Timeline: 932 Years of British Gambling Law

9 min read

In an effort to protect the population from problem gambling, the UK will soon require punters to prove they can afford to play for certain stakes. While that might seem like a drastic change to current gambling laws, affordability checks are nothing new. In fact, history shows us that they go back nearly a millennium to the rule of Richard I.

Now British government ministers want to ensure that regulations are suitable for the digital age. In late 2020, the UK Gambling Commission launched a comprehensive review of the nation’s approach to legal gambling. New regulations were supposed to be released throughout 2021, but, like so much last year, there were delays.

Last week, however, word leaked out that modifications to the UK’s 2005 Gambling Act are finally ready, and are just weeks away from being released.

So, with change upon us, CardsChat took a trip back through the history of gambling in Britain to see how we got to where we are today. Our research found a legal framework that’s evolved in line with changing attitudes towards gambling, and some enduring themes that are just as relevant today as they were centuries ago.

history of gambling britain
Gambling has been a pastime in Britain for centuries. (Image: Bodleian Library, Oxford University)


Introduction to gambling regulation

Before King Richard I of England (aka Richard the Lionheart), gambling was a free-for-all in the British Isles. Although it was tightly woven into the fabric of society, rules were idiosyncratic, at best.

Every village, drinking establishment, and person had their own rules. House rules, if you like. However, as is often the case, those in power gradually took an interest in the private dealings of individuals.

Richard the Lionheart
King Richard the Lionheart was the first English monarch to consider protecting his people from the prospective harms of gambling. (Image: Artist unknown)

In 1190, King Richard decided to limit who could gamble and how much they could bet, starting a trend that’s still in effect today. He also decreed that anyone in society ranked lower than a knight shouldn’t gamble.

Knights, clergymen, and others in the upper echelon of society were welcome to gamble, but only up to 20 shillings per day. Anyone who gambled more was subject to a 100-shilling fine. Except King Richard. He was exempt, of course.


Richard II: Gambling restrictions 2.0

Despite Richard I imposing restrictions on the commonfolk, gambling flourished. Raffles were popular, but dice was the game of choice for many. (No mention of gambling with cards until the 15th century.)

History books reveal the extent to which betting on dice was popular during the reign of Richard II. It’s written that Hugh le Barber was happy to be cured of blindness because it meant he could play dice again.

Men playing dice in the Middle Ages by Master Jean de Mauléon
Men playing dice in the Middle Ages by Master Jean de Mauléon (Image: Medievalists)

Chaucer was also a player, it seems. The apprentice in the Cook’s Tale was skilled at dice: “that fairer koude cast a paire of dys” (that could better throw a pair of dice).

With gambling endemic amongst the general population, Richard II outlawed spending money on dice games and other pursuits during the working week. By 1397, he ruled that gambling could only take place on “non-workdays.”


Edward IV attempts to stop the spread

The 15th century saw the proliferation of card games across Britain. Traveling merchants first introduced them to the country after visits to Spain and beyond.

Card games quickly established themselves among the nobility. Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, was a prolific player. Legend has it that he lost more than 157 (old English) pounds while traveling with Henry V.

At the time, that was literally a king’s ransom. To curb any potential issues and protect local tradesmen, Edward IV’s Parliament banned the importation of playing cards and dice.

Early English cards used Latin suits, – swords, coins, cups, and clubs – instead of the “French suits” – hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades – we know today.

victorian cards
Cards were popular in Britain from the 15th century onwards, but it wasn’t until 1470 when the “French suits” we all know today came into play. (Image: OppTrends)

The ban on gambling materials from outside of England slowed the spread of the games, but not completely.

Edward IV doubled down on his importation ban by making it illegal for anyone outside of the aristocracy to play cards or dice games outside of Christmas.

No lord or other person of lower estate, condition or degree, whatever he may be, shall allow any dicing or playing at cards within his house, or wherever else he may prevent it, by any of his servants or others outside the twelve days of Christmas,” reads the Parliament Rolls from November 1461.


Crackdown on dice betting

King after king tried to introduce new gambling laws and restrictions until the Unlawful Games Act of 1541 became the first one to stick.

Such was the nature of different ruling monarchs that a law made by one would often be overturned by another. Everyone in power agreed, however, that gambling shouldn’t distract citizens from practicing archery.

