A Brief History of Casinos


Gaming Houses: 1652 – 2013

Gaming, the playing of games of chance with cards and dice for money, had moved away from solely being the preserve of those at the Royal Court to become a commercial activity.

For the upper classes, Gaming Clubs were licensed by patents provided by the royal Groom Porter. These patents were only handed out after due consideration of the social standing of the operator and of his potential clientele. The gentleman’s clubs of the day, while offering food, wine, music and dancing also served the upper classes’ desire to gamble. The main Clubs of the time were:

■ Whites – opened in 1652 by an Italian, Francesco Bianco, as a coffee shop. Reith (1999) states it opened in 1698, but this is probably due to the fact that by then it had gained a reputation as a sophisticated centre for gaming. It was to become the club of choice for members of the Tory party,

■ Almacks (which later changed its name to Brook’s) – opened in 1764 as a gaming establishment. Its clientele of Charles Fox, Horace Walpole and William Pitt, soon made it the club of choice for members of the Whig party, and

■ Crockfords – opened in 1827, became the most famous of all the clubs. Set up by William Crockford (born 1775), an experienced gambler, it boasted the Duke of Wellington as chairman of the management committee and the Earl of Sefton as a founding member. Their business strategy was to offer the best food and wine in the most luxurious surroundings available anywhere in London. Membership was targeted at only those best known and highest born, 1,200 of whom willingly paid the huge sum of £25 per year for membership.

Munting provides us with insight into the background as to why there was such a growth in these gentleman’s clubs:

‘Clubs and gaming houses were patronised by the social elite, politicians and Royalty. England was an increasingly rich society, though the riches were far from being shared. A prosperous agriculture, developing industry at home, and the exploitation of trade and colonies abroad added to the wealth of a good many well-to-do. ‘(Munting, 1996, p. 19)

In the sixteenth and early seventeenth century we see a move from the countryside to London by the upper and emerging middle classes. Much of the production of wealth was still done outside of the capital but the spending of this wealth was to be done in London. This included gambling and the stock market, which originated in a City coffee house, very much like the first betting shops and gaming houses.

The early nineteenth century also saw the emergence of domestic tourism. This was primarily driven by the Continental European customs of British royalty of the time, who visited spas and the seaside for health and relaxation purposes. These included Bath, Cheltenham, Leamington, Tunbridge Wells and Brighton. All of these resorts had gaming houses.

Bath became a social centre second only to London and the second biggest gambling centre in the country. Bath’s success as a centre for gambling was recognised in the anti-gambling legislation of the time:

“The Act of 1739 even contained a clause peculiar to Bath, specifying that most of the £20 fine payable for playing or arranging illicit games, when played in Bath, should contribute to the hospital in that city. ‘(Munting, 1996, p.20)

This Act was to ban the keeping of any place where games such as hearts, faro, basset and hazard were played. The following year the government added the banning of all dice games and in 1745 added roulette to the banned list. These prohibitions had little impact on the gentleman’s clubs who used the defence that all gaming which happened on the premises was purely of a private nature and so outside the law.

As the working classes were not fortunate enough to be able to pursue their gaming activities in the luxurious and safe-from-arrest surroundings of clubs they had to make do with what were commonly known as ‘copper hells’ – the rich gambling in ‘gold’ or ‘silver hells’. These were very different establishments altogether. Their illegality meant that they had to be hidden from the prying eyes of the constabulary. Many had elaborate entry systems of multiple doors and grills. Their link with illegality meant that they were often associated with other illegal activities such as unlicensed drinking and prostitution.

By the early nineteenth century, British gambling could be characterised as:

■ stratified by class – generally the rich would play high-stake games of cards and dice in clubs, while the poor played low stake games in their hells. Betting on horses for the rich, was done at clubs or betting houses such as Tattersalls, the poor did so primarily at race meetings. Pubs were the main gambling dens of the poor, where they would gamble on pitch and toss or other such games and buy their fractions of lottery tickets. The rich would frequent coffee-houses to gamble on the newly formed stock market and buy stocks in new companies trading abroad,

■ illegal for the poor, allowable for the rich – the Act of Henry VIII banning the lower classes from gambling except for at Christmas time was still law. The Acts of 1710-1745 were targeted at the poor through the high monetary limit they put on banning gambling debts,

■ prevalent – while there is no research data available on how prevalent gambling was at this time, gambling’s association in sport and social recreation, as evidenced above, indicate that it had a large part in the social fabric, and

■ commercialised – gambling had begun to take place in specific locations with commercial entities run for the purpose of providing gambling. While these seemed to have started as either coffee shops or pubs, they soon developed into gaming houses (later casinos) and betting houses (later shops). What was to change was the ‘house’ becoming a player, whereas previously these houses provided facilities, they now developed the games and wagers so that they took a percentage of the amount waged.

■ The most recent casino was opened by Aspers in Milton Keynes, September 2013.