Gambling is one of the favourite pastimes of many adults in the United Kingdom. Today, most of us take it for granted as it’s so simple, seamless, and easy. We tend to forget that, for most of history, gambling was everything but these three attributes.
For ages, it was plagued by difficulty, uncertainty, and lots of pushback by the authorities. For that reason, we wanted to give you a detailed look at the history of gambling and how it worked throughout the ages in the UK.
If you’re a history buff, then this is the perfect piece for you, and if you’re not, it would be good to read it so you can appreciate how easy we have it today. Plus, you’re bound to learn something interesting on how people gambled in the times when so many weren’t even able to read or write properly, let alone create a bookie slip! Let’s begin.
16th – 17th centuries (Early Beginnings)
Gambling existed before written history, but when it comes to the UK, it began in the 16th century. Before that, gambling wasn’t organised, and people mostly placed crude bets with two possible outcomes. They didn’t use odds or anything similar.
On top of that, gambling was mostly frowned upon for ages, especially by the church. The clergy considered it immoral, so it was not surprising that it was largely forbidden for a long time. However, horse racing was still there during all that time, and in 1539, the first recorded race took place at Chester. Then, in 1541, the Parliament of England introduced The Unlawful Games Act. The law made all gambling illegal, but the authorities seldom enforced it.
During that same period, spas became popular among the rich, and one of their favourite pastimes there was gambling. Yes, it was forbidden, but those people were rich and powerful, and the laws rarely applied to them. Consequently, later on, most forms of gambling became depicted as a folly of the aristocrats and the pious frowned upon it.
However, between 1566 and 1569, Queen Elizabeth created the first national lottery in England. It was available to everyone, and its goal was to raise money to repair the harbours. However, people weren’t quite interested, and only 10% of the lots were bought. Many were even hostile towards the idea as they saw gambling as something corrupt. However, private lotteries started a bit later and continued to function over time, often for charitable causes.
The negative stance towards gambling continued in the 1600s. Even though England went through a period of restoration in the second half of the 17th century, when people were against and even hostile towards Puritanism, gambling was still seen as a folly and in time as a vice.
Even though many viewed gambling as a vice, it continued to expand, as it always has. It moved from horse racing to other sports like pub games and cricket.
18th Century (The State Lottery)
The 18th century saw a lot of changes in the gambling world. Four acts were introduced in the first half of the century, largely continuing the same practice of banning gambling. However, horse racing continued to thrive, and it took its known form in the 1700s.
It quickly became popular among the upper and middle classes in the country. Queen Anne created the Ascot Racecourse and even allowed betting to take place among the spectators.
The state lottery finally saw success in the 1700s. It started with Queen Anne’s lotteries of the early 1710s, and it finally appealed to the masses as there were no angry losers like in card games and no fixing of the outcomes. In only four years, Queen Anne’s lotteries paid over £2.7 million to winners while earning more than £9 million.
It’s safe to say that the lotteries were a considerable success, which is why they continued for many years after the Queen. They often provided the sorely needed funding for wars. For instance, one of those wars was the American Revolutionary War.
The First Bookie
As for horse racing, a man named Harry Ogden created a pitch on the Newmarket heath in 1790, right next to the oldest racehorse in Britain.
But why is this important? Before his time, most bets on horses followed a simple format — ‘Horse A to win’ or ‘Horse B to lose,’ while Harry realised that not all horses were even. He was effectively the first to create betting on favourites as he offered different rates across the field. Punters were finally able to do what we take for granted today — decide between betting on favourites with low returns, or on outsiders with high returns but low chances of winning.
Harry even put a profit margin in his book and effectively birthed the art of bookmaking.
19th Century (A Working-Class Leisure)
Even though the whole of Britain fell into a gambling mania thanks to the state lotteries, their popularity declined in the 19th century. When Napoleon was defeated, England entered an era of peace, and it made lotteries unnecessary. Eventually, they were abolished in 1826.
However, many forms of gambling continued and new ones were introduced, especially among the upper classes. Gambling huge sums and family fortunes became a common practice among the rich, especially in private clubs.
As for the middle classes, gambling was more cordial and largely stress-free. Families and friends started playing cards and other friendly gambling games that were mostly about having fun and not about winning money.
Gambling reached all classes in this century, even the working class. However, anti-gambling laws were still introduced all the time, and they were largely focused on banning gambling for the broader masses to control them, while the rich remained free to gamble in their private clubs.
Victorian Era Gambling
The early bookmakers posed several problems for the country. First, there was a lack of specific regulations and laws that made sure these new bookies were paying people correctly. Some didn’t even pay people at all, which only created violence between the punters and the bookies. The government didn’t try to protect anyone, but it also didn’t receive any taxes from these new gambling ventures.
As this was the famous Victorian era of England, gambling was still largely frowned upon, but despite that, it continued to expand. This was particularly the case with horse racing that effectively became a national sport. Betting was rampant, and there were around 150 betting houses that accepted bets from the working class of London, all by the middle of the 19th century.
