The History of Gambling and Casinos in the UK

by Tim | Dec 22, 2022

The History of Gambling and Casinos in the UK

Historically, the UK has had a troubled history of casinos and changing gambling laws. Even though online casinos have propelled gambling into the future, that history remains a central thread in the country’s rich historical tapestry. Join us as we look at the first legal casino in the UK, and how laws and establishments have evolved into what they are today.

The ups and downs of UK gambling legislation

The UK gambling market is one of the best regulated in the world. The regulations go far beyond age restrictions. Gambling regulatory bodies encourage social responsibility and self-exclusion options and they closely monitor activities to prevent terrorist financing and money laundering. But the British government wasn’t always receptive to gambling. 

Despite gambling being a popular form of entertainment among the UK’s proletariat, King Henry VIII banned all gambling in 1509 because he believed the games and bets distracted the military from their weapons training. But such a dislike of gambling did not run in the family. During her reign, his daughter, Queen Elizabeth, ended the ban, and gambling once again became a popular pastime in the late 1500s. In fact, the first state lottery took place in England in 1569 and offered people a chance to win £5,000 –  a monumental and life-changing amount of money in those days. 

Gambling bans and the rise of crime

Sadly, gambling would again become a bone of legal contention. Not that this ever stopped lower-class communities from betting. Instead, it encouraged underground gambling tables, which increased gang activity. During the Industrial Revolution, horse racing became incredibly popular in the UK. The Betting Act of 1853 allowed upper-class members who could afford to attend races to bet while members of the lower classes were penalised for betting. The public refused to submit to these elitist laws and bettors who couldn’t afford to attend races to gamble legally, engaged in illegal street bets. The government responded to the rebellion with the Street Betting Act of 1906 which banned street betting. These efforts were ineffective, and criminal activity increased while illegal gambling proliferated. 

By the 1850s, London was home to over 150 betting establishments, which mainly served the upper class. With strict laws no longer fully in place, these “casinos” weren’t entirely legal. The full legalisation of gambling continued to be delayed due to efforts from evangelists and reformists. The official Betting and Gaming Act would only be passed in 1960 and finally made betting and gaming for money legal for all players over the age of 18. The act took gambling away from the streets and criminal gangs and encouraged the establishment of legal betting shops, bingo halls and the first casinos.  

When did casinos open in the UK?

Casinos and gambling were a central part of entertainment in the UK even before the introduction of the Betting and Gaming Act. This explains the difference between the first casino and the first legal casino in the UK. London’s first legal gambling establishment was the Crockford’s Gentlemen’s Club – a London-based casino opened by William Crockford in 1828 and sponsored by the Duke of Wellington. 

In addition to being one of the oldest casinos in the city, the Westminster establishment is also one of its most exclusive high-end casinos. Despite having been open for nearly 200 years, it mimicked modern casinos and their amenities. The venue had a strict dress code and offered patrons fine dining options, complimentary drinks, VIP rooms as well as new blackjack and roulette tables. 

The Empire Casino is another famous casino that opened before the Gambling Act was passed. It opened in 1884 and is one of the biggest casinos in the UK. The building has two floors, 31 gambling tables and an extensive range of slot machines. The building’s old ballroom and theatre have been converted into a cinema.

The first legal casino in the UK

A group of gamblers and onlookers watching or placing bets at a roulette table.

After the Betting and Gambling Act was passed, the UK’s first licenced and legal casino opened its doors in Port Talbot, Wales. This was The Casino Club, a gambling establishment created by the entrepreneur George Alfred James. The casino was well situated and Port Talbot was a buzzing town and a hub for industries such as steel production. The venue featured a fine-dining restaurant that could seat 400 patrons, lit-up floor space for dancing and cabaret performances, and an exciting range of casino games.

The Casino Club took plenty of inspiration from Monte Carlo’s gambling culture. It became a place where the middle and high classes could come together to dance, gamble, watch performances and play casino table games. Following the success of The Casino Club, James opened other casinos in London and Southport. The Casino Club would eventually close its doors almost 50 years after it opened. 

In 1962, the Clermont Club became the first casino in London to be issued a gambling licence and it would go on to draw an impressive crowd. Princess Margaret was a regular patron. After that, many other casinos would be built in the UK, offering even more entertainment and amenities and an increasing variety of games. As the years went by, the government continued to modify and improve the Gambling Act and its regulations. These rules protected patrons and made London one of the best-regulated gambling cities in the world.  

The first legal online casino in the UK

The Gambling Act of 2005 took the industry to a whole new level when it legalised online gambling in the UK. Land-based casinos could now offer table games and online slots to UK players on their websites. After opening its first land-based casino in 1934, William Hill created an online sports betting platform in 1998. With three licences in the UK, Malta, and Gibraltar, they became some of the first legal online casinos in the UK. With the online casino boom of the early 2000s, many more online casinos became available to UK players. 

The benefits of gambling laws and regulations

Gambling laws might seem restricting, but they offer players more protection and security. Strictly regulated markets promise a lawful, fair and transparent gaming environment. Thanks to governing bodies such as the esteemed UK Gambling Commission, you can rest assured that your rights are protected. The commission enforces and modifies laws to keep players safe in our ever-changing digital age. 

Always choose a licensed online casino so that you know the games have been audited for fairness and that your personal information will be protected. When you play with The Phone Casino, you’re playing on a trusted, safe and secure platform. With licences from both the UK Gambling Commission and the Alderney Gambling Commission, our site is safe and your information and communications are encrypted.

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