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A History Of Bingo In The UK Part 3: 1945-1961: The Birth of Commercial Bingo

The third part of Carolyn Downs' history of bingo and its development in the UK.

Author: Carolyn Downs

In Britain there had been no attempt to provide an impartial account of the impact and extent of gambling, which people actually gambled or their motivations until the 1949-1951 Royal Commission on Betting, Gaming and Lotteries. Even before the 1949-51 Royal Commission reported, the Mass Observation commented in 1947 that:

Ordinary working people showed more interest in gambling than politics...gambling, drinking and smoking... take the largest slice of our national budget.[49]

The government social survey of 1950 found that 80% of respondents had gambled and that 10-13% gambled at least weekly.[50] The results of the survey Betting in Britain helped to dispel some of the common misconceptions held by Parliamentarians and the public about gambling. Nevertheless, the widespread nature of gambling was something of a surprise to the members of the Royal Commission:

Of the population of sixteen and over 60% (71% of men and 51% of women) take part in one or other of the three forms of betting [included in the survey].[51]

The survey found that gambling was not generally a social problem, but rather that it was a social activity. One of the main conclusions of the survey was that, despite being largely illegal, 'Betting in Britain today is an almost universal habit.'[52] It was in a climate of gambling as a leisure activity that was obviously socially acceptable that the Royal Commission (1949-51) investigated gambling in Britain, and recommended that changes be made to the law to allow regulation and taxation of a widespread and successful commercial enterprise. Before the Betting and Gaming Act (1960) allowed the development of commercial bingo two alterations to the law (Betting and Lotteries Act (1934) and the Small Lotteries and Gaming Act (1956), both private member's Bills) had allowed housey-housey to be played for 'the ostensible support of charities', although it was widely accepted that, 'Many evasions were perpetrated and substantial profits made'[53]

The difficulty of enforcing the law, coupled with the popularity of the game and the simplicity of organising the game all encouraged the development of regular games in many parts of the country, often accommodating several hundred players; this was in addition to the widespread seaside and funfair prize games. All that an organiser required was a sufficiently large venue, a supply of cards for players and a set of numbers 1-90 in some sort of container. The Catholic Church, which had no moral objections to gambling in moderation, used the game as a major fundraiser throughout the post-war period.

Catholic churches in urban areas were expanding rapidly as Irish men who had moved to the mainland in search of work rebuilding the bomb damaged infrastructure of Britain in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War were joined by their families in the 1950s.[54] The influx of Catholic families led to a requirement for funds to build an infrastructure of schools and social centres. Liverpool's Catholic churches were running a number of lotteries and bingo games in order to raise funds towards the building of a cathedral. The link between the Catholic Church and bingo was so strong that some older players still attribute the origin of the game to the church:

Well, I think actually the Catholics started bingo. I'm almost sure they did, because we used to call it Tombola, and when I were a kid I remember all the churches used to have Tombola, but they did it with prizes, the first ones, and that was for the church funds then...And then it sort of clicked from there; then they started doing it for money. Gradually you found the bingo halls starting up all over, once they found it clicked.[55]

One interview conducted in 1993 was with a lady who had been playing for about 35 years (since the mid-fifties):

When I first went, years ago this was, it was a little Catholic club, just round the corner to me. One of my neighbours was going and I said to her one night: 'I'll come with you', so we started going round there together. It used to cost us no more than a pound or so for the whole night out... I'll never forget the night I played there and there were two numbers missing all night that were on my books all the way through, but they were never called out. So when we finished I went up to him and said, 'Have you got 29 and 30 there?', and he said, 'Yeah'. So I said, 'Do you realise they haven't come out ALL NIGHT?' 'Oh yes they have', he said. So I said, 'Well, you prove it through my book'. There they were. He could see the only two numbers I'd needed all night, all through my book! And when he checked he'd left them in the bag...I know it's a game of chance, but when they're not even playing with your numbers, when they're still in the bag, you don't stand a chance, do you?[56]

The game also remained popular in ex-services and working men's clubs. In one Huddersfield working men's club they made a profit of £900 in 1959 from their bingo games.[57]

