same period and became a popular betting event. Pigeon racing and cockfighting are also mentioned in literature from the time as being bet on. Checkers and chess were played for money but their actual degree of popularity is disputed.

In the 14th century cards began to replace dice as the gambling tools of choice. They were introduced to Europe from Asia and within 100 years were popular right across the continent. The Europeans altered the decks, creating the four suits we know today. Cards were popular with royalty, with Ashton noting that “James IV of Scotland surprised his future bride, Margaret, when he paid her his first visit, playing cards”.

Margaret’s brother, Henry VIII, later felt it necessary to ban the working classes from playing cards, as well as tennis, dice and bowls. This didn’t go down well and reports from the time talk of men turning to drink and crime in response to the new laws.

A card game called Primero – believed to be a forerunner to modern-day poker – became popular in the Elizabethan era, and it was also during this period that the first British lottery was established. Queen Elizabeth herself was behind the idea and 400,000 tickets were offered to the public, with prizes including china and cash. The first London-based lottery was arranged by King James in 1612.

1700-1830: HIGH ROLLERS

In the Georgian era gambling was rife among the upper classes. Cards were again popular and some of the most notable examples of the time were faro, piquet, whist, vingt-et-un and baccarat. Many of these still exist today in one form or another – vingt-et-un for example was a forerunner to blackjack – but one that hasn’t survived the test of time is Faro. It involved cards being placed in a spring-loaded box and players betting on particular card numbers. The first card to be popped up from the box was the losing card and the second the winner. The game fell into disrepute however because of how easy it was for the bank to cheat.

With gambling so prevalent and popular it was natural that gentlemen’s clubs would become gaming establishments. One of the most notable men’s clubs in London was White's. It had a famous betting book that included records of all members’ wagers and it is therefore known that two members once bet on the number of cats that would walk down opposite sides of a street. In 1793, Crockford’s gambling club opened. It was a venue that would go on to be the most famous in Europe until its closure in 1845. The aristocracy flocked to gamble there and their money made the owner William Crockford a very rich man.

It was in the 18th century that John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, is said to have asked a servant to bring him sliced meat between two pieces of bread so that he could continue gambling without having to get up and eat, thus inventing the modern day sandwich.

Even in this period of high-stakes, high-class gambling a couple of men stand out as especially colourful figures. Charles James Fox was a Whig statesman who became the most famous gambler of the Georgina era. One story – one of many similar examples – tells of Fox playing hazard, a dice game, from Tuesday evening to Wednesday afternoon, and recovering £12,000 worth of losses before going on to lose all but £1,000 shortly afterwards.

Beau Brummell, a trendsetter, dandy and massive gambler, fell into such debt as a result of his wagering that in 1816 he was forced to flee to France. White’s records of his betting activities show that he liked to bet on the outcomes of political or social events – almost a pre-cursor to the modern day novelty bet. Two of his wagers are listed as:

Mr Brummel bets Mr Irby one hundred guineas to ten that Buonaparte returns to Paris (Decr. 12th, 1812)

Mr. Brummel bets Mr. Methuen 200 gs to 20 gs that Buonaparte returns alive to Paris, (Decr. 12th, 1812)

1830-1900: NOTORIOUS MISCHIEF

By the 1830s gambling houses were commonplace in London, but most were far from being anything like gentlemen’s clubs such as Crockford’s. One description, featured in an 1833 edition of The Times and quoted by Ashton, describes one in none too flattering a manner:

“The generality of minor gambling houses are kept by prize-fighters and other desperate characters, who bully and hector the more timid out of their money by deciding that bets have been lost, when, in fact, they have been won. To these places thieves resort and such other loose characters as are lost to every feeling of honesty and shame.”

The article goes on opine that “an assembly of the most horrible demons could not exhibit a more appalling effect,” before citing incidences of men betting and losing their clothes and being forced to return home half naked. Increasing concerns about the effect that gambling was having on the general population led to the implementation of The Gaming Act of 1845, which stated:

“All contracts or agreements, whether by parole or in writing, by way of gaming or wagering, shall be null and void; and no suit shall be brought or maintained in any court of law and equity for recovering any sum of money or valuable thing alleged to be won upon any wager, or which shall have been deposited in the hands of any person to abide the event on which any wager shall have been made.”

