The Betting and Gaming Act 1960

Before 1960 betting of any sort in the UK – be it casino games, bookmaking or even just someone betting on a game of backgammon or bridge – was subject to an archaic, restrictive and outdated set of laws.
Before 1960 betting of any sort in the UK  – be it casino games, bookmaking or even just someone betting on a game of backgammon or bridge – was subject to an archaic, restrictive and outdated set of laws.

The rise of illegal racing betting

Believe it or not up until then there were no high street betting shops: Anyone wanting to bet on racing or any other types of sports had to contact a bookmaker by telephone, and runners were used to collect bets and deliver winnings. Compared to the near-instantaneous service that you can enjoy in a bookmaker such an antiquated process seems like something from another century rather than the post-war period and the beginnings of a time of unheralded prosperity. 

The need for reform followed a variety of changes in gambling law from biblical times onwards – as soon as people began riding horses they started racing and betting on them – though the primary driver for beefed-up legislation much later on was the Industrial Revolution, which meant that for the first time there were working class Brits with spare cash. With sporting events being so popular and printing and telecommunication technology advancing rapidly there was ample scope for bookmakers to prosper, however with legalised horse racing betting only allowed on the racecourse a vast illegal bookmaking network sprang up - which needless to say found itself under the control of gangs. 

A significant pressure group began to emerge with National Anti-Gambling League created in the 1890s, and they managed to successfully ban street betting, with totalisator systems (totes) introduced to offer an alternative to on-site bookmakers. However, where there’s a will there’s a way - and it’s now widely-believed that the 1906 act that introduced these measures never actually prevented a single bet from being made. 

A Royal Commission initially set up to control lotteries and pool betting subsequently changed its focus when the threat of street betting became apparent, but no-one really knew how to stop it. Simply legalising betting shops was never expected to work – it hadn’t had much success in Ireland and there was an overriding belief that too much contact between punter and bookmaker was not a good idea, so a postal system using specially-designed letter boxes was suggested. 

Gambling was then politically ignored for another 16 years as World War Two and the subsequent creation of the welfare state took precedence; nonetheless post-war Britain was a boom time for gangsters, with the nation’s damaged economy and infrastructure proving to be a perfect breeding ground for anyone seeking to take bets in private. Another commission was set up around 1950, this time with a different attitude:

The decline of prohibition - and the rise of John Aspinall

Firstly it was felt that licencing and regulation were in fact not a bad idea as prohibition would only drive the industry underground. Secondly the government realised they could be making serious amounts of cash by charging for licences, so more recommendations were made which ultimately became law in 1960. 

What really pushed the government over the edge, though, was one Mr John Aspinall. 

Nicknamed Aspers (a name still used for a chain of UK casinos jointly owned by the Australian Crown group and Aspinall’s son Damian), this adopted son of a British Army Surgeon was thrown out of Rugby School for inattention and managed to miss his finals at Oxford, failing to gain a degree because he wanted to be at Ascot instead. 

Despite an inability to do as expected, Aspinall managed to claw his way onto the London gaming scene thanks to good connections and plenty of verve. He became a bookmaker, but with no high street presence permitted it wasn’t easy - so he took to organising private parties.  

At this point things started looking up. As was so often the case in the UK back then – and many will say it’s the same now – the aristocracy will always find a way to enjoy themselves in whatever illicit manner they see fit, whilst ensuring nobody else gets the same privileges. It turned out that private house party gaming with the house taking a 5% rake was perfectly legal, provided the same house wasn’t used more than three times for the purpose. 

For most of us that wouldn’t have helped much: Who knows anyone with a swanky enough house to put on gaming nights that anyone with enough ready cash to make the venture worthwhile would want to attend? And even if you did, how could you manage to pull the same trick in different houses across London?

Luckily Aspinall was able to do just that as he has enough cash to rent houses – and his mother used to pay off the Metropolitan police who consequently turned a blind eye to his activities, which although legal were somewhat at odds with the spirit of the law and it didn’t take a genius to see it. 

Just as William Crockford had done before him he sent out fancy, embossed invitations to anyone with enough cash to draw his attention and started fleecing the super-rich at his Crockfords Casino, though not without attracting the attention of Westminster, who saw Aspinall’s activities as a good reason to finally pass legislation proposed a full decade before.

This was not, initially, good news for a man used to entertaining the Queen’s racehorse trainer, the Earl of Derby, the Duke of Devonshire and the like. His first event alone saw him skim off what would today amount to over £250,000, and now he was stuck in a system that banned his lucrative rake and replaced it with a membership fee.  

The Act – officially known as the Betting and Gaming Act 1960 – allowed commercial bingo halls to be built, and luxury casinos were required to follow the same business model. Both types of premises were regulated by the Gaming Board of Great Britain, now known as the UK Gambling Commission. 

