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A History Of Bingo In The UK Part 2: 1900-1945: Housey-Housey, Tombola and Lotto

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

Author: Carolyn Downs

The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 was eight years after the government had attempted to prevent gambling by poorer people through banning cash betting.[14] Yet, despite one arm of government prohibiting gambling, officially sanctioned gambling was taking place in the forces as a means of raising mess funds for servicemen. Accounts of life in the armed forces over the period 1914-1918 feature descriptions of bingo, and of the various cheats that took place, and an army chaplain in World War One saw housey-housey as a two edged sword:

[House is] a symptom of widespread gambling from top to bottom in the army, [but is] useful in preventing the more virulent forms of gambling spreading amongst the soldiers.[15]

Despite the ambivalence of opinion about bingo in the First World War it appears to have been a popular game and one where potential prizes were large. One veteran recollected a housey-housey game in 1915 at Catterick Barracks, Yorkshire. These games were popular with the men, but the sergeant and the corporal evidently fixed the games:

Well we used to go to the canteen at night and they'd run what's called bingo now. Well, we called it housey-housey, but the trouble was there was these old soldiers, and we youngsters, and they'd get their own mates calling out 'Bingo' and the cards was never checked, so you never knew. [16]

The game was also popular in the trenches, during lulls in the shelling:

The most complex game tolerated by the authorities was house. Twenty-four cards were issued at two shillings and six pence a time. Each card had three lines with five numbers on. One man handled the cash and cards while the other called out the numbers.[17]

Bingo was not only played in the trenches, there were fund-raising games in England, with the more liberal churches running bingo games (usually called tombola) and lotteries, although the dubious legal status of such games prevented the larger charities from adopting gambling as a fundraising tool.

After the Armistice the British working classes were promised a land fit for heroes, and expectations were high. Many people felt let-down by the government in the inter-war years as times were hard and there was severe poverty in the manufacturing regions of Britain. However, gambling remained a popular pastime amongst the working classes despite the illegality of the pastime. In 1926 the Liverpool Council of Voluntary Aid reported that 'Fifty percent of women have the betting habit' in some areas of the city, although they sadly did not report on what types of gambling the women were participating in.[18] It was certainly the case in towns and cities where there were regular raids on properties used by illegal bookmakers that the proportion of men to women observed by the police seems to be generally 60 per cent men to 40 per cent women. While some women may have been laying bets for husbands and fathers, it seems probable that many more were betting on their own behalf.

Many of the men who returned from the war continued to play the game of housey-housey (called tombola by Royal Navy veterans), usually as part of the evening entertainments at the many working men's, Royal British Legion and other ex-services clubs. Indeed, it is in the interwar years that the first prosecutions for illegal games of housey-housey are found in British archives.[19] What was effectively commercial bingo was being played throughout Britain. In Barrow-in- Furness from the 1920s the local market had sideshows running bingo, then:[20]

In the mid 1930s to late 1930s there was a fair running for a while, a semi-permanent fair at West Shore and that included the equivalent of bingo...She always spent modestly, but she was lucky.[21]

Housey-housey was also played on waste ground and in yards of industrial areas by crowds of youths, although these gatherings were usually broken up by the police, rather than prosecuted with the full force of the law.[22] One of the largest fines for commercial bingo operating illegally in the inter-war years was the result of an investigation that took place in Peckham in 1939. The Metropolitan Police were concerned about the spread of commercial bingo, noting that:

Since 1937 a large number of prosecutions for bingo have taken place all over the Metropolitan Police Divisions. It is quite immaterial whether the prizes are in cash or food. [23]

In the Peckham area the police were aware of seven operators, of whom the most noticeable was Louis Hart, who had premises on the High Street. Mr. Hart had been running games since at least 1937 and had been prosecuted on two previous occasions.[24] Between thirty and sixty players were observed at each of the sessions of bingo, which run from 10am until 6pm daily. There was often a queue of people waiting for a bingo board to become vacant so that they could join the game.[25] The set-up was described very accurately. The players sat or stood around an open rectangle made up of tables on which were placed the numbered bingo boards. Inside the rectangle was sufficient gangway for two assistants to move around freely during the game. One assistant would take the stake money and hand out the pasteboard squares that were used for covering numbers called.[26] The second assistant was in charge of the system for generating the random numbers.[27] In the centre of the open rectangle was a large box, divided into numbered sections – one to ninety. The assistant had a supply of wooden balls that were handed in turn to each player; the player would throw the ball into the box, thus selecting the next number to be called.[28] This was considered far fairer by players than numbers drawn from a bag but was necessarily a slow process. In order to maintain the interest of the players and to accommodate the slow selection of numbers the rhyming calls were an essential part of the game.