Although the game was attracting large numbers of players the real clue that commercial exploitation of the popular game was likely if the opportunity was offered was the adoption of bingo as an entertainment for the campers at Butlins and Warners holiday camps in the 1950s. It seems likely that tombola games were available in the holiday camps from 1949, as a Butlins press release of 1958 suggests that money had been raised through the playing of tombola for nine years:

There are many holiday camps in this country catering or many thousands of people. Among the amusements provided, especially on wet days, there is a game known as Tombola, or Housey-housey. The practice has been for many hundreds of people to take part in a single session of this harmless form of amusement.[58]

The game was clearly popular, whatever the weather, as timetables of the activities offered to campers holidaying at Butlins in the mid 1950s detail two Tombola sessions daily, each running for three hours.[59] Some observers were cynical about the motives of the holiday companies running the games:

The camps use it [Bingo]to keep the campers from wrecking their quarters or trying to seduce the redcoats during bad weather.[60]

As the playing of housey-housey could not be conducted for private profit, Butlins and Warners had to donate all of the considerable proceeds from the games to charity. In 1958 Butlins bingo players raised fifty thousand pounds.[61]

Legalising Gambling: Government Caught Out by Bingo

By the late 1950s it was clear that, no matter how many laws were passed, gambling had continued to expand, largely as part of commercial leisure provision. The continued commercial growth of bingo, whether in the black economy, the quasi-commercial regular charitable games, or as part of the organised entertainments at holiday camps, is indicative of the need being met by those providing the opportunity for the masses to indulge in a gamble on bingo. However, when the government proposed legalising gambling they were adamant that it would not be profitable to establish casinos or any other type of commercial gaming club under the new law. There were many assurances that the Betting and Gaming Act (1960) would only regularise such gaming as already took place, considered to be on middle-class games such as bridge and whist, which shows that British society in the late 1950s was one in which the ruling classes were almost entirely ignorant of the lives and lifestyles of the masses.[62]

The intention of the Betting and Gaming Act (1960) was to legitimise existing social gaming, considered by Parliament to be a small-scale activity, and to institute effective control of street betting, widely viewed as a social problem. In practice the new law was to instigate rapid growth in the amounts of leisure spending directed towards gambling activities.

Under the Betting and Gaming Bill as first published it was possible to 'play housey-housey as an activity of a club if all the money staked is returned to the players.'[63] As the Betting and Gaming Bill also allowed there to be a charge for the right to take part in the game there was an obvious loophole soon noticed by the anti-gambling movement, seaside corporations and leisure entrepreneurs. The first hint that the legislation might unleash a gambling whirlwind was not long in coming. The Churches Council on Gambling worked through the draft Bill thoroughly and immediately noticed the potential it had for allowing casinos through the back door. In January 1960 the Churches Council on Gambling pointed out that:

It is conceivable that 'clubs' could be formed by enterprising people to promote gaming and that 'the purposes of the controls of the Act would be bypassed.[64]

During the lengthy debates on this controversial legislation the government insisted, on many occasions, that it would not be profitable to run commercial gaming clubs, and the law was passed without the relevant section being amended. The new legislation came into effect on the 1st January 1961 and the first commercial bingo club opened on 3 January.[65] The floodgates were opened, and by 1963, there were 14,324,081 individual members of commercial bingo clubs.[66]

Bingo, Glamour and Moral Panic

When the first bingo clubs opened there were long waiting lists for membership and queues around the block waiting to play the game. There was a substantial moral panic about bingo leading to articles in the press and debates in parliament. During the early sixties the press created an image of 'housewives who feed the housekeeping into fruit machines and the bingo maw.'[67] The extent of the moral panic can be judged from the number of speakers in an adjournment debate called by Mr John Taylor (Labour – West Lothian) on the matter. He was concerned about commercial bingo clubs that were being developed 'on a massive scale' and their effect on:

The small number of inveterate gamblers who have been gripped by the fever to such an extent that their families and their homes suffer. Just as there are chronic alcoholics, so I am told, there are chronic bingo addicts.[68]

Thus it was that the onset of commercial gambling on a national, and very visible, scale rapidly resulted in an angst-ridden debate about whether the British had suddenly become a nation of gamblers.

