History of legal gambling in the UK

    From rolling dice to drawing straws, countries around the world have played games for a long time. People have realised the power of gambling to keep one’s attention for millennia. Even games with an element of skill can be found scattered through the history books. Back in Egypt, dated to 1537 BC, ivory dips have been found and in Circero’s Divinatoire there is mention of gambling. It is likely that gambling of one form or another has played an equally significant role in UK history, though it has developed much over time.

    It is likely that gambling was culturally acceptable along time before it was enshrined in law. It is likely that from the period of prehistory to the middle ages and beyond, gambling was an essential part of society. Let’s explore the history of legitimate gambling in a little more depth.

    The beginnings of formal gambling

    While there was always like a wager made here and there throughout history – with the Romans bringing over their favourite games – it was in the 16th century that lotteries, horse racing and game rooms emerged with official consent.

    Queen Elizabeth introduced the Royal Lottery Charter in 1559 and 1585. The first prize of £5000 and a period immune from criminal detention, which if you know a lot about history is quite a significant prize. James I also authorised a lottery for the Virginia Company to help finance its settlements. Charles I used a similar scheme to finance London’s water supply. The first prohibition on gambling came in 1721 when there was a law banning private lotteries. It was likely that this law was established to give a monopoly to the national lottery, established in law in 1694.

    As you can see, gambling enjoyed a royal stamp of approval and so was increasingly viewed as acceptable.  However, there was a definite class divide. While the poor people played dice and card-based games, the rich were more likely to bet on horses and the outcome of a game of chess.  Horse racing emerged with great popularity amongst the wealthy in the 16th Century, though it wasn’t until the 18th century that there was the birth of The Jockey Club and Tattersalls. These racing institutions formalised the love of gambling on the horses and also firmly established this gambling as the past time of the rich and influential.

    Gaming clubs and houses emerged in the late 1700s and it was likely that these were the forefathers of the modern-day casino. Those who used these clubs were those likely to make the rules. Consequently, it wasn’t until the 19th century that society became concerned by the proliferation of gambling. The exclusive gaming houses and clubs, with their wealthy patrons, had been left alone. However, society became push against gambling – probably as part of a puritanical culture that was emerging, and so the Select Committee of Gambling was established in 1844 in the House of Lords. The first act of the committee was to sponsor the Gaming Act (1845) which was followed by the Betting Act (1853) that banned gambling in all forms for the working class. The assumption was that they didn’t have enough sense to know when to gamble or not. Consequently, they were more likely to fall into destitution because of gambling.

    The UK’s recent history

    Although gaming clubs and houses were an established idea from the 1700s, it wasn’t until 1962 that the UK opened its first casino. The Clermont Club is inaugurated in London. The proliferation of casinos was not as significant as you would imagine, as by 2016 there were still only 148 casinos across the country. These physical buildings offered the opportunity to play blackjack, roulette, baccarat, craps, poker games, as well as a massive selection of slot machines. Genting UK of Genting Casinos owns 44 of these establishments, so is a dominant force in the sector.

    It was the arrival of the internet that increased the complexity of gambling in the UK. Online gambling became popular and resulted in the Gambling Act (2005). The significant consequence of this act was the establishment of the UK Gambling Commission, a regulatory body that is empowered to oversee all forms of gambling.

    UKGC is known to be one of the strictest regulators of gambling in the world. They not only have purview over brick-and-mortar casinos and online casinos, but also arcades, bingo, betting, gaming machines suppliers and manufacturers, software providers, lotteries, and raffles.

    The Gambling (Licensing and Advertising) Act (2014) also meant that international suppliers of gambling services were also required to be licensed by the UK. Previously, overseas suppliers could use a license from a home country to work in the UK. Now, not only do these companies need a license from their country of origin but also from the UKGC too. This law change led to a large number of international gambling companies shutting down in the UK, though more than 150 stayed on to service UK clients.

    The 2014 Act of Parliament was challenged in court by the Gibraltar Betting and Gaming Association (GBGA), though this was not successful.

    In short

    It is intriguing that betting has been a part of our lives for many millennia. We have enjoyed the risk and the reward of gambling on our success in games – whether hoping that luck is in our favour or relying on our skill. What is more interesting is that any regulation of these habits was limited for such a long time.

    Even when laws began to emerge it seemed to be in favour of gambling. However, in recent times, with the emergence of the internet and its immense reach, the law has become more stringent. The aim of the legislation is not to stop gambling, but to protect people from those who will undertake unfair practices.

    It is easy to conclude that gambling will be a part of UK culture for a long time yet. Centuries of habit will not be changed easily – and it seems more popular than ever.


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