Sergeant Stratton noted in her statement that the game was extremely popular, and played 'mostly by women of the poorer class.'[29] In Peckham the prize for most games was 1/3 but at 2 pm each day there was a 10/- prize game, which attracted long queues of players:

There are never less than thirty players, and often a full sixty, each paying one penny per game; 1/3 profit per game minimum. The games last less than two minutes.[30]

There are a number of interesting aspects to this case. The first is that commercial gaming attracting women players was so prevalent in the Metropolitan Police District, but it is also significant that the police state that the game is called bingo. The Americans claim that Edwin Lowe coined this name in c1929. It seems strange that in an era when Americanisation of culture was largely through the medium of film and music that the name would travel across the Atlantic to working class Peckham so rapidly, especially as there is no American film of the era featuring the game.

Housey-housey developed as a seaside and fairground game during the years between 1918 and 1960, with the division between prize and cash bingo becoming well established early on. The legislation regarding the playing of fairground gambling games for prizes had not been altered since 1853 and was difficult to enforce, while the playing of housey-housey (also known as tombola and bingo by the inter-war years) in permanent venues could be conducted under the restrictive conditions of the Betting and Lotteries Act (1934) which allowed small lotteries: 'incidental to bazaars, sales of work, fetes, and other entertainments of a similar character' as long as the whole proceeds after deducting expenses were for 'purposes other than private gain'.[31] In theory these were very restrictive conditions: no cash prizes and no more than £10 to be spent on prizes, and definitely no advertising to promote the game. However, the 1934 laws were 'not strictly observed and cannot be fully enforced'.[32] In many instances local police simply turned a blind eye to such amusements; this may very well have been a result of a cash inducement, although in cases where complaints were made action was often taken. A more common procedure was for the organiser of the game to give a token amount to charity while keeping a portion for profit and offering either cash or goods as a prize. It is claimed by Roger Bingham (sadly with no reference to a source) that a Mr. Frank Ashworth established a housey-housey stall in Morecambe's Winter Gardens fairground in 1928.[33] It is also claimed that he called the game bingo; this would give the name a British rather than American antecedence but is not verifiable.[34] Whilst there is no corroborating detail for this claim, an account of the early development of this type of bingo is provided in the childhood memoir of the author Lillian Beckwith (born in Ellesmere Port in Cheshire, 1916):

Towards the end of October the throbbing, juddering steam engine arrived pulling a train of high piled wagons and the caravans of the attendants, and within hours the waste ground was enclosed by hoopla stalls and booths of every description...I rode on the roundabouts and the cakewalk and I played 'housey housey'.[35]

On winning games she at first chose presents for her parents, but found that the prizes she thought extremely attractive were not appreciated:

Once it was a purple and gold vase; another time it was a black teapot resplendent with pink and blue and yellow daisies which father described as being a 'bargee pot'; yet another time it was a mirror so profusely painted that you couldn't see your face in it except through a clump of bulrushes... The next time I won I chose a large tin of toffees for myself. When I opened the tin I found it was only half full so I took it back to the stall and complained. The Clarkson girl gave me what looked like an enormous box of chocolates in exchange but when I opened that it wasn't chocolate at all, it was coconut candies which tasted of soap.[36]

A description of fairground bingo from the operator's perspective provides an account of a game that used seventy-five numbers, on bingo boards with a frame that allowed the numbers to be marked by bottle tops. Throwing a rubber ball into a box that was divided into 75 sections generated 'random' numbers, although as 'the balls were really awkward to get out again,' the need for the rhyming calls always associated with bingo is obvious, the calls slowed the game down.[37] A player joining the game would put 3d (or 6d for two boards) on the side and a light would be switched on above the player to alert the caller. Typical prizes would be 'tin cars, soft toys, kiss-me-quick and straw hats, water pistols and feathery things'.[38]

An account of the life of the child of a regular soldier in the inter-war years also includes recollections of bingo games, organised by his father:

