Playing Bingo

A History Of Bingo In The UK Part 4: 1961-1968: The Golden Age Of Bingo

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

Author: Dr Carolyn Downs

The years between 1961 and 1968 have been called the golden years of bingo. The winds of change begun to blow with the election of a Labour government that wanted to take control of the problems commercial gaming had undoubtedly brought to Britain. As the Conservative government had not believed commercial gaming clubs could be started up under the Betting and Gaming Act (1960), they had not put in place any controls. As a result there was a lot of crime associated with gambling, and it was clear that action had to be taken. Even bingo halls were not immune to criminal activity: fruit machines in bingo clubs were 'lumped' so they would not pay out a jackpot, machines were forced onto clubs by organised crime gangs who demanded exorbitant 'rental' payments, and clubs were often bought by criminal gangs and used as a route for the laundering of money. This was easy as bingo books had no serial numbers and so there was no check on how many were sold, cash could be paid into a bank as bingo takings with no way of checking attendances, while as bingo winnings were not taxed it was also possible to claim money being banked had been won at bingo, when in fact it was the proceeds of crime. When the Labour government announced they were bringing forward new legislation to control commercial gaming they wanted to end commercial bingo.

The Labour party had roots in the Methodist church (which was anti-gambling on religious grounds) and the Fabien Society (which was anti-gambling on the grounds that it was not rational). Accordingly, many Labour MPs were in favour of very restrictive controls being imposed on gaming of any type, and that included bingo. James Callaghan was appointed Home Secretary as the new Gaming Bill progressed through the House of Commons and he was particularly opposed to bingo, and wanted to stop linked bingo entirely. Luckily the game had Eric Morley, who developed a lobbying and publicity strategy to save commercial bingo. Bingo casinos were rapidly re-branded as Social and Bingo Clubs, providing a service to the elderly and lonely, all elements of glamour were removed from press releases and there was a sudden emphasis on the neighbourly nature of the game. The government gave in and allowed commercial bingo to continue but won a victory of sorts over the industry.

The committee scrutinizing the Gaming Bill included a number of Conservative members and the Labour MP Mr Weitzman who were not happy with proposals that would end commercial bingo and who tried to save the large prizes common in linked bingo in the early 1960s. The government planned to limit prizes in linked games to £1000 per week and thought the restricting of such games would take the 'go' out of bingo. The committee considering the Gaming Bill issued a warning to the Home Office:

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.[82]

There was certainly resentment amongst many Labour voters at the extent of the proposed limitations to the linked game of bingo. Mr Weitzman told the committee that he had visited a bingo club and:

I talked to a large number of people at the [bingo] club and they all resented the fact that there was the possibility that the Government might eliminate the larger game in which they were involved and which they enjoyed.[83]

Other committee members had also taken the opportunity to canvas opinion in bingo clubs in their constituencies and had found that opinion was against Government moves to limit the potential prize pool available. However, the traditional Socialist suspicion of commercialised leisure, especially an activity that appeared to offer something for nothing prevailed:

It has even been said by promoters of bingo that it is a social service. At the same time, there is a whipping up of opinion in the bingo halls generally in order to secure more and more pressure towards the legalising of bigger and bigger prizes. Linked bingo is spreading, and if this amendment is carried [to allow a maximum prize of £3000 per game], we may well end up with linked bingo on the scale of football pools... But I will say this. Many people now enjoy a form of linked bingo. This point has been made and it is valid...we do not want to appear as killjoys. If the Hon. Member is willing to withdraw the amendment I am willing to...give an undertaking that we should permit linked bingo up to £1000 total prize money in one week.[84]

During the debate on the report stage of the Gaming Bill, Elystan Morgan speaking for the Home Office pointed out to members wanting a £3000 prize limit for link bingo games that many concessions had been made to the bingo industry and players.[85] Other concessions included a reduction the waiting period for bingo club membership to 24 hours, postal as well as in-person applications for membership plus provision for 'group' membership allowing members of Mecca in Hammersmith to play at Mecca in Margate for example.[86] The Government also announced that they would:

Dispense with the absolute prohibition which was previously imposed on the practice by which proprietors enhanced the value of prizes from their own resources.[87]

£250 per week was to be allowed for the purpose of subsidising prizes. The Home Office insisted that a ban on the advertising of bingo was necessary, even though the activity might be legal, 'In order to control the total level of demand and the total level of activity.'[88] Although the Government were defeated in committee on the grounds of hypocrisy – if something was legal then it was logical that it could be advertised, no ground was given by the Home Office.[89] The Home Secretary was adamant that the clause banning advertising, even time and place advertising, be reinserted. James Callaghan said that:

I take a special attitude to this. I believe that it is wrong for the House of Commons to encourage gaming. We may have to regulate it and try to straighten it out, but we should not encourage it by permitting advertising.'[90]

That the Home Office under James Callaghan was fundamentally opposed to commercial bingo is clear:

If the advertising ban is continued and if the linked bingo concession is limited to £1000, we can contain bingo.[91]

Had the Home Office prevailed and been able to push their first draft of the Gaming Bill through Parliament it seems likely that there would have been little or no profit left in commercial bingo. Commercial bingo survived the onslaught of the 1968 Gaming Act because the bingo industry organised a spirited and unified defence of its interests and succeeded in convincing enough Members of Parliament that it was an activity of a different order to casino gaming.