The public appetite for casinos becomes apparent

It was only after the Act was introduced that the scale of unlicensed betting and the demand for bookmaking and casino products began to become apparent. Applications were accepted from March 1960 with the first outlets opening just two months later – and around 100 appeared every week with 10,000 open for business in six months and 15,000 in total throughout the UK by 1968. 

The betting shops, though, bore no resemblance to the outlets you’ll see in British high streets today. They were specifically designed to deter youngsters from taking up gambling – merely serving the interests of those who couldn’t live without their regular flutter. There were no seats, TV screens or radios, windows were blacked out and no loitering was permitted. 

Anyone trying to run a chain of bookmakers like that today would stand no chance, but it’s hard to fault the government’s intentions even though a visit to the bookies was like a trip to the local funeral parlour.

In terms of casinos, though, there were 1,000 set up within five years of the Act being passed. The very first legal casino in the 20th century opened in Port Talbot in 1961 above a shop, and proprietor George Alfred James went from this unglamorous beginning to become a major player in the UK casino scene opening sites all over Britain, importing croupiers from Vegas and introducing the Jost roulette wheel from France. 
In 1963 James approached comedian Charlie Chester – huge at the time thanks to the Charlie Chester on Laughter Service BBC radio series. Chester was happy to put his name to the rebranding of the Contessa Club and the Charlie Chester Casino opened the same year, with bets capped at £200 a round. 

The Golden Horseshoe was subsequently established over the road, with both sites raking in considerable sums – later to be taken over by the Gala Group. 

Following this success James opened the Kingsway Casino in Southport, which added cabaret entertainment into the mix with cats like Lulu, The Beverley Sisters and Tom Jones.

Brighton opens the UK’s first ‘posh’ casino

The UK’s first upmarket casino appeared – surprisingly – not in London at all but in fashionable Brighton. A total of eleven tables in the Clarence Room at the Metropole Hotel hosted Chemin De Fer, Chemmy Roulette, Chemmy Dice and Quatre Chance at all times of the day or night provided there was demand. The venture cost around £250,000 with both membership and table fees helping to recoup costs on behalf of the casino. A staff of 100 was recruited from bank clerks, the teaching profession and army officers to be trained by a professional French croupier. Indeed, the whole casino was presided over by Director General M Jean-Marie Cruciani who resigned from a French casino to come to the UK. 

It wasn’t though, good news all round by any means. What the UK authorities has failed to realise was that just because you’ve legalised casinos doesn’t mean criminal elements can’t prosper from them. After all, there was plenty of regulation and licencing in Vegas in the 1950s yet the bad guys got plenty of the action, and financed most of the casinos themselves anyway.

The regulators also started to realise how hard it really is to control gambling, with many of their checks becoming routine inspections that casinos could easily prepare for. Protection rackets became par for the course – something no amount of regulation could prevent – which inevitably resulted in unsavoury partnerships forming, and activities of this nature in the UK even started to attract American criminal interests as well. 

A great example was the notorious Joey Pyle, who had moved on from petty crime to establish himself as a well-known enforcer, collecting debts and providing intimidation wherever required. You’d think that would be enough to be going on with but Pyle found that casino work was very different to bouncing at clubs or stopping fights in bars. The main idea with casino work was to stop people cheating, and a quiet word was generally all that was needed. Unfortunately for the casino owners, though, many of the people Pyle used to speak to were not dissimilar from himself and would cut in him on what they were up to, creating more and more confusion and less and less control for those trying to running the casino.

Organised criminals expose holes in the Gambling Act

If Pyle’s involvement seems scary, it was to get far worse with the likes of ‘Mad’ Frankie Frazer and the Kray Twins all wanting a slice of the action, which they duly got. Not only were the Krays able to get a share in a profitable West End casino but they were also able to use it as a springboard towards respectability and also – particularly in Reggie Kray’s case – celebrity. 

Casinos at this point were only allowed up to ten gaming machines so there was some way to go before they’d have the impact they’re having nowadays – however, it was only due to a legislative error that so many appeared at all. The Act had intended to encourage private gaming but not commercial enterprises like casinos, which would have been exactly what happened if the Royal Commission Report has been implemented precisely as written, but it wasn’t.  

The report called for no house edges which is anathema to any casino owner – but this was, in fact, possible which is why casinos sprung up like weeds across the entire nation. The Report stated “no bankers games – all players having equal chances” , which means any player will face the same odds as any other players -  but those odds are allowed to work in the casino’s favour.

This problem was made worse by what would become known as the ‘Vicar’s Charter’. As well as allowing bookmakers and casinos to trade, The Act also allowed for allow small-scale gaming in members clubs or not for profit societies for worthy causes – hence the nickname. Sadly nobody had thought to define what a members club actually was – merely that a member needed to have applied for membership 24 hours or longer before playing or was a bona fide guest of a member. 

