Gambling has forever been linked to culture and is intrinsically connected to the history of the U.K. Though its form may have changed throughout the centuries, gambling has been a part of and has helped to shape society since prehistory, the Middle Ages and well into the modern day. Let’s take a walk back in time and explore the impact of gambling and gaming legislation.
Prehistory – Divination and Competition
To understand the recorded history of gambling in the U.K., it’s important to understand that gambling has always played a part in civilisation. ‘Gambling’ itself essentially has two components; gaming, in which players participate in games of chance and have an equal opportunity of winning or games of part skill and part chance; and wagering, in which participants bet on an expected outcome. Gaming and wagering have both been around a long time, and gambling is a natural extension of these two interacting components.
Pre 17th century, all ‘chance’ was directed by a God(s). There was no such thing as a random outcome, only an act of God. So, if you roll a dice and it shows a six, in ancient times, this might mean that the gods are looking upon you favourably. Humans began to create ‘chance events’ to communicate with the gods, an activity now known as divination. The tools for divination were usually dice or drawing lots, but often in a more primitive form, such as plum and apricot kernels, or Astragali, the heel of a hoofed animal. These objects were thrown, and the outcome interpreted as meaningful messages from the divine. ‘Gambling’ was mentioned in this form in Greek and Indian mythology as well as Western religions. It’s also widely believed that the dice-like objects were used for games as too many have been found in too dense a concentration as to be solely for religious purposes.
Middle Ages – Leisure and Legislation
The Middle Ages, a period of roughly 1,000 years up until the Roman Empire when Britain was still agrarian, was primarily a time when gambling was a leisure activity rather than a commercial opportunity. People from all strata of society gambled, but the main difference was what they gambled on. Upper-class citizens of the time wagered on horses, cockfighting and chess, and in the late 15th century, card games. The lower class tended to gamble on dice in games like craps.
Gambling was becoming such a hot pursuit for so many people within society that in 1190, King Richard of England eventually introduced the first legislation to dictate who could gamble and how much. Only noblemen could bet, and they could only gamble 20 shillings a day.
In 1388, Richard II introduced legislation to try to stop spending money on dice and other such games, and in 1397, laws restricted all gaming to non-work days. Henry VIII then put the nail in the coffin with his legislation, the wording of which outlawed all gaming outside of the Royal Court on every day apart from Christmas and festivals.
As you can see, the laws around the time were based not on the notion that gambling was immoral, but on the basis that it disrupted society, allowed the poor to gain money from the rich and was a distraction from work life. The situation seemed dire, but with the industrialisation and commercialisation of the U.K. that followed by the end of the 16th century, gambling was about to become a more widely-accepted leisure activity.
Commercialisation – Lotteries, Horse Racing and Gaming Houses
Lotteries, horse racing and gaming houses all became popular in the 17th century. Queen Elizabeth drew up a Royal Charter for lotteries in 1569 and 1585, the first of which had a £5,000 prize pool and immunity from arrest for a petty crime. James I allowed the Virginia Company to hold a lottery to finance their settlements, and Charles I held several to finance London’s water supply.
The first national lottery of England, authorized by Parliament, was held in 1694, and shortly after, in 1721, private lotteries were outlawed as the State sought to maximize its takings. Lotteries were used to deal state bonds, reduce debts and raise funds for projects like the Westminster Bridge and British Museum. Lotteries were later outlawed in 1823 after outrage over rigging, and there wasn’t another national lottery held until 1993.
Meanwhile, horse racing was gaining popularity throughout England as an organised event. The Chester Cup of 1512 was the first thoroughbred race in the country and was followed by an event in Doncaster the following year. At that time, races involved two horses and wagering was mostly in the form of match betting. Bookies were not on the scene yet.
In 1709, Newmarket and other dedicated courses were open and running, and in 1714, Queen Anne opened the Royal Ascot. By 1722, a total of 122 towns and cities held races, eventually leading to the Gaming Act of 1739 to inhibit the growth of the industry.
The 17th century was also the era that gambling moved towards commercial gaming houses. Though it was no longer exclusively the activity of the Royal Court, the gaming houses were run by upper-class patrons for upper-class clientele. The first was Whites in 1652, which quickly became a Tory club, giving you an idea of the kind of ‘gentlemen’ the establishments entertained.
Interestingly, some games seemed to spread quicker than others, and different games made their way to different corners of the globe. While 17th-century England as betting on horses and dice, the French had carried the card game blackjack over the ocean to America where it quickly became popular. Extra betting options were added, and games are still available with these rules if you play blackjack at 888 Casino.
Modern Day – Prohibition and Revival
Though gambling was being enjoyed as a leisure activity by the most stratum of society, the tide began to turn in the 1830s with the establishment of several powerful anti-gambling groups. The Gaming Act of 1845 then declared all gambling contracts legally nullified and unenforceable, allowing the State to remove themselves from issues around gambling debt and place the responsibility back on the betters.
The Betting Act of 1853 then made it illegal to keep a place for betting. These two acts effectively banned all forms of commercial gambling for the working class apart from horse betting, which they could barely afford. Although this increased street betting, it was legislated against with the Street Betting Act of 1906. As a result, the law did little to regulate the situation.
Thankfully, the revival came about in the 1960s, bringing back gambling with more regulation and official licensing. The Gaming Act of 1968 paved the way for casinos as we know them, and the Licensing Act of 2003 and Gaming Act of 2005 both focused on regulation rather than prohibition, leading to massive economic growth in the gambling sector. This situation was seen in Nevada where gambling was legalised in 1931, bucking the trend of prohibition in the USA, and enjoyed huge economic boom throughout the 1950s. Most recently, the Gambling Act of 2005 also ensured that online casinos would require full licensing from the U.K. Gambling Commission, meaning real money sites could operate legally and fairly. The online industry has continued to grow as a result.