In the army he was in constant demand as a housey-housey barker, in what is known today as bingo. There, on stage before packed houses, he would reach into the bin, pull out a counter, and intone in mea­sured ca­dence, dead-pan, in his Sergeant-Major voice, NUMBER ONE - KELLY'S EYE. He had a pseudonym for every number up to a hundred. I can remember some of them: she was only—sweet sixteen, all the sixes—clickety-click, key of the door—twenty-one, a couple of ducks—twenty-two —and so on. The soldiers would join in to chant the numbers.[39]

In the late 1930s Rowntree conducted a second study of poverty in York and commented of gambling that, 'A vast number of men and women indulge in this form of amusement.'[40] He referred to games that were played 'solely as a means of gambling' describing the most popular of these as "housey-housey".[41] The game was played on cards with nine or fifteen numbers. The dealer had a box of numbered cards (one to ninety) rather than a bag of numbered tiles as described in other games. If a number on the punter's card was called out that number was covered with a matchstick or piece of paper. Typical stakes were between 1d and 6d, with games being run both purely for gambling with the entire stake taken by the winner, but also to raise funds for outings organised through pubs.[42] It should not be thought that the potential of the game as a money-spinner was only recognised by the working classes, the Conservative MP William Rees Davis illustrated the appeal of the game across age and class when he recalled how in the 1920s:

By the age of ten I went to my first Conservative fete as a Young Briton, where I engaged in housey-housey. [43]

Despite the use of the game as a middle-class fund-raiser, it does not appear to have surpassed the ubiquitous and extremely respectable whist drive in the affections of the upwardly socially mobile.

The spread of housey-housey as a gambling pastime was undoubtedly assisted by its adoption by the services in a century where two World Wars ensured that the majority of the population would have contact with military service and its associated way of life. The game was played by officers and men, and was entirely voluntary. Whether as a result of the boredom of war, or the prospect of winning a prize, the game was immensely popular with descriptions of games including accounts of large numbers of eager participants. Harold Sidall played the game as a sailor and described one game:

One of the highlights was on the evening of payday, when Tombola - known as Bingo - was played in the Fleet Canteen. With such a huge collection of players from the two fleets, the money prizes were something to be desired. When the Tombola caller called "Eyes Down", the silence became momentarily overwhelming. Concentration honed to a fine pitch, pencils at the ready and the first number called in naval jargon was comparable to the "They're Off" at Derby Day. The last house of the evening was always called a 'doubler', which meant that the price of a ticket was doubled. Just imagine the value of the 'House' and the anticipation of the crowd! With the game being drawn out there would be frequent shouts of "Shake 'em up", as frustrated punters waited for that certain number. When that certain number was called, the cry of "Here you are" rang out and an almighty groan would come from the remainder of the hopefuls. When the winner went up to collect his cash a number of appellations of doubtful origin would be rendered with good humour, but 'twould be like water off a duck's back...[44]

Officers also played the game, although if Evelyn Waugh's account (first published in 1952) is considered accurate, the game was not so well known amongst them. Nevertheless, the description from Chapter Three (Apthorpe Furibundus) of his book Men at Arms (part one of the 'Sword of Honour' trilogy) bears many similarities to the games described by other ranks serving in the Second World War.[45]

The Brigadier announced after dinner in the mess:

"When the tables have been cleared there will be a game of Housey-housey, here. For the benefit of the young officers I should explain that it is what civilians, I believe, call Bingo. As you are no doubt aware, it is the only game which may be played for money by His Majesty's Forces. Ten per cent of each bank goes to the Regimental Comforts Fund and Old Comrades' Association. The price of each card will be three pence."

...The brigade major sat at the corner of a table with a tin cash box and a heap of cards printed with squares and numbers. Each bought a card as he came in... At last after much borrowing and searching of pockets the game began suddenly with the command: 'Eyes down for a house.' Guy stared blankly at the Brigadier, who now plunged his hand in the pillow-case and produced a little square card. 'Clickety-click,' said the Brigadier disconcertingly. Then: 'Sixty-six.' Then in rapid succession, in a loud sing-song tone: 'Marine's breakfast number ten add two twelve all the fives fifty-five never been kissed sweet sixteen key of the door twenty-one add six twenty-seven legs eleven Kelly's eye number one and we'll...' He paused. The regular officers and 'Tubby' Blake gave tongue: 'Shake the bag.[46]

