Playing Bingo

A History Of Bingo In The UK Part 1: 1716-1900: Beginnings

Playing Bingo commissioned the historian Carolyn Downs to write a history of bingo in the UK for the website. This piece is based on her doctorate studies and looks at the early origins of the game and its development in the UK throughout the 20th century, up to the birth of the modern era with the implementation of the 1968 Gaming Act.

Author: Carolyn Downs

The History Of Bingo

If press headlines about bingo were the only source investigated it would appear that in 1961 commercial bingo developed from nowhere. Eric Morley of Mecca Bingo later stated, 'I invented bingo', and press headlines in the early 1960s included, 'Bingo's hold on womenfolk', 'Woman's Bingo Bonanza' and 'Wife's bingo led to divorce'.[1] Editorial comments were alarmist; the phrase 'Bingoholics' was coined and it was stated that, 'Gambling today is a response to a commercially offered opportunity'.[2] From the day commercial bingo begun media coverage encouraged a belief that women's gambling was a new and dangerous phenomenon, fuelled by greedy leisure entrepreneurs.[3] In fact, there is a long tradition of random numbers games; of which lotteries are the most common example, organised amongst the working classes and often by and for women. Before the Betting and Gaming Act (1960) allowed commercial bingo to take off the game (then known as tombola, lotto or housey-housey) was regularly played by hundreds of thousands of people.

Bingo's Origins: 16th – 19th Centuries

In Britain the earliest lottery took place in the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) and was aimed at rich people. However, gambling was popular amongst all people, with even the poorest recorded as playing 'shove groat' in ale houses. As Protestantism became ever-more Puritan in its outlook gambling was increasingly frowned upon and was severely restricted once the Puritans took power in 1649. The change to a government based on Protestant principles meant people had to keep gambling out-of-sight of the authorities. After Charles II was restored as King in 1660 public and private gambling became hugely popular and gambling was often run as business, making good profits.

Bingo is a game of pure chance, based upon random numbers, and so the history of bingo as a leisure pursuit lies in the random numbers games of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The first British occurrence of a game resembling bingo, based upon random numbers, organised by and for working women was in 1716. An order raised by the Lord Mayor of London prohibited the barrow women from dicing. They were clearly not too impressed at their gambling being interfered with and got round the law by carrying wheels marked with numbers:

Which being turned, govern the chance by the figure an hand in the centre points to when stopped.[4]
This game was recorded as still customary amongst barrow women in 1808.

From 1710 in the reign of Queen Anne the British government promoted a State Lottery to help boost the government income. There was widespread newspaper reporting of lottery winners and their backgrounds, which made people aware of the large prizes available and that these were sometimes won by poor people.

The £20,000 prize, drawn on Friday, is divided amongst a number of poor persons; a female servant in Brook Street, Holborn, had a sixteenth; a woman who keeps a fruit stall in Greys Inn Lane another.[5]

A lottery win seems to have been widely understood as a way of rising from poverty to at least comfort. The State Lottery sold tickets at ten guineas; these were clearly beyond the reach of the poorer classes in society. However, tickets were divided up into sixteenths, and shares in a ticket could be purchased for twelve shillings and sixpence. Tickets in the State Lottery were only available for a limited period and this was insufficient to satisfy the appetite of the public for this popular game of chance, giving rise to the many instances of illegal, penny lotteries, the 'little goes' and 'numbers clubs' that were hugely popular amongst the slum dwellers of London.[6]

The illegal, private lotteries, with tickets available for as little as a halfpenny, were immensely popular with poorer gamblers, especially women. These were run, virtually unchecked, throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Newgate Calendar dated 11 August 1795 reported that:

On Friday night last, in consequence of searching warrants...upwards of thirty persons were apprehended at the house of one M'Call...and in the house of J. Knight... where the most destructive practices to the poor were carrying on, that of Private Lotteries (called Little Goes)... The wives of many industrious mechanics, by attending these nefarious houses, have not only been duped out of their earnings (which ought to have been applied to the earning of bread for their families), but have even pawned their beds, wedding rings and almost every article they were possessed of, for that purpose.[7]

The parallel with a modern game of bingo is clear. A large number of women got together to gamble. In fact there were occasions where over 300 women were arrested for playing illegal lottery games.[8]