This essentially meant that wagers were not considered to be legal contracts, the hope being that this would discourage people from gambling. Betting houses were the government’s next target. Horse racing had become a professional sport in the early 1700s and organised betting on racing had been popular ever since, with over 400 betting shops operational during the first half of the 19th century in London alone. Again the government was worried about the impact of these readily-available gambling opportunities. Discussing betting houses in the House of Commons, the Attorney General recommended a Bill be brought in to suppress them, stating that the “mischief arising from the existence of these betting shops is perfectly notorious”.

These houses were therefore shut down, not that this was enough to stamp out betting in Britain. Instead the focus simply shifted underground – with illegal betting houses operating alongside street betting. The government was eventually to ban street betting – though not until 1906 – as the game of cat and mouse continued. This Street Betting Act made it illegal to place a bet with cash anywhere but at a race course. Therefore richer people with a bank account were able to bet with bookmakers using credit. The fun and games ended – or perhaps that should be began – on 1 May 1961 when betting shops were legalised.

The Tranby Croft scandal, also known as the Royal Baccarat Scandal, took place in September 1890 at the home of shipping magnate Arthur Wilson. A group of the guests, including the Prince of Wales and his long-standing friend Sir William Gordon-Cumming, were playing an illegal game of baccarat when Gordon-Cumming was accused of cheating. The matter ended up as a slander case in court with the Prince – the future King Edward VII – called to give evidence. Gordon-Cumming lost the case and retired from the army, shunned and disgraced.

1900-1960: EYES DOWN

The next gambling craze to hit Britain was that of bingo. A bingo-type game appears to have been picked up from Malta by the Royal Navy in the early 1800s and by 1900 was played extensively in both the Navy and Army, where it was known as ‘tombola’ and ‘house’ respectively. It continued to be popular throughout the First World War and was later brought back to Britain, despite it being illegal. In an online history of bingo written for Playingbingo.co.uk, Dr Carolyn Downs, gambling historian and lecturer at Salford University’s Centre for the Study of Gambling, notes that: “Housey-housey was also played on waste ground and in yards of industrial areas by crowds of youths, although these gatherings were usually broken up by the police, rather than prosecuted with the full force of the law.”

The legal status of bingo changed with the Betting and Lotteries Act of 1934, which permitted some forms of the game in specific circumstances, though the regulation remained somewhat restrictive, even if the law was often not strenuously enforced by local police. Bingo continued to be popular in many walks of British life and Downs writes that: “By the late 1950s it was clear that, no matter how many laws were passed, gambling had continued to expand, largely as part of commercial leisure provision. The continued commercial growth of bingo, whether in the black economy, the quasi-commercial regular charitable games, or as part of the organised entertainments at holiday camps, is indicative of the need being met by those providing the opportunity for the masses to indulge in a gamble on bingo.”

The Betting and Gaming Act of 1960 offered this opportunity. The Act was only really designed to legitimise, on a small scale, the popular middle-class games of the time such as bridge or whist. The government didn’t believe it would prove profitable for people to set up commercial bingo clubs and so failed to close a loophole that essentially allowed for the creation of such establishments. By 1963 there were 14,324,081 members of commercial bingo clubs in Britain.

Around this time there were some rather more sinister goings on in the gambling world. During the 1950s illegal gambling rackets were being run by the likes of Jack Spot, Billy Hill and Albert Dimes. The notorious Kray twins got involved as well and their illicit gambling venue, The Wellington Way Club, became a great source of income for them.

By the early 1960s then both betting shops and bingo had been legalised. Casinos, however, were still in something of a legal limbo. There are stories of plain clothes police officers visiting London casinos, some of whom were regular punters at the casinos anyway, which meant that some games had to be changed to avoid falling foul of the law. For example, the zero on roulette wheels was replaced with a painted “R” to denote a re-spin. Normal service would be resumed as soon as the police left the building.

The 1968 Gaming Act led to the regulation and taxation of casinos in 1971, a move that rather fitted in with the conclusion of the Swinging Sixties. That said, Britain remained a loud and proud nation of gamblers, and has done to the present day. We still enjoy the glamour of a casino visit and the thrill of a sports bet, while the more down to earth surroundings of the local bookmaker or dog track have become part of our national culture. The future of British gambling may well now rest online but there is no disputing the legacy of the last thousand years of pleasurable punting.

“Henry VIII felt it necessary to ban the working classes from playing cards, as well as tennis, dice and bowls. This didn’t go down well and reports from the time talk of men turning to drink and crime in response to the new laws”

“White's had a famous betting book that included records of all members’ wagers and it is therefore known that two members once bet on the number of cats that would walk down opposite sides of a street.”
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