Besides sports betting, card games became popular in newly-formed establishments, not unlike modern casinos, albeit much smaller and mostly oriented towards the wealthy and upper classes.
As for regulations, the Gaming Act was introduced in 1845 and the Betting Act in 1853, both trying to limit gambling:
- The 1845 Gaming Act was made to discourage betting, but it didn’t make it illegal. It attempted to make all wagers unenforceable in the eye of the law, which left punters unprotected against criminal bookies. What’s interesting here is that parts of this law remained in power until 2007.
- The 1853 Betting Act was introduced to make betting houses illegal, as the 1845 Act didn’t manage to discourage gambling in these venues. This act didn’t do much either, as most betting activities merely switched to the street.
On top of the fact that new regulations didn’t limit gambling, the rise of the working class in the Victorian era made it even more popular, as people had more money and more time to spend on gambling.
20th Century (The Street Betting Act of 1906)
By the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, betting was almost as seamless as it is today. Bookies were able to use telegraphic results, so workers all over the country were able to make many bets in a single day.
However, this was still barely illegal. Bookies had to set up a base in pubs and send people to tell the odds, collect the bets, and payout the winners later on, while others were keeping watch so that the police couldn’t surprise anyone. In 1906, the government introduced the Street Betting Act that tried to stop this gambling practice. It wasn’t successful as most bets were small, and police weren’t trying to stop the practice.
Greyhound Racing Comes to England
In the 1920s, greyhound racing took off in England. It was brought over from the US, and only a few years later, the first oval track began operating at Belle Vue, Manchester. The practice was mostly geared towards workers, as it allowed them to place bets at their doorsteps. That said, most betting took place in the evening so that they would have time to place bets after coming home from work.
It didn’t take too long for greyhound racing to become extremely popular, and after WW2, 30 million people attended a course in a single year. This is quite astonishing for the time, considering that the entire population of the country was around 45 million. If that weren’t impressive enough, the total annual turnover of greyhound racing was almost £200 million, which is close to £8 billion in today’s money.
The Rise of Football Pools And the 1960 Betting and Gaming Act
Football pools came to the scene in 1923 and were considered a game of skill, so they weren’t affected by gambling laws. What’s more, the low stakes enabled them to rise in popularity all over the country and among all classes.
On top of that, with only a few pennies invested, anyone was able to win thousands of pounds, even though the chances for that were minimal, as they still are. However, the game was still incredibly popular and was the most popular betting form until 1994, when the National Lottery surpassed it.
In 1960, the most significant change in the UK world of gambling happened. The Betting and Gaming Act was passed, and it legalised betting shops. Overnight, betting moved from an almost illegal act to a national institution. People wanted more freedoms, so the act gave it to them. In only one year, 13,000 licences were handed out to betting shops, and turnover increased by 154%.
By the time the 1980s came, betting shops were on every major street, bingo games occupied old cinemas, many private organisations ran their own lotteries, and almost every major newspaper offered a racing service or provided people with news of football pools. In short, gambling became conventional and was accepted everywhere.
Most important of all, over the last 40 years of the 20th century, most legal gambling restrictions were gradually lifted.
21st Century (Present Day)
At the start of our century, all bets in the UK had a betting levy that was on the punter’s stake or winnings. However, many bookmakers wanted to avoid it, so they started moving abroad. The British government quickly realised that this could lead to an exodus of most major bookmakers, so it decided to introduce a law that taxed bookies 15% of their gross profits instead of taxing each bet.
Finally, UK punters were able to gamble without paying taxes for each bet. However, in reality, they were still paying it as most bookies increased their odds to compensate for the tax.
In 2005, the Gambling Act was introduced, and the famous Gambling Commission was born. The role of the commission was to control all forms of gambling in the country, especially the rising online gambling sphere. The act effectively covered everything related to gambling, and it protected punters while limiting fraud.
Every bookmaker and gambling site now has to seek a licence from the UK Gambling Commission, without which they cannot operate in the UK or accept UK gamblers no matter where the company was based.
In 2014, the government introduced the Gambling Bill that closed off the small loopholes the 2005 Act didn’t notice. Most notably, it banned companies from advertising gambling without a licence.
The Future of Gambling
The future of gambling in the UK is bright. It’s regulated entirely, and every gambler is safe. The only real problem is problem gambling, as the estimates are that around 0.6% of the adult population of the UK has some form of gambling issues.
Thankfully, the law is trying to diminish these numbers. What’s more, thanks to its laws and regulations, the UK is one of the few countries in the world that has regulated gambling effectively, especially online gambling, and managed to make everyone happy.
This enables the country to make necessary changes with every new development in the gambling industry.
There you have it; the entire history of UK gambling in one piece. We hope you’ve had a fun time reading it and that you’ve learned a lot of new things that will make you view the gambling industry in a positive light.