A parliamentary committee of 1808 estimated that each servant in London probably spent twenty-five shillings a year on illegal lotteries and insurances. They calculated that if all other wage-earning classes in the metropolis were spending similar amounts on such gambling then perhaps half a million pounds sterling was placed on various numbers games in London each year. Thus it can be understood that while the individual amounts staked were small, the actual volume of such gambling was significant and widespread.[9]

The earliest reliable description of a game of bingo dates back to around 1838 when the archaeologist John Stephens was travelling in Mexico. He was fascinated by the game of 'La Lotteria', played by hundreds of people at a time, and offered an account that shows how little the game has changed over the years:

Every person at the table had before him or her a paper about a foot square, covered with figures in rows, and a small pile of grains of corn, and by its side a thumping stick some eighteen inches long and one in diameter; while amid all the noise, hubbub, and confusion, the eyes of all at the tables were constantly upon the papers before them. In that hot place, they seemed like a host of necromancers and witches, some of the latter young and extremely pretty, practising the black art. [10]

Within arms length was an imp of a boy, apparently the ringleader in this nocturnal orgy, who stood on a platform, rattling a bag of balls, and whose intermittent screeching, singsong cries had throughout risen shrill and distinct above every other sound.[11]

The principle of the game, or the scheme, consists of different combinations of numbers, from one to ninety, which are written on papers, nine rows on each side, with five figures in each row.... Every player marks on his paper with a grain of corn the number called off, and he who is first able to mark five numbers in a row coins the purse. This he announces by rapping on the table with the stick, and by standing up in his place. The boy sings over again the numbers drawn, and if, on comparison, all is found right, delivers the purse. The game is then ended and another begins.[12]

While this description comes from the New World the game of lotto as described here was also played in Malta, Spain and Italy. The British Navy had a large garrison in Malta from 1814 and seems to have picked up the game from the Maltese. The game was called tombola was officially sanctioned on Royal Naval ships from c1880 (and in the British Army as House from c1900).[13] By 1914 the game was well established as a military pastime, popular with all ranks. The numbers used went from 1-90, with five figures in each row, in exactly the same fashion to that described in Mexico, with bottle tops, uniform buttons or pieces of bread used by players to mark off the numbers called out.


[1] The Times 19 Dec. 1961, 1d Daily Mirror, 3 Jul. 1961, Daily Mirror, 18 Aug. 1961. Eric Morley was quoted in The Sun, 17 Apr. 1975.

[2] The Times 19 Dec. 1961, 9a, Sunday Mail, 2 Jul. 1961 and 20 Aug. 1961.

[3] Leading Article, The Times, 19 Dec. 1961, 9a.

[4]Malcolm, James Pellar, Anecdotes of the Manners and Customs of London during the Eighteenth Century: with a review of the state of society in 1807, London, 1810, quoted in Ashton, History of Gambling, p.27

[5]The Times, 19/3/1798 quoted in John Ashton, History of Gambling, (London, 1898) p.237. One sixteenth of the 20, 000 prize in the 1798 lottery was £1250. The value of this prize was considerable. £74,342.95 in the year 2001 has the same purchase power as £1250 in the year 1798. John J McCusker, 'Comparing the Purchasing Power of Money in Great Britain from 1264 to Any Other Year Including the Present' Economic History Services, 2001,

[6] P.P. 1808/9 Sessional Papers, Select Committee on Laws Relating to Lotteries, Second Report mf 9.11-12 p.31.

[7] Newgate Calendar, 11 Aug. 1795, appendix xi accessed on

[8] P.P. 1808/9, Sessional Papers, Select Committee on Laws Relating to Lotteries, Second Report mf 9.11-12 p. 53

[9] P.P. 1808/9, Sessional Papers, Select Committee on Laws Relating to Lotteries, Second Report mf 9.11-12 p. 53

[10] John Stephens, Incidents of Travel in the Yucatan, Volume One of Two, first published 1843, (New York, 1963), p.6.

[11] Stephens, Incidents, pp. 6-7

[12] Stephens, Incidents, p.8.

[13] I can find no records in the P.R.O to substantiate this claim but it is made by the M.O.D press office, (0870 607 4455), they cannot tell me on what source they base the statement.

To cite this article: Carolyn Downs, A Brief History of Bingo, September 2008, viewed on

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