This made it ridiculously easy for commercial clubs to morph into members clubs so they could charge what they liked for partaking in gaming.

Since the legislation hadn’t meant to legalise commercial gaming there were no legal restrictions upon it, which was really its undoing. The public, press and Parliament were starting to get concerned about the growth of a quasi-underground industry they initially thought was firmly under control in every respect – and to make things worse the badly-written legislation made it almost impossible to make prosecutions, thus making it incredibly easy for gangs to take over and do as they pleased. 

Hundreds of casinos forced to close in the 1970s

By 1964 the issue was well-documented, but the then Labour Government had a small majority and were unable to pass a motion to stamp the issue out that year. When they returned with a workable majority in 1966 they redoubled their efforts knowing that they would likely lead to success, and that they could make some serious tax revenue out of the industry. They went on replace the 1960 Act (and the ill-fated 1963 Betting, Gaming & Lotteries Act that only made minor amendments to it) with the 1968 Gaming Act.

James Callaghan MP, Home Secretary as the 1960’s began coming to an end launched the second reading of the Gaming Bill on the 13th February 1968 by stating the problem perfectly, saying 
“The origin of this Bill is the failure of the Betting and Gaming Act, 1960, to achieve its purpose. That purpose was to prevent the exploitation of gaming by commercial interests. The 1960 Act was a thoroughly well-intentioned Measure and the authors must be astonished to find that the consequences of their actions are so different from their intentions. For the Act precipitated the very evil it was meant to prevent.”

Anyone who’d ever got on the wrong side of the Krays would no doubt agree, and the new law would be based on the concept of licensing and registration by local licensing magistrates on conditions to be enforced by the Police. The Home Secretary of the day determining the qualification. 

Without going into too much detail, the 1968 Act closed down hundreds of sites, with casinos only allowed in what were known as Permitted Areas. These were thirty local authority areas (large main cities and towns) proposed by the Gaming Board, though needless to say there were lots of MPs who felt that their constituencies had been left out in the cold. 

On 1st January 1972 the Board therefore increased the number of areas so that any county borough in England or Wales outside Greater London with a population of 125,000 or more and any county of a city in Scotland could have a casino. The upshot of this was that from 1972 until the law was changed in 2007 (when the Gambling Act 2005 came into force), casinos could only be located within 52 permitted areas.
By 1972 the number of casinos had dropped to 125, which gives a good indication of how effective the 1968 Act was. 

Expansion during The Blair years

It would be another Labour Government that would be responsible for the next significant piece of gaming legislation in the UK. The 2005 Gambling Act was introduced when the Blair administration decided that the UK casino industry was out of date. This made sense given that internet gaming was taking off and the opportunities for unscrupulous greylisted casinos (operating from areas not regulated by anyone that the UK felt was particularly reputable) to target UK players meant that something needed to be done. 

Consequently a whole raft of changes were made, some of which worked and some of which clearly didn’t. 

The internet Whitelisting system seems to have worked exceptionally well. Any online casino selling into the UK from The Isle of Man, Alderney, Gibraltar, Tasmania, Antigua/Barbuda or any EEA country is deemed to be operating under regulations at least as good as those in the UK, and players can therefore join up and feel safe that the games are fair and that they’ll be paid winnings on time. 

The large casino licences, intended to bring Vegas-style gambling to the nation’s largest metropolitan areas took a nose dive, being reduced to just one casino in Manchester which Gordon Brown subsequently dropped when he took over from Tony Blair. 

Advertising rules changed dramatically as well and you’ll now see all the major UK bookmakers touting for business on late night TV channels, though perhaps the biggest failure of the 2005 Act was to prevent more casinos being built in less populous areas. Many large towns are unable to open casinos because of this piece of legislation, making London seem more attractive than ever but not giving the regions as much action as they ought to be getting. 

More controversial has been the rise of Fixed Odds Betting Terminals found in bookmaker outlets. To counter the threat of the internet, high street bookmakers quite understandably lobbied the government for some sort of fillip to keep punters coming through the doors. After all, why bother going to the bookies when you can use them online on your PC or mobile device? 

The Gambling Act subsequently allowed up to four terminals to be installed in any branch, and they’ve certainly proved popular and achieved the desired effect of keeping visitor numbers up. 

They offer Roulette, Blackjack and slots – and when you win you can print a ticket which the cashier will instantly swap for hard cash. Compare this to winning on the web and the appeal is clear: It’s instant cash that you can spend down the pub that very night, and there are plenty of them in land-based casinos as well, making it possible to play Roulette for real one minute, and then play a feature Roulette game on a TV screen the very next. 

A trip to even a real bricks and mortar casino is now, therefore, a very different proposition thanks to the various acts that have been through parliament in the last 56 years - though it all kicked off in 1960 thanks to the perhaps inevitable economic pressure that comes when the public are forcibly separated from doing what they love.