The History of Bingo 2

History of Bingo Part 2: 1945 – 1968

In Part One, we discovered how the game of bingo we know today probably originated in 16th Century Italy. It then travelled around Europe and across the Atlantic in various formats before re-emerging in both the United Kingdom and the United States in the early 20th Century. This dual identity on both sides of the pond goes a long way to explaining the slightly different formats of the game on either side. Americans favour a 75 Ball game, while us Brits prefer our 90 Ball version.

In this part of the story, we focus on the history of the game in Britain, where social historian Carolyn Downs of the University of Lancaster has done a great deal of research into the growth of Bingo throughout the last hundred years or so.

Before the War

The early history of the game in Britain was focused on its growing use within the armed forces at the turn of the 20th Century. A clear growth spurt can be seen when the troops were de-mobbed at the end of the First World War after 1918. Many police and press reports across the nation reported games being played throughout the inter-war period.

The term “Bingo” was in use, although it was not really the universally used term for the game that it is today. Back then, it was often commonly referred to as “Tombola”, or “Housey Housey”, which were the popular names for the game when played as entertainment within the armed forces.

The game had already earned a reputation as being a “working class” game, predominantly a pre-occupation of the less well-heeled. This was not always the case though. When the game was played within the military, the game was popular with the officers as well as with the troops, and was regarded as excellent for morale throughout forces, regardless of rank.
Back at home, the game was used as a fund-raiser in all kinds of communities. Clearly it was very popular within working communities, but churches and charities would frequently use the game as a fund-raiser, in much the same way as many use a quiz or raffle to raise funds today. Indeed, a raffle is often referred to as “Tombola”, so that particular name lives on, although “Housey Housey” is now rarely used.

But the game really was becoming universally popular at all levels of society. Indeed, the Conservative MP William Rees Davis once recalled how he had attended a Conservative fund-raising fete as a boy during the 1920s, where he actually played the game. It is difficult for us to imagine the upper levels of society indulging in bingo along with the more established bridge tournaments and whist drives, but it was certainly regarded as harmless fun and a good way of raising funds.

It is important to remember however that officially, gambling of any kind was still very much frowned upon. While regulations had been loosened to allow bingo to be played in support of charities, The 1906 Street Betting Act was still in force and the government continued to discourage organised gambling of any kind by ordinary people.

The Growth of the Game After 1945

With the return of the troops after the war, and the gradual return to normality, the popularity of bingo continued to grow. The governments of the day were concerned at this, regarding any form of popularised gambling as morally suspect. A post-war Royal Commission remarked on how “ordinary working people showed more interest in gambling than politics…gambling, drinking and smoking… take the largest slice of our national budget.” Many would say that not much has changed over the succeeding seventy years, other than that politicians are held in even lower regard and there has been a considerable reduction in the popularity of smoking. A further social survey held in 1951 discovered that over 80% of the surveyed population had gambled at some point, and that over 60% had done so on a regular basis.

The Government of the day began to realise that it was fighting a losing battle. The law was further relaxed in 1956, but it was recognised that bingo was so easy to organise and so widespread that the law was being completely flouted. Even the Catholic Church was using the game for fundraising in their communities: so much so that for many people, this was their first introduction to the game. Thus it began to be recognised that, to use a sort of betting analogy, “the horse had already bolted” on this subject and that maybe it would be better for the powers that be to regulate the game rather than outlaw it.

So it was that with charities already playing legally; people playing widely in their communities, at places such as working men’s clubs; churches using it for fundraising and fun fairs and seaside resorts using it for entertainment; it was even a staple entertainment at the newly fashionable Butlin’s and Warner holiday camps of the 1950s. What with all the “Hi de Hi” and “Housey Housey”, the powers that be decided to cut their losses. More than that of course, they would make money from it by taxing it!

The 1960 Betting and Gaming Act bowed to the inevitable and finally legalised the game. The 1960 Act was thus intended to legitimise existing social gaming, considered by Parliament to be a relatively uncommon activity, and to introduce more effective control of street betting, widely viewed as being the greater problem. However, not for the first or final time, the ruling classes were, to say the least, a little out of touch with the reality of how people were really living their lives…

In practice the new law was to result in rapid growth in the amounts of leisure spending directed towards gambling activities. This was in part because it was very poorly drafted piece of legislation indeed. The published legislation allowed people to “play housey-housey as an activity of a club if all the money staked is returned to the players.” But then again it also allowed for the promoter to make a charge for the right to take part in the game. This wasn’t so much a loophole as a gigantic open goal. Current and prospective bingo promoters were rubbing their hands with glee in anticipation of being able to legally charge people to play the game. It wasn’t even as if this massive and obvious loophole was overlooked. The situation was noticed immediately by opponents of gambling too, who were outraged and made immediate representations to the legislators responsible for drafting the Bill. But the government was adamant that there was nothing to worry about. No-one could ever make money from this totally unprofitable enterprise, or so they believed.

