Interview With Dr Carolyn Downs – Bingo Historian

Viewers of the recent Money Programme special on the Bingo industry will have spotted the historical overview of the game in the UK, provided by Dr Carolyn Downs, whose PHD centred around a history of bingo in Britain. Playing Bingo caught up with her to ask about her research – which will soon be appearing as a book, and what drew her to studying the history of bingo.

Playing Bingo: What drew you to the history of bingo as an area for study?

Dr Carolyn Downs: Originally I was working through an archive of the Morecambe Visitor, a weekly local newspaper, tracing events held at Morecambe Winter Gardens during the 1950s and 1960s. I wondered why there were no mentions of bingo before 1961 but a huge number of stories about bingo between 1961 and 1968.

I assumed that there would be a book about the history of bingo that could explain this and looked about for one, but only found a sociological study conducted in the late 1970s. This was an interesting book and very thorough from an academic point of view but I did not think it gave the whole picture regarding the motivations of the players and it said nothing much about the history of the game.

Playing Bingo: Do you play regularly yourself?

Dr Carolyn Downs: No, I have played bingo occasionally but generally I watch other people play. I first played the game in Hemsby as a teenager on holiday with friends, and got very excited at nearly winning a prize.

However, as a child and teenager I lived on a large council estate in Margate and many of our neighbours played. The women that I remembered as playing bingo seemed to enjoy the game for its chance of winning a prize as much as for the opportunity of going out or socialising, and after reading the sociological study of bingo I felt there was a need for a more rounded work to rescue the players from ‘the condescension of posterity’.

Playing Bingo: What era in the game’s history do you find the most interesting and why?

Dr Carolyn Downs: There are really two key periods: the first is the rise of bingo as a fundraiser, which can be traced from 1918-1960.

In that period the game was known as tombola, housey-housey or lotto. This was a major attraction, with very large games (500 players) being organised by political parties, the Catholic Church, working men’s and ex-services clubs and holiday camps. Butlins and Warners were able to donate very substantial amounts to charity from the tombola games that were organised daily in their camps.

The second really interesting period was the birth of commercial bingo in 1961, which occurred by accident as the government had not intended to legalise any type of commercial gaming. Before 1968 the commercial bingo industry was infiltrated by organised crime, bingo clubs were often called bingo casinos, there were many glamorous prizes offered to attract players, and there was a lot of press and parliamentary comment abut bingo. It was during this period that Eric Morley saw that bingo needed a change of image if it was to survive the Labour Government of Harold Wilson and he manipulated the press and clubs so that bingo became seen as a social activity rather than a gambling game.

Playing Bingo: What social role do you think bingo plays for the majority of its players?

Dr Carolyn Downs: To an extent the social role is over-stated, in that people do not generally like to admit that gambling is their hobby, and of all gambling games bingo is perhaps the one most denigrated. I have found many cartoons and headlines that poke fun at bingo and encountering that type of attitude encourages people to find justifications for their pastime that they might not use if their hobby was going to the theatre for example.

In general bingo is played in silence, as are the slots during the interval. People do go with friends and there is a degree of social interaction, but I am not sure that the social side is the most important factor in people playing commercial bingo. I think that bingo played in working men’s and ex-services clubs is often a more sociable game, as there may be a repartee between the callers and the players and bingo does not take up the entire evening.

Playing Bingo: How do you see the game changing over the coming years?

Dr Carolyn Downs: British commercial bingo developed a unique character after 1968. While gambling is important so too is the sense of occasion, of meeting acquaintances and membership of a club. All of these factors will be eroded in the new climate. I worry that bingo in Britain will become much more like slot-machine gambling with mechanised versions becoming dominant.

Playing Bingo: Do you think bingo has the potential to be popular outside its core audience?

Dr Carolyn Downs: Bingo is played on university campuses now, so that indicates that it is spreading to new audiences. Also, there is a demand for ‘traditional’ bingo (with rhyming calls) as a fundraiser. I am sure the game could expand if it is able to keep its character as part of traditional British commercial leisure.

Playing Bingo: Do you think the smoking ban could mark a significant point in the game’s history?

Dr Carolyn Downs: As about 50% of players smoke it may be that they will prefer to go outside during the intervals for a cigarette rather than play interval bingo or the slots. As it is interval bingo and the slots that make the most money for clubs, the change in the law will have an impact. I think that the combination of the Gambling Act and the smoking ban will signal the end of an era.

Playing Bingo: What proved to be the most fruitful resources whilst researching the game’s history?

Dr Carolyn Downs: Surprisingly it was material collected for other purposes, mainly by sociologists but also by historians. Although they would perhaps be questioning people about their working or family lives they recorded comments about other aspects of life and that included bingo. A key moment was realising that bingo was often called tombola as in the 1930s it was often referred to by that name.

Playing Bingo: What areas of the game’s past would you like to research further?

Dr Carolyn Downs: As my research was the first history of the game it was important to provide a political and economic context, otherwise I could not have done the subject justice. This meant I had to use less of the memories of players and owners than I would have liked. There is a lot of scope for further research on bingo and I hope that either I can get funding to continue the work or that perhaps someone would like to begin a PhD on the areas I could not cover in enough depth.

Playing Bingo: What was the biggest surprise in your research?

Dr Carolyn Downs: That I could trace bingo-like games that were popular and widespread among women as far back as the 1750s.

Playing Bingo: How difficult was it finding out about the history of the game?

Dr Carolyn Downs: Very! There was not an archive to consult and previous histories of gambling barely mention the game. In fact, a book about women’s leisure between 1920 and 1960 devoted one line on page 18 to bingo. I had hoped that the commercial bingo operators or Companies House might have accounts but these are only kept for 25 years so I had to recreate accounts from information in the financial press.

Playing Bingo: How was it talking on the Money Programme?

Dr Carolyn Downs: It was fun! I have not seen the programme though so I do not know how it (or I) looked finally.

Playing Bingo: Tell us some more about the book you’ve been working on – what is it called and where can people get a hold of a copy?

Dr Carolyn Downs: The book is based on my PhD but is written to be readable. The word history and story are the same in French and I believe that history books should tell a story that people can read. Palgrave Macmillan are publishing the book (which as yet does not have a title) and I hope it will be out in the autumn. The book will be available in all bookshops and possibly through Mecca Bingo clubs.

The book has ten chapters, including ‘Doing Numbers’ (Bingo before 1906), ‘Housey Housey’ (Bingo 1906-1960), ‘An Accidental Jackpot’ (The Birth of Commercial Bingo) ‘Mr Bingo’ (Mecca and Commercial Bingo), ‘The Golden Years’ (1961-1968), ‘The Kray Factor’ (Bingo and Crime), ‘End of an Era’ (The Gaming Act 1968), ‘Two Fat Ladies Clicketty Click’ (Bingo and Popular Culture) plus an appendix suggesting origins for many of the traditional rhyming calls.

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