There are several important things to note about this passage. The first is that Evelyn Waugh calls the game 'bingo', although this name was apparently not used by troops during the Second World War, even though it was being used in London in 1939.[47] Waugh may have chosen to use it here because The Times were increasingly styling the game bingo in the 1950s, accordingly he may have thought that his readers would be more familiar with that name. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to assume that bingo had been universally adopted as the new name for the game by 1952; throughout the 1950s the forces, holiday camps and ex-services clubs continued to use the name tombola or housey-housey. When Men at Arms was reissued as Sword of Honour in 1964 (that is the final version of the trilogy Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen, and Unconditional Surrender) the two pages describing the game were omitted, perhaps because by 1964, the game was irredeemably associated with the working classes in Evelyn Waugh's view, and therefore had no place in literature that was not aimed at the masses. The masses certainly played the game during the Second World War, prizes of between £30 and £95 are described in memoirs of service life, and games with up to 500 players were a regular occurrence.[48] The game was also played widely by civilians engaged on war work, organised as a morale boosting activity, and on a smaller scale in pubs.


[14] The Street Betting Act (1906) made it illegal to place a bet with cash away from a racecourse. This meant richer people with access to a bank account could bet on credit with a bookmaker, increasingly placing bets by telephone, but poorer people without a bank account were breaking the law if they betted with cash. The law was totally ineffective and was repealed by the Betting and Gaming Act (1960)

[15] Clapson, Bit of a Flutter, p. 96..

[16] Clapson, Bit of a Flutter, p. 95.

[17] Winter, Death's Men, p.154.

[18] Chinn, Better betting with a decent feller: betting, bookmaking and the British working class, 1750-1990, (Hemel Hempstead, 1991), p.171.

[19] P.P. 1955-1956, dxlix Parliamentary Debates Hansard, James Chuter-Ede c. 2558.

[20] Elizabeth Roberts Mr S4B ER RSC/88/579,578,618,655.

[21] Elizabeth Roberts Mr S4B ER RSC/88/579,578,618,655.

[22] E. Benson Perkins, Gambling in English Life, (London, 1950), p.24.

[23] PRO Mepol 3/765

[24] PRO Mepol 3/765 His previous fines were of £15 and £25.00 plus costs.

[25] PRO Mepol 3/765 Statements of Woman Police Sergeant Stratton, William Collins and Woman Police Constable Cross.

[26] PRO Mepol 3/765 Statements of Woman Police Sergeant Stratton and Woman Police Constable Cross.

[27] PRO Mepol 3/765 Statements of Woman Police Sergeant Stratton and Woman Police Constable Cross.

[28] PRO Mepol 3/765 Statements of Woman Police Sergeant Stratton and Woman Police Constable Cross.

[29] PRO Mepol 3/765 Statement of Woman Police Sergeant Stratton

[30] PRO Mepol 3/765 Statement of Woman Police Constable Cross.

[31] P.P.1949-1951 Royal Commission on Betting, Lotteries and Gaming Cmd 8190, p.122.

[32] P.P.1949-1951 Royal Commission on Betting, Lotteries and Gaming Cmd 8190.

[33] Roger Bingham, Lost Resort, p.230, the gentlemen cited is now deceased.

[34] Bingham, Lost Resort, p.230.

[35] Lillian Beckwith, About My Father's Business, (London, 1971), pp. 134-135.

[36] Beckwith, My Father's Business, pp. 135-136.

[37] Mr. Mervyn Cooper of Skegness interviewed on 9/11/01./p>

[38] Mr. Mervyn Cooper of Skegness interviewed on 9/11/01.

[39] Ron Simmonds, A Minstrels Tale, published World Wide Web 2003 accessed on

[40] Rowntree, Poverty and Progress, p. 400.

[41] Rowntree, Poverty and Progress, p. 404.

[42] Rowntree, Poverty and Progress, pp. 404-405.

[43] P.P. 1959-1960 dcxxiii House of Commons Debates c. 222.

[44] Harold J. Siddall, And So ...An Autobiography accessed on

[45] David Cliffe A Companion to Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour,

[46] Evelyn Waugh Men at Arms, (London, 1952), pp. 121 – 123.

[47] PRO ME POL 3/765

[48] Robert Angell, The Long Voyage of the Ship Pasteur, (2001) (Link now dead), Tom Barker, Memories of Private Tom Barker29822521st Bn Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders.

Letter Home to United States written from RAF Cranwell, Lincolnshire in England at the CTC Royal Air Force No. 1 Radio School December 14, 1941 (Link now dead), Harry Franz MBE, Bamboo Treadmill,

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

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