Conclusion

Overall, the Gaming Bill of 1968 imposed a powerful regime of controls upon a previously virtually unregulated industry. The Times felt that the provisions of the Bill had been improved during committee but they had:

Gravest doubts whether it has yet been strengthened sufficiently to achieve the Government's objectives of "the most rigorous control" of commercial gaming in Britain.[92]

The new restrictions and a set of other regulations that were enforced by the Gaming Board of Great Britain led to the closure of a large number of independent halls and allowed Mecca and the other chains to dominate the market still further. The bingo clubs fared far better than the casinos that had rejected Eric Morley's offer of help with their campaign against the new laws: before the change in the law there had been more than 1000 casinos in the UK, after 1968 there were just 121 casinos remaining.

The history of bingo, as it developed from popular numbers-games, through the armed services, fairgrounds and fund-raising, is an example of the durability of a pastime that has been much derided. The way in which bingo has become an integral part of British culture is seen through the adoption of its vocabulary into national language and metaphor. It is also clear that while playing bingo has very important social elements there appears to be a tendency amongst players, owners and some academics to overstate this element of the game. This in part may arise from an element of discomfort felt by players who feel that a gambling game cannot be properly constituted as a hobby. However, the emphasis on the importance of the social aspect of the game became far more prevalent during the passage of the Gaming Act (1968) when operators were desperate to limit the restrictions that the Government planned to apply to their lucrative business operation.

An element of continuity in popular, commercial culture is provided by the centrality of women to the pursuit of commercial bingo. It can be seen that women from all classes have been widely involved in gambling since at least the early eighteenth century. They enjoy the thrill of placing a bet, of waiting for their number to come up. Additionally, many saw the commercial potential of gambling and throughout history have used it as a means of earning an income. Gambling activities amongst women during many periods in history can be used as a tool to illustrate the degree of control that women were able to have over their own lives. For feminists to insist that bingo has been imposed upon powerless women by rapacious commercial interests flies in the face of the evidence. In the light of the evidence it is clear that bingo developed from a long tradition of numbers games played and run by women; leisure entrepreneurs in the 1960s met an existing demand; they did not create that demand.

Despite the success of the 1968 legislation in regulating gambling so that it was treated more as a leisure pursuit and less as deviant behaviour, the moral question remains. Does the legalisation of an activity considered immoral by sections of society grant that activity moral legitimacy? JM Keynes took the view that gambling performed a useful social function and that it should be:

Cheap, fair and frivolous, and on a small scale if its economic results are to be reduced to a minimum.[93]

Despite lingering moral uncertainties about the status of gambling, even in the minds of those who gamble, most gamblers recognise that their leisure pursuit is based on rationality:

The phenomenon of gambling is multi-faceted; an exciting leisure activity, a mundane form of consumption, a means of socialising with others, an opportunity to display skill [and a] hobby which offers the possibility of winning money.[94]

Money spent on leisure and pleasure never shows a return, except in the immeasurable; in bingo there is excitement, anticipation and at least the chance of a return.

Footnotes

[82] P.P. 1967-1968 iii House of Commons Official Report Standing Committee B Sir Stephen McAdden, c.194.

[83] P.P. 1967-1968 iii House of Commons Official Report Standing Committee B, Mr Weitzman, c.186.

[84] P.P. 1967-1968 iii House of Commons Official Report Standing Committee B, Mr Dick Taverne, c. 206

[85] The Times, 12th June 1968 p.28 column f

[86] P.P. 1967-1968 iii House of Commons Official Report Standing Committee B, Mr Dick Taverne, c. 220.

[87] P.P. 1967-1968 iii House of Commons Official Report Standing Committee B, Mr Dick Taverne, c. 220.

[88] P.P. 1967-1968 iii House of Commons Official Report Standing Committee B, Mr Dick Taverne, c. 482

[89] P.P. 1967-1968 dcclviii Hansard House of Commons Debates (2/4/68) c. 485.

[90] The Times, 12th June 1968 p.28 column f

[91] P.P. 1967-1968 iii House of Commons Official Report Standing Committee B, Mr Dick Taverne, c. 207

[92] The Times, 5th Jun. 1968 9a Leading Article.

[93] Munting, A Social and Economic History of Gambling in Britain and the USA, (Manchester,1996), p.35.

[94] Reith, Age of Chance, p. 126

To cite this article: Carolyn Downs, A Brief History of Bingo, September 2008, viewed on http://playingbingo.co.uk/land-bingo/history/01-history-4.php

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