The Unknown History of British Bingo

It’s no secret that bingo is one of the most popular games in Great Britain and is considered an ingrained part of British culture. The game has a long history in the UK dating all the way back to the Great War. (1914-1918) Bingo, then called Housey- Housey by the soldiers and ‘tombola’ by sailors in the Royal Navy was one of the few gambling games tolerated by military commanders. One army chaplain said at the time [House is] a symptom of widespread gambling from top to bottom in the army, [but is] useful in preventing the more virulent forms of gambling spreading amongst the soldiers.”  The game was even played in the trenched during lulls in the fighting. After the Armistice the game became popular among the working classes. The game was illegal and there are many newspaper accounts of raids on bingo games. The raids continued until the start of World War Two in 1939.

The spread of bingo was assisted by the game’s adoption by service members during a century with two major world wars. Most of the British public had regular contact with servicemen and the gam spread and was used to raise money for soldiers. One sailor recalled that bingo, known as tombola to sailors, was one of the highlights of payday. Bingo games in the military were documented by writers such as Evelyn Waugh in his book Men of Arms. After the war the government studied gambling in Britain. One observation after the war stated “Ordinary working people showed more interest in gambling than politics…gambling, drinking and smoking… take the largest slice of our national budget”

A survey by the Royal Commission on Betting, Gaming and Lotteries showed that gambling was not generally a social problem but a social activity. The survey also said that even though gambling was illegal it was an almost universal habit among the population. The Betting and Gaming act of 1960 clarified the laws in Britain regarding gambling and paved the way for the development of the bingo industry. When the first bingo clubs were opened there were long waiting lists for membership. Mecca and Rank were large operators and a news report of the day stated “The clubs formed by Mecca Limited and the Rank Organisation, each of which has premises, management, catering and capital to spare, lead the field…The problem of expensive establishments left idle during the day is solved; Bingo has come to succour them.”

The first commercial games were called bingo casinos complete with celebrity callers and all the glamour associated with the massive bingo halls. Many call the years between 1961 and 1968 the ‘golden age of bingo.’ The new Labour government eliminated the criminal activity associated with bingo and gambling. At the time criminal organizations used bingo halls to launder money which was easy since no real financial records were kept and it was a cash business. A number of Labour and Tory MP’s were still against gambling and tried to introduce legislation making bingo illegal again. The committee considering the gambling bill sent a warning to the Home Office that read “The fact is that linked bingo is being played and is enjoyed by millions of people… We ought to be very careful before we put a stop to something that seems to be enjoyed.”

As history has shown bingo was triumphant and the industry adopted new technology and went online in 1996. Today there are more than three million regular bingo players in the UK and over 400 internet bingo sites competing for British players. Bingo has come a long way since the games in the trenches during the Great War.