The move to legal gaming, and the immediate adoption of bingo in particular by mass leisure providers, led to the rapid development of a product that was organised to deliver a product (gambling) to a mass market. Companies spent money on market research and on introducing new technologies in order to produce efficiencies. The importance of economies of scale, a management tool that had radically altered the supply of food and equipment to the mass catering run in the Mecca ballrooms, were applied to gambling: and the emergence of chains with ever greater market share transformed an activity that had previously been small scale and local in nature into a national pastime:

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.[69]

The game increased rapidly in popularity, so that Mecca were using 50,000 books of bingo cards a week (five cards per book and sold at about two shillings per book) by the middle of February 1961, a mere six weeks after the change in the law allowed commercial bingo to be established. By June 1961 Mecca were selling 500,000 books per week; the average attendance at Mecca bingo games was 150,000 players a day. The Economist estimated that the gross profit to a promoter like Mecca might be £2m per annum.[70]

The first commercial clubs were called bingo casinos, and made every attempt to glamorise the game. Although they were not allowed to advertise they were easily able to obtain free publicity in the popular press and local papers. There were regular celebrity callers (Diana Dors charged £300 per game – cash, Cassius Clay visited three Mecca clubs in Liverpool, Lulu and Cilla Black, Max Bygraves and Tommy Steele; all were recruited by the clubs), with reporters allowed easy access to the stars while they were in the bingo club.[71] Well-timed press releases ensured maximum attendance when celebrities were present. There were also regular press releases detailing wins and interviews with big winners. Apart from cash prizes a range of glamorous prizes were on offer including holidays in the South of France, Mediterranean cruises, mink stoles, diamond brooches and necklaces and surprisingly in 1960s Britain, dishwashers.[72] In order to ensure that there were big winners every week the prizes were subsidised, with large link games (completely illegal) starting within weeks of the first clubs opening in January 1961.[73]

The Kinema, Mill Road, Cambridge was one of at least seven large bingo clubs in Cambridge by 1966. The manager Mr A Pink said, 'I've never seen anything like it. We had 9,000 members in the first nine weeks'.[74] The national press reported bingo wins of £2,164 and £4,370 through the National Golden Scoop Club.[75] With such large prizes on offer it is not surprising that substantial amounts of money were being gambled on bingo. In 1966 in an account of bingo that expressed horror at the spread of gambling in Britain since 1961 it was reported that, 'The amount we spend on bingo is equal to the whole national budget of Uganda.'[76] A 1966 Gallup poll found that 24% of respondents had played bingo at least once in the previous twelve months; this was at the height of the bingo boom.[77]

While the large, national and regional leisure chains rapidly adapted their portfolio of business interests to include bingo, with Mecca leading while Rank, Essoldo and ABC followed, smaller clubs were started in towns and cities across the country. In many seaside towns travellers and showmen moved from running stalls on fairgrounds to establishing cash bingo clubs.[78] Mr Frank Cooper (senior) resigned from Mecca and started a club in Louth in 1964. This club used to be an indoor gymnasium, and had loose seating of metal and canvas; in 1964 the entrance fee was 2/6. Mr Cooper's son, Mervyn, remembered helping his father out:

Many of the players were elderly ladies. 'The double gusset rows' had the prime seats at the front of the hall and were a frightening sight to a thirteen year old calling to help his dad's business.

The earliest commercial halls continued using the rhyming calls, to allow for the slow pace of the game before blowers increased the pace of calling. The calls were also maintained because people were familiar with them from prize bingo.[79] The introduction of blowers and the impact on players is described in an account of a game in July 1966:

The caller sat at a large transparent container in which numbered ping-pong balls jostled with each other before being pushed up a tube into his hand. He called out the numbers and illuminated counter-markings on a big display board at the back. This was impressive for its time. What used to be a simple family game for dark winter nights in an age before television, and as tombola had been the only gambling game allowed on the mess-decks of Royal Navy ships, had become the slickest, best-organised, most mentally-futile money trick ever devised by men.[80]

The use of the blower and balls was publicised by the bingo industry as a means of ensuring fairness in the game. It was claimed that callers could not beat the technology. Mervyn Cooper remembers that despite the claims of increased fairness once blowers were introduced it was easy for rogue operators to cheat punters, especially in the early days of commercial bingo. Techniques used included reinserting a ball easily and unobtrusively back into the blower or calling out a number different to that drawn. These strategies were used to speed up play, or more often, to ensure an accomplice in the crowd won the prize.[81]


[49] Bill Williamson, The Temper of the Times: British Society since World War Two, (Oxford, 1990), p.78.

