- Gambling was the pastime of kings and the common man alike
- Officials tried to ban it, but had to give in – but you’ll be surprised how far it’s come
For hundreds of years gambling has been an important part of British life and leisure. From the upper to the working classes and everyone between, gambling has formed an important part of what makes us who we are today.
Pre-history and medieval
Although gambling was practiced by the Ancient Egyptians and Greeks, the earliest recorded evidence of the activity can be traced to China in 2,300 BC. Whether recorded or not it is clear that betting as a pastime arose independently in many different civilisations around the world.
In Britain, documented gambling is rather harder to find until the middle ages, although it is highly likely that some form of wagering existed, most likely with dice. In the 12th century John of Salisbury documented 10 types of popular dice games and in the 14th century Chaucer mentioned the dice game Hazard in Canterbury Tales. Around that same time playing cards were first introduced into Europe and would become one of the most popular ways for the Brits to make wagers.
During the reign of Henry VII (1491-1547) the King grew weary of his soldiers wasting their time betting so he outlawed the practice entirely. Ironically however, it was his daughter Elizabeth I who instituted a series of national lotteries, including in 1694 to fund the building of Westminster bridge. The prize for the first lottery was the sum of £5,000 (about £600,000 in today’s money) and an exemption from prosecution for petty crimes.
The national lottery
Lotteries became increasingly popular in the years that followed, primarily as a means of making money. James the VI of Scotland and I of England allowed the Virginia Company to run lotteries from 1612 onwards in order to finance the settlement of the Americas. Lotteries were then ran for various fundraising purposes and to reduce government debt.
Since the tickets for lotteries were incredibly expensive (£10 each) a way of selling them to the masses was required. Lottery brokers would buy tickets and then sell a share of them on to the public allowing for an affordable participation in the lottery. Side betting on the outcome of the lottery also grew popular. The livelihood of brokers was therefore tied to the outcome of the lottery and by 1775 there was public outcry that the lottery was being fixed.
Due to increasing public unrest and a belief that gambling was connected to criminal activity, the lottery act of 1823 outlawed the practice entirely, with the legislation coming into force in 1826. There was not another legal lottery in the UK until 1993.
Folklorists date the first horse race in the UK to Lanark in 1160, but the first records date to the reign of James IV of Scotland who is known to have attended races on the sands of Leith in 1504. The first British thoroughbred race ever held was in Chester in 1512.
It is believed that James IV & I founded Newmarket Heath and although Oliver Cromwell put a stop to horse racing, it was resumed once more following the restoration. The royals simply enjoyed their gambling too much to be without it. The link between the royal family and horse racing remains to this day, with the Queen’s horses said to have won over £7 million in prize money alone.
From the mid 17th century onwards gaming houses began to offer gambling on a wider variety of games and sports and grew steadily in popularity. These institutions were frequented by the social elites and upper classes and were in a grey area of law.
The 1739 Act of Parliament banned all dice games and in 1745 added roulette to the banned list. In gentleman’s clubs however they retained these games with the defence that this gambling was of a private nature. So while the poor would gamble illegally in public houses the rich would gamble legally in their private gaming houses and clubs, and if they ever grew tired of gambling there that they could speculate on the emerging stock market instead.
Prohibition and re-emergence
Acts of parliament in 1845 and 1853 effectively made gambling of any sort illegal for the working classes, except at the racecourse which most people could not afford to attend. With public betting illegal, bookmakers moved into private houses and employed runners to collect bets and pay them out. This practice circumvented the laws to allow the poor to become ‘private’ bettors much like their wealthier counterparts.
In the 1960s the government ended their failing policy of prohibition and the modern framework of betting shops began to take shape. What had been the province of Kings and Queens and of elites was finally returned to the people, as Britain’s love affair with gambling returned to the high street.
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