A Short History of Gambling in the UK

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As of right now, the British gambling industry is worth £14.5 billion. That includes revenue generated from sports betting, casino games, bingo, lottery, and all remote gambling. That’s what I call a mega-industry, but UK gambling history has taken a long road full of twists and turns to get where it is today.

Throughout British history, gambling has been both embraced and reviled in different periods. Kings wrestled with their conscience, punters were both permitted and banned from gambling, and as with all things in Britain, the rich have always played by a different set of rules than the poor and working classes.

As a history enthusiast, I decided to take a detour into the past to trace the roots of gambling in the UK from its origins until today. Walk with me, and I’ll tell you how it all came to be.

Gambling in Ancient England

  • Henry VIII is one of the most infamous English kings, mostly because of the six wives he had. He also played a key role in the history of gambling in England. He banned it outright because he believed that it distracted soldiers from their duties. However, that gambling ban did not apply to King Henry himself. He gambled so much that he once lost the Jesus Bells of the Old St. Paul Church while playing dice.
  • Ironically, Queen Elizabeth I, Henry’s daughter, legalized the first English lottery in 1569. The purpose was to raise taxes to build the country. Isn’t it funny how, even back then, taxes could cause governments to do complete U-turns?
  • As English kings looked to expand their reach across the world, James I allowed the Virginia Company to fund expeditions abroad via lotteries. The purpose was to fund expeditions into the New World (America). So, we could say that these lotteries and the actions they funded changed the course of history, to some extent.
  • Lotteries run by Charles I and his courtiers funded the London water supply. Even back in the 17th century, gambling proceeds were funding key social projects, as the National Lottery does today.
  • Today, the British monarchy is not associated with gambling, per se, but it is very much associated with horse racing. In fact, it is well known that Queen Elizabeth II has earned millions from her stable of racehorses.

Gambling During the Victorian Era

Victorian times in England were eventful, to say the least. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, Charles Darwin floated his ideas on the origins of the species, and all kinds of new inventions and scientific breakthroughs happened.

During this period, the wealthy began to bet on horse races and the stock market. The poor and working classes were banned from playing. They pitched pennies and placed illegal wagers instead.

Victorian times in England were also Puritanical and conservative. After several lottery frauds and a general concern about the decline of morality in society, the government passed two laws which effectively banned gambling, The Gaming Act (1845) and The Betting Act (1853).

These laws did not apply to the wealthy aristocracy. They were still free to place wagers on horse races on-course. Back then, there was nothing like the betting shops we see all over the country today. These were gentlemen’s bets made at the tracks and settled there and then.

Gambling in the 21st Century and Beyond

As with most attempts at gambling prohibition, the Victorian-era prohibition gave rise to a large underground betting scene. This led to the passing of the Street Betting Act (1906), which ultimately failed to clamp down on underground gambling.

The British government eventually realized that prohibition was pointless and, in an attempt to reduce crime and raise tax revenue, they legalized betting shops in 1960. This was in the midst of a post-war economic boom when living standards were rapidly improving, and the British middle class was growing.

During the ‘60s, the Gaming Board for Great Britain was set up to regulate casinos, bingo halls, and real money gambling arcades. There were still strict regulations on advertising these facilities, only small text ads were allowed.

In 1988, the UK government toyed with the idea of a lottery to fund the UK National Health Service. The idea never became a reality, though, due to a number of legal reasons.

UK Gambling From the ‘90s Until Today

  • The next big event to happen in British gambling history was the formation of the National Lottery in 1993. The first draw took place on November 19th, 1994, and the jackpot was worth £5,874,778. It’s estimated that 70% of UK adults regularly play the lottery today. “The Lotto” raises huge amounts of money for charity, and the revenue it generates is close to £3 billion per year. Approximately £1.5 billion went to good causes in 2018/2019.
  • As the internet grew rapidly, casinos and betting shops began to feel the pinch from online competitors often based elsewhere. They petitioned the government to legalize the industry, and the Gambling Act of 2005 laid the foundations for the UK gambling industry as we know it now.
  • Until the new regulations came into full effect in 2007, betting shops had to conceal their interiors from the public eye, and casinos could not easily advertise on TV or in the print media. Some feel that the pendulum swung too far the other way, and in 2017/2018, there was a public outcry to scale back on gambling ads during football matches and other sporting events. Lots of top UK betting brands committed to cease advertising during commercial breaks.
  • Since the liberalization, online gambling has exploded, and the gambling industry has grown year-on-year. The most recent stats from the UK Gambling Commission reveal that remote gambling generated £5.6 billion in Gross Gaming Yield. This was a 2.7% increase from the previous year.

The Future of UK Gambling

Given the tax revenue that gambling generates for the government, it’s highly unlikely that any UK government will attempt to ban gambling again. However, depending on who is in power, it’s definitely possible that stricter regulations will be implemented on advertising and things like player protections. Those may prove to be a good thing, provided they don’t stifle economic growth.

What will we see in the future? Ultimately, nobody knows, but an educated guess would be technological changes such as the rise of VR casino games, a reduced number of betting shops as online gambling continues to grow, and a slow and steady continued rise in the takeover by online gambling firms.

In short, nothing too dramatic!

Technological innovation will continue, but most things are likely to stay the same, at least in the next few decades.

Summary

As you can see, gambling in the UK is pertinent to its history. In the case of the lotteries used to fund the Virginia Company, it arguably has changed the course of the nation’s history. Whatever you think of gambling, it’s deeply embedded in UK culture and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.

Why not check out one of the top UK gambling sites and have a flutter today?

Oliver Hughes

Based out of London, I began freelance writing for the UK section of GamblingSites.org in October of 2019. Having worked in the gambling industry for over 10 years, I now have the pleasure of adding this site to my list of accomplishments as a casino writer. ...

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