The History of Gambling and Casinos in London

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London Casinos. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Besides being one of the world’s top financial centres, London has a rich history of gambling that spans hundreds of years.

London’s fascination with gambling extends well into the Middle Ages.  In fact, some of the first mentions of wagering in the city date back to the reign of Henry VIII, who was a great fan of the dice.  At one stage, gambling became so popular at the English royal court that the sovereigns employed head croupiers to oversee their frivolous betting endeavours.  

Daniel Defoe, Man About Town

One of the first people to openly write about gambling and the ill effects it had on Londoners was the writer Daniel Defoe.  Defoe was somewhat of an 18th-century tabloid generator and loved to write pieces that basked in other people’s downfall. 

Defoe’s writings about the poor and the despairing climate that enveloped London in the 1700s is a remarkable testament to the London society of the time.  Drinking and problem gambling that resulted in an increase in crime among the lower layers of society became a major concern for the upper classes, who saw these actions as roots of possible social upheaval.

Wagering in 18th Century London

During the 18th century, gambling in London abounded and could make a poor man wealthy very quickly.  That meant that the social class distinctions became somewhat blurred.  A savvy gambler could play the dice and win a fair sum of cash, get reputable employment, and be able to leave the poverty-stricken lifestyle that was his reality.  

It was equally common for the rich, who loved to flaunt their extravagance, to bet vast sums of money in a show of vanity and then lose everything.  Rich men who suffered this misfortune often ended up in slums.  Gambling was considered immoral, and the establishments that hosted such activities were referred to as hells, while those in poor neighbourhoods were called lower hells.

19th Century Poverty and Gambling

During the 1800s, gambling became a little different in the city of London.  The city’s oldest casino opened in 1828.  Crockford, located on Curzon Street, was founded by William Crockford, with the financial backing of the Duke of Wellington.  The casino remains popular with gamblers from all over the city to this day.

This was also the time of Charles Dickens, with the famous novelist providing his own opinion about gambling in his book The Old Curiosity Shop.  In the novel, Dickens gives an account of a lower-middle-class trader named Nell.  His family lived in poverty, and the man was so worried about leaving his granddaughter without anything that he took up gambling.  In the end, the man lost everything in a single card game and even ended up owing a sizeable sum of money.  The story is one of Dickens’ most famous tales that illustrates things prevalent in London society of the time.

The Legalisation of Gambling in the 20th Century

Gambling became accepted as a part of the London landscape in the 1960s when it was legislated through the Betting and Gaming Act of 1961.  The legalisation resulted in the establishment of nearly a thousand new betting establishments.  This was the time when the fruit machine, a precursor of today’s slot machine, came about.

The very first casino to be given a license was Clermont Club in 1962.  The club had a glitzy list of patrons, including Princess Margaret, Roger Moore, and Peter Sellers.  The Clermont Club still stands today and continues to be frequented by the upper strata of society.  The 1960s also saw other famous casinos open, such as the Golden Horseshoe and the Charlie Chesters.

However, the number of gambling venues dropped sharply when the government passed the tightly regulating Gambling Act of 1963.  The act created supervisory boards to oversee gambling and resulted in a drastic decline in the number of operators.

Contemporary London Gambling Scene

Today, gambling continues to be one of London’s most thriving industries.  The city has at least 25 casinos, ranging from Vegas-like clubs to posh exclusivity.  Additionally, the city’s gambling establishments cater to both the high rollers and the middle classes.  As a result, anyone can gamble here, and, given London’s colourful gambling history, it makes this pastime even more exciting.

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Bojan Lipovic - Digital Project Manager

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