Men who couldn’t fire a bow weren’t going to be much use when it came to protecting the kingdom. Therefore, gambling became a threat to national security as it was distracting people from their civic duties.

dice used for gambling in the Middle Ages
Images of dice used for gambling in the Middle Ages. (Image: Smithsonian)

The Unlawful Games Act prohibited all games from being played on Christmas day, except archery. Henry VIII ordered this to prevent the “decay of archery,” a skill he’d seen prove successful for Henry V during the Battle of Agincourt (1415).

With games such as cards and dice banned on Christmas day and, if previous laws were being followed, every other day, it was technically the end of gambling in Britain.

However, the law was never properly enforced and it only limited the collection of gambling debts through the courts.


Skill games save the day (sort of)

A series of Acts, many not properly enforced, followed the Unlawful Games Act. Alongside these Acts, lotteries were legalized, outlawed, then legalized again.

Horse racing had also started to gain traction in the 18th century, but it wasn’t until 1845 that the next great change happened.

Under the Gaming Act of 1845, it became legal to bet on games of skill. Moreover, it made cheating a crime and reinforced early laws that made gambling debts unenforceable by law.

Despite the fact gamblers couldn’t pursue debts through the legal system, the clarification of what was permissible meant that gambling venues flourished.

betting act satire
A satire piece from Punch Magazine circa 1851. (Image: Punch)

Most interestingly, this happened in spite of the 1853 Betting Act, which made it illegal to keep a place of betting.

Bookmakers got around this by taking bets on the street and employing young boys to run from the police as a distraction. The Street Betting Act of 1906 sought to outlaw the practice, but little changed.

Betting on the streets and in gaming venues remained popular, despite being illegal as per the gambling laws of the day. With few people taking head of the gambling laws, or finding workaround, the government was forced to introduce positive legislation.


Birth of a regulated economy

The Betting and Gaming Act of 1960 recognized the British public’s long love affair with gambling. Politicians understood its significance within society and decided to take a more liberal approach than previous generations.

The Betting and Gaming Act was a laissez-faire move. People who wanted to gamble could do so.

Playboy Club Mayfair
As legal gambling proliferated across the UK, the Playboy Club in London’s Mayfair district was a popular casino in the 1960s. (Image: British Pathe)

Even though the law was designed to make private gaming venues legal, it triggered a surge of commercial activity.

By 1968, criminality in the private sector forced lawmakers to update the act. Under the Gaming Act of 1968, all gambling venues had to be licensed. The act also established the Gaming Board for Great Britain, which regulated the industry until it was replaced by the UK Gambling Commission in 2005.


Early online gambling adopter

The Gambling Act of 2005 built on gambling laws enacted in the 1960s. It established a new regulatory body in the form of the UK Gambling Commission (UKGC) and created a new licensing system.

The three main objectives were to keep crime out of gambling, ensure gambling is conducted in a fair and open way, and protect children and other vulnerable persons from gambling’s potential harm.

The famous Hippodrome in London’s Leicester Square became a casino in 2009. (Image: iGaming Future)

Not only did this law create a more robust regulatory system in Britain, it set new standards that other countries have since followed.

The Gambling Act got its first update in 2014, to account for the growth of online betting and gaming. A new licensing system was introduced, which meant all operators serving Brits had to be approved by the UKGC.

The update was instrumental in setting a standard for online operators that currently exists today.


Digital (and responsible) gaming update

Then in December 2020, the British government launched a comprehensive review of the industry to ensure today’s laws are “fit for the digital age.” We’ve already seen changes to slot machines, and operators are getting tougher on affordability checks.

online gambling
How will UK laws change in response to the growth of online gambling? (Image: PokerStars)

The surprise departure of Neil McArthur on March 15, 2021, just two weeks before the regulatory review was due to end, shocked gambling industry insiders. However, in his words, it created the perfect opportunity for someone new to take charge and lead the British betting industry into a new era.

Andrew Rhodes stepped in as interim CEO and, in May of 2022, he was named as the permanent replacement to McArthur and the man who will oversee the implementation of the new gambling laws and regulations. The question now is, how sweeping will the latest changes be, and will Britain maintain the liberal attitude it’s had toward gambling since the 1960s?

Or will the government’s overhaul of British gambling laws hark back to the days of King Richard I and impose strict new policies that limit the freedom of operators and consumers?

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