[50] A. M. Carr-Saunders, A Survey of Social Conditions in England and Wales, (Oxford, 1958), p. 147.

[51] W.F.F Kemsley, & D.Ginsburg, Betting in Britain 1949-1950, (London, 1951), p. 6.

[52] Kemsley, & Ginsburg, Betting in Britain, p.1.

[53] Economist, 24th June 1961 p.1347 .

[54] John Hickey, Urban Catholics: Urban Catholicism in England and Wales from 1829 to the present day, (London, 1967), p.33

[55] Dixey with Talbot, Women Leisure and Bingo, p.82.

[56] Gilda O'Neill, A Night Out With the Girls: women having a good time, (London, 1993), pp. 60 – 61.

[57] The Times Law Reports Payne and Others vs. Bradley 17 Feb. 1961 22d.

[58] P.P. 1959-1960 Standing Committee D Betting and Gaming Bill c.1149.

[59] Pwllheli camp, Monday 29th August 1955.

[60] Economist, 'A Most Contagious Game', 24 June 1961, pp. 1346-1347, p.1346

[61] P.P. 1959-1960 dcxxiii House of Commons Debate William Rees-Davis, col. 225.

[62] The Times, 18 Apr. 1956 7c leading article.

[63] P.P. 1959-1960 HC Bill [7]Betting and Gaming Bill p. 27.

[64] Gordon Moody, The Times, 14 Jan. 1960 13g.

[65] Economist, 24 June 1961, 'A Most Contagious Game' pp 1346-1347, p.1346.

[66] P.P. 1962-1963 Report on Enquiry into Gaming Under Section 2 of the Finance Act, CMND 2275 p. 6. This was the first attempt to establish the number of members of commercial bingo clubs. There is no way of checking membership claims or playing statistics made for 1961 and 1962 by the providers of commercial bingo and reported in the press, they have to be taken on trust and compared with the turnover figures collated by the Churches Council on Gambling who were the only national organisation collecting information about gambling. This figure is only part of a larger total as the Government of the day made no attempt to calculate how many games of bingo members were playing at pre-existing CIU clubs and other such institutes, nor as fund raising activities in other situations, although the Treasury were aware that this too was a growth area of gaming.

[67] The Times, 21 September 1966 8a.

[68] The Times, 21st July 1961, p.6 column g Parliamentary Reports.

[69] Economist, 24 June 1961, 'A Most Contagious Game' pp1346-1347 p.1346.

[70] Economist, 24 June 1961, A Most Contagious Game pp1346-1347 p.1347.

[71] 'Who Got Diana Dors Millions?' Channel 4 Dance and Bingo News, 15 Jul 1966, 5 Aug 1966, 31 May 1967.

[72] Dance and Bingo News 18th February 1966, 25th February 1966, July 1st 1966, August 5th 1966.

[73] Morecambe Visitor, 14th August 1963 Front Page. Mike Petty, Secret Society (archive feature), Cambridge News, 16 January 2002, (Link now dead)

[74] Mike Petty, Secret Society (archive feature), Cambridge News, 16 January 2002, (Link now dead).

Mike Petty, Secret Society (archive feature), Cambridge News, 16 January 2002, (Link now dead)

[76] Nova Magazine, August 1966, p.17

[77] Otto Newman, i, (London, 1972), p.68.

[78] Interview with M. Cooper

[79] Interview with M. Cooper

[80] Mike Petty 'Secret society' Cambridge News, Wednesday, January 16, 2002, July 1966. (Link now dead)

[81] Interview with Mervyn Cooper

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

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