Gambling In The UK: A Player’s History

Gambling is one of the UK’s favourite pastimes, and luckily (for the gamblers) it has more or less been legal for much of the last 100 years.

In 2017 it’s possible to gamble freely across the UK on mobiles, tablets and PCs, while betting shops and casinos are available in shopping centres to over-18s. Brits can play poker, bet on football, or play the lottery. Meanwhile, FOBTs (Fixed Odds Betting Terminals) offering roulette and slots – while vilified – can still be found in high street bookmakers everywhere.

Let’s take a look back at some of the key moments in British gambling history, and look ahead to what the future might hold.

Betting In The UK: Quick Facts

Legal Age of Gambling: 18 (16 for National Lottery products)
Gross Gambling Yield (GGY) of UK Gambling Industry 2015-2016: £13.6 billion
Online GGY:
£4.5 billion (2015-2016)
Popular Games:
Online casinos/slots/bingo, bingo (live), poker, sportsbetting/betting shops, lottery, horseracing
No. Of Casinos In UK: 148
No. Of Betting Shops In UK: 8,709 (2016 figures)
No. of Electronic Gaming Machines In UK: 167,839 (2015-2016)
Regulating Organisation:
UK Gambling Commission
Offshore Licensing Bodies in British Isles and Overseas: Isle of Man, Alderney, Gibraltar


Racing, Gaming Houses And Royal Commissions

For hundreds of years, Brits have enjoyed betting on horses, the dice, or cards. Famous gamblers are littered throughout the country’s history. The Earl of Sandwich is notorious, of course, for lending his name to a favourite snack he ate while stuck at the table playing high-stakes cash games.

But gambling was treated as a vice-like activity for centuries before a Royal Commission in 1932 (and again in 1949) laid the groundwork for the first proper laws in the 1960s.

1500s: Henry VIII bans the ‘lower classes’ from betting, but betting is allowed at Christmas. The law remains for another 200 years.

1600s: First gaming establishment, Whites, opens in London as a coffee shop (which was in fact a gambling den. Lotteries are banned, apart from one or two state lotteries.

1700s: Despite the general illegality of gambling, lotteries were introduced in the 1700s to raise funds for projects like the British Library. Further gaming houses open in London, such as Almacks, which is attended by politicians and high society.

1739 – An anti-gambling law is passed which imposes £20 fines on anyone playing gambling and card games in Bath.

1827 – Crockfords club is opened, and even has the Duke of Wellington as its chairman. Social clubs like these are preserved for the social elite and features dice and card games.

1845 – Britian’s first Gaming Act is passed. The State is no longer required to interfere in setting debts from gambling. It’s the first law to target massive debts racked up by rich gamblers but it also deals with betting houses set up in the streets of Britain. In fact, the law would stay on the books in one form or another until the Labour government changed the landscape in 2005.

1906 – The Street Betting Act – though ineffectual – is set up to deal with illegal betting shops.

The 1960s

Despite Royal Commissions in the 1930s, and stuttering attempts to regulate betting in the 1950s, there was no agreement on how betting should be legalised in the UK. Until 1960.

The Betting and Gaming Act 1960 effectively legalised licensed betting shops. Bookmakers were liable for tax to the government and a payment to the racing industry. This was a massive alteration from an earlier plan to outlaw ALL commercial gambling but allow private card games or betting in the home.

The “failures” of the 1960 Act were ironed out when the Gaming Act 1968 was passed. Local magistrates were now given the power to regulate and license members clubs, bingo halls, and betting shops. Fruit machines in arcades and pubs are permitted for the first time. Casinos were also allowed – but only in around 50 areas of the country.

The National Lottery

Britain has a long history of lotteries. They were made illegal (save one or two larger draws) in the late 1600s and designed to raise public funds. Small lotteries were also made legal in the 1930s.

However, it wasn’t until 1993 when the Conservative government passed legislation to allow the country’s first National Lottery. Camelot came in as the approved private operator, and the first draw was made in 1994. Over-16s are permitted to play the lottery, and tickets cost £1. A Heritage Lottery Fund was set up to help provide a portion of ticket sales to go towards local and national projects.

The National Lottery was rebranded as Lotto and scratchcards and extra bonus draws were gradually introduced.

Gambling Act 2005

In 2005, the Labour government made one of the widest changes to gambling legislation in decades. A new ‘whitelist’ was set up for online sites to advertise in the UK, and online poker and casinos sites began to grow.

At the same time, plans were drawn up to build several new ‘super casinos’ across the UK. A dozen or so smaller casinos in provincial towns were also planned. These would cater for party-goers and diners rather than gamblers. However, more lavish plans were eventually scaled back. In 2017, the UK’s third ‘supercasino’ – in Leeds – will open.

Bigger casinos like the Leeds Victoria Gate casino are allowed to have around 150 slot machines and 25 gaming tables.

In addition, a new licensing body – the Gambling Commission – is set up.

Meanwhile, poker and online poker continue to boom. In 2007, the World Series of Poker Europe is held in London at one of the ‘new breed’ of casinos – the Empire at Leicester Square. The buy-in of £10,000 attracts hundreds of the world’s best players.

In high-street bookies, meanwhile, Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) start to appear. Introduced in betting shops in 2001, they allow bets of £1-100 on electronic roulette and slots. A huge cross-party political campaign against them is launched and the Conservative government imposes limitations on their numbers. Scotland is also planning to cut their numbers. UK Gambling Commission regulators are exploring whether the machines are being used by criminal gangs to launder cash.

About The UK Gambling Commission

The Gambling Commission was set up in 2005 under the new Gambling Act as part of an overhaul of existing UK gambling laws. The Commission licenses and regulates businesses who operate gambling sites and casinos within the UK. That also includes the National Lottery.

The UKGC is able to issue – and suspend – licences for all kinds of operations, from online sites operating to UK customers to land-based casinos, bingo halls and sportsbooks.

The Gambling Commission also:

– Handles complaints about licence-holders and gambling operators
– Produces in-depth reports on gambling in the United Kingdom
– Helps formulate ways to tackle problem gambling in tandem with betting companies

Gambling (Licensing and Advertising) Act 2014

While the 2005 Gambling Act dealt with the challenges of online gambling, the 2014 amendment dealt with the growing number of offshore operators.

Brought in by the Tory government, the Gambling (Licensing and Advertising) Act 2014 gave the Gambling Commission the power to regulate overseas software developers and betting sites. Any online gambling site wanting to offer their services to British gamblers must now have a proper UK licence. Games providers must also be UKGC-approved.

In addition, a levy has been introduced on offshore operators. Anyone taking British ‘Point of Consumption’ bets must pay 15 percent on their profits. Many unregulated slots providers and betting sites swiftly exited the UK market after 2014. However, there are still many who will accept UK customers.

The Future Of UK Gambling

Britain’s love affair with gambling shows no sign of slowing down. Mobile and online betting is growing, and newer casinos continue to open. Betting shops and bingo halls numbers are falling, however, as more Brits take to their online accounts to place bets. Will Britain become a nation of online-only gamblers in five years?