The History of Bingo in the UK

by Tim | May 24, 2022

The History of Bingo in the UK

Bingo is a much-loved game, and even if it doesn’t quite enjoy the popularity it once did, it still has an important place in our culture. Even if you know how to play bingo online or offline, there’s still a thing or two you could learn as we dive into the history of this game. Join us as we take a look at the development of bingo in the UK.

Where bingo began in the 16th century

While there’s absolutely no doubt that bingo has enjoyed popularity for many years in the UK, the game actually began in Italy in the early 16th century. A lottery game known as “Lo Giuoco del Lotto D’Italia” is believed to be the foundation from which the game originated. However, as it spread to France, the UK, and Germany, the game evolved to resemble what we know today, with players matching numbers on a ticket as they are chosen at random.

Bingo in the early 20th century

Bingo may have been in the UK for many decades, but it wasn’t always known by that name. In fact, bingo had an older predecessor, which went by many other names, including tombola, housey, housey-housey, and even just lotto. This game was played across the country, even though Britain had a gambling ban in the early 20th century. It was also supposed to have played a particularly important role in helping to generate funds to support the military after the outbreak of World War I. Even after the war, people continued to enjoy playing the game, with the government seemingly turning a blind eye to the fact that gambling games were banned.

The US reintroduces bingo to the UK

Meanwhile, across the ocean in the US, bingo was undergoing some changes. A travelling salesman and entrepreneur, Edwin Lowe, came across a game called “beano” while visiting a carnival around 1929. Much like the bingo we know and love today, players marked off numbers on a card using beans after a game host called out a matching number. He became quite enthralled by the experience and decided to make his own version of the game. While in New York, he convinced his friends to help him test the game out with the new cards he had been working on, and supposedly one of his friends cried out “Bingo!” during the game, giving Lowe the name that his new game so desperately needed. The explosion in the popularity of bingo in the US was mirrored in the UK, where it was still being played illegally.

That is, until the 1960s when a new law would come along that would help boost the popularity of bingo to incredible heights.

The Betting and Gaming Act of 1960

The UK government realised it was fighting a losing battle against bingo and sought to find a way for people to be able to enjoy it and other social gambling games without exposing people to exploitation by unscrupulous gambling operations. A transcript of the discussion titled “BETTING AND GAMING BILL” from HL Deb 23 May 1960 vol 223 cc1123-98, which led up to the introduction of the bill, included this motivation:

“An out-of-date law gives rise to evils. It encourages a contempt for the law so that little social stigma attaches to those persons who break it, and this may affect the public attitude to other branches of the law. Further – and this is a point to which my right honourable friend the Home Secretary attaches particular importance, and which I, as a former Home Secretary, can endorse – it harms the relationship between the public and the police. The police have been obliged to administer a law with which the public is out of sympathy. The position of the police has been unenviable: to fail to enforce the law would bring the law further into disrepute, but to try to enforce it brings them into conflict with public opinion generally.”

In order to address this, the Betting and Gaming Act of 1960 was created. This law aimed to bring these “illegal” games into a legal space where people could enjoy the games without being exploited by their operators. It also stated that while the game operators could not take a cut of the game profits for themselves, they were left with a loophole where they could charge people a fee to play their games.

At the same time, cinema and theatre were in decline thanks to the rise of television. This left many theatre and cinema operators with a lot of space and nothing to fill it with. The solution? Bingo halls. These spaces were converted into game rooms that charged people a cover fee to play, and soon millions of UK citizens were flocking to these venues to play their favourite game.

The decline of bingo in the 1980s and 1990s

A bingo set for playing at home.

Despite the rapid increase in popularity just two decades before, bingo was in decline during the 1980s and 1990s. This was partially due to interest in the game dropping, but also the consolidation of bingo clubs into massive bingo chains. These halls were often packed with players, but as more and more people began to attend these bigger events, the smaller halls started to die out. The introduction of the smoking ban in 2007 also affected bingo clubs, as it became illegal to smoke in many enclosed spaces, including bingo halls.

This trend continued until the mid-90s when new technology would arrive that would help revive bingo for a new generation of players.

Bingo goes online

The invention of the internet and the introduction of the world wide web undoubtedly changed the way many people live their lives. It also changed the way people gambled, with online gambling sites that allowed people easy access to their favourite games from any place with an internet connection and compatible device. Of course, this includes bingo, with the first online bingo site, Bingo Zone, which launched in 1996 and offered a very basic bingo experience.

This simple site began a renaissance period for online bingo across the world, but sadly, many UK fans would have to wait. It was only much later that the UK joined in the online gambling (and online bingo) bonanza, as laws were only introduced in 2005 that legalised the practice of gambling on the internet. Since then, online and mobile bingo games have become a popular alternative to bingo halls (which are unfortunately still deteriorating) due to their convenience and variety. The “Global Online Bingo Gambling Market – Industry Trends and Forecast to 2028” report believes that “online bingo gambling market will reach an estimated value of US$128.338.5 million and grow at a CAGR [Compound Annual Growth Rate] of 11.20% in the forecast period of 2021 to 2028.”

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