The Act was duly passed into law on January 1st 1961 and the floodgates opened. The very first commercial Bingo club opened a mere two days later, and within two years there were nearly 15 million members of official Bingo clubs all over the United Kingdom.

The Rise and Rise of the Bingo Club

The naiveté of the Government in failing to amend the 1961 Act certainly played a vital part in encouraging the expansion of bingo. But there were other equally influential factors which also enabled this explosion in popularity of the game. It was time of massive social change in the UK. Several factors therefore came together to create a perfect storm: conditions simply could not have been more ideal for the growth of bingo into what seemed at the time to be almost a national pastime.

Firstly, there was the increasing popularity of rock ‘n’ roll. This had arrived in the UK in the late 1950s, firstly through the influence of Elvis Presley. We also had our own youth “skiffle” movement over here at the same time. Then artists like Cliff Richard launched our own version of the new music craze. Secondly, the growth in the popularity of television was also causing a great sea-change in the social habits of the British people. A new commercial television station was launched and gradually rolled out throughout the nation, to rival the already established BBC. This began in 1955, with ITV finally achieving nationwide status in 1962. This meant that there were then two channels to watch (yes, younger readers TWO!)

These two highly influential social changes had two effects which would help to provide the fuel for the new Bingo craze. The fact that people could watch TV and movies from the comfort of their armchairs helped to accelerate the decline of the cinema. Too many had been built in the boom years, so there was already a surplus. The big cinema chains, such as ABC, Odeon and Gaumont had already begun to close poorly attended cinemas from the late 1950s. Now the new television services made the situation even worse.

Plus, together with this, the new-fangled rock ‘n’ roll music led to the final death of the traditional British Music Hall. This traditional form of entertainment simply could not compete with the new fashion and the old music, comedy and variety acts slowly withered before dwindling audiences. 1960 saw the closure of the Moss Empires chain of music halls, announcing the end of a traditional form of entertainment which had endured since the Victorian era. Younger viewers can still experience what they are missing, as BBC 4 frequently show repeats of the old 1970s TV show “The Good Old Days”, which depicts the type of acts and entertainment the music halls promoted.

But what has all this got to do with bingo? Well the social upheavals caused by the advent of television and rock ‘n’ roll meant that there were now hundreds of old and empty music halls and cinemas which were underused or even lying empty. What was to become of them?

Bingo was what was to become of them. The new loosening of the gambling regulations and demand for Bingo simply could not have come at a better time for desperate cinema and music hall owners, who jumped at the chance to convert their historic entertainment and movie theatres into Bingo halls. All the major cinema chains began to convert many of their halls to bingo use as soon as possible, with a dozen or more already converted for Bingo use by the end of 1961.

Massive Bingo hall chains soon emerged. Mecca and Rank became the biggest names, and the whole bingo movement became the latest social craze. Advertising was still banned, so celebrities of the time were hired as bingo callers for publicity and to add to the glamour of the game. Sixties megastars like Diana Dors, Cilla Black, Tommy Steele, Max Bygraves and even Cassius Clay (later to rename himself Muhammad Ali) appeared at bingo halls around the country to add some real showbiz to the occasion.

It wasn’t just cash prizes that were on offer either. Mediterranean cruises, holidays in the south of France, diamond necklaces and even new technology like dishwashers were provided as jackpot prizes to build publicity and excitement. Massive linked games were also promoted, which pooled prizes between several halls, to create a real world bingo equivalent of a progressive jackpot.

So it was that the early to mid-1960s truly were the golden age of Bingo. But the gold-rush days could not last. The previous Government had truly been taken by surprise, and the new Labour administration vowed to bring things under control. The 1968 Gaming Act imposed a powerful suite of controls on what had been hitherto an almost totally unregulated free-for-all. The profits which could be made from Bingo were severely restricted by the new legislation. Many of the new independent halls were forced to close, but the big chains could use their market muscle and linked promotions to retain their customers. This meant that the big Bingo hall chains like Mecca could dominate the market still further.

Sadly, the 1968 Act brought an end to that golden era. Yet even now, as we look back on these events half a century later, the great game lives on. The number of Bingo halls may have declined since those halcyon years, but Bingo continues to be one of the most popular social games, with the remaining halls continuing to thrive as new generations re-discover the pleasures of the game. Indeed, the popularity of Bingo seems to continue to cross the generations, with the game apparently ever more popular with today’s university and college students.

Of course, these students also have the benefit of a new technology with which to play the game. And it was this 1990s phenomenon – the birth of the internet, which led to another burst in popularity for the game of Bingo. It is this, the growth of the online version of the game, which will be the subject of the History of Bingo, Part 3.