5 Interesting Facts About the History of Gambling in London

Casino Cards Image With a London Background

Gambling in London, England, has been documented as a favorite pastime for Brits going as far back as two millennia. And just as old are the many attempts to ban gambling in England as a whole. For centuries, every ban was then followed by an attempt to regulate it. And so, this historical seesaw has continued even up to present day.

King Henry VIII, who ruled England from 1509 through 1547, was apparently quite the gambler and a big fan of dicing. Early in his reign, the king was known to play dice and other card games with members of his court, but when he discovered that his soldiers had become avid dice players as well, he forbade them from gambling.

He, of course, continued to gamble for the rest of his life and supposedly lost a total of 3,250 pounds, over a two-year period. That’s today’s equivalent of $374,000.

Here are five other interesting facts about the history of gambling in London.

1 – The Queen’s Lottery

Around 1566, Queen Elizabeth created England’s first national lottery in order to raise money for the repair of London’s harbors. But some of the royal class found it inappropriate and harshly disapproved of the lottery.

Paper bills depicting sketches of prizes that people could win were distributed throughout the streets of London. Once the prize money was awarded in 1569, and repairs began on the harbors, playing the lottery had become popular amongst the British.

In later decades, the government continued to finance public works by having brokers sell lottery tickets to the public. Much of the public could not pay the cost of an entire ticket so they would then sell part, or a share, of the ticket to different individuals. These bookies eventually became what we know today as stockbrokers.

Lotteries to support private investments continued for almost 250 years until there was pressure from parliament, who considered the lotteries a moral outrage. They forced the lotteries to shut down in 1826.

But long before the lottery came to an end, the Company of London sold tickets to fund the colonization of lands in North America. Using these funds, they landed in 1607 near present-day Virginia Beach, eventually founding the colony of Virginia.

So, some might even say that gambling itself contributed to Europe’s colonization of America.

2 – The Croupier of Kings

Gambling was so popular amongst British royalty that they even had their own dedicated dealer, or croupier, named Sir Thomas Neale.

Sir Thomas began his rise toward wealth and fame as a royal lackey. His official title was “groom porter.” Unlike what it sounds, this was a royal appointment that held great importance, for he was in charge of the king’s offices and had many other duties within the royal palace.

Illustration of Sir Thomas Neale

He would eventually oversee the gaming hobbies of King James II, King Charles II, and King William II. He would provide royalty with cards, dice, and oversee the bets and payouts between the kings and their subjects.

Part of his success was owed to the fact that he found opponents for the king that were quite willing to lose which, of course, kept the king extremely happy and entertained. During the reign of King Charles II, Neale was appointed to oversee all gambling activity in London. At this time, he designed a pair of dice that would prevent cheating at gambling.

He was also instructed to shut down gambling dens throughout London that King Charles II disapproved of, while at the same time, he began lottery businesses of his own and made a great deal of money for himself.

For many years, he had a seat in the British Parliament. At one point, in the 1690s, he received a grant from the British Crown to establish a postal system in North America. This loose network of postmaster stations helped to create a network that eventually served as a more permanent US postal system.

Although he had built a network of powerful and wealthy connections throughout his life, he died penniless in 1699, because of his gambling habits and bad business investments.

3 – Gambling in the Middle Ages Was Only for the British Aristocracy

During the Middle Ages, a period of roughly 1,000 years, both the rich and the poor of English society participated in gambling. But the things they gambled on were completely different.

The upper classes wagered on cockfighting, horses, chess, and cards, when blackjack games were created. The poor, who didn’t have access to such activities, gambled on dice that they would make themselves, usually from bone or wood.

Gambling became such a popular activity in early British society that King Richard in 1190 set forth a set of rules that established who could gamble and how much they could wager. He proclaimed that gaming was only for noblemen, and they could only gamble 20 shillings per day.

Painting Portrait of King Richard II

Richard II in 1388, created legislation that put a halt to gambling with dice and other similar games and created other laws that prevented gambling from being practiced on workdays.

Several hundred years later, King Henry VIII outlawed all gaming for everyone except those who were members of the Royal Court. But commoners were still not allowed to gamble, except on Christmas and during other festivals.

The regulation of gambling during the Middle Ages was not intended to label gaming as immoral but was implemented as a way to control the commoners.

The aristocracy believed gambling set a bad precedent by allowing the lower classes to come into wealth that they should not have access to. They also thought that such activities disrupted society by distracting people from working.

4 – Britain Created Horse Racing as We Know It Today

In London, horse racing has been one of the most popular sporting events to gamble on since the 16th century. There are records of two-horse races occurring at Chester Racecourse as far back as 1539. This racecourse, also known as the Roodee, has been recognized by the Guinness World Records as the oldest horse track still in operation.

King Charles II considered himself quite the horse jockey. He was so crazy about the sport and gambling on it that he built a palace for his convenience at Newmarket, the racecourse he most frequented. The British have been racing horses at Newmarket for almost 400 years. Today, it is considered the “headquarters of British horseracing” and hosts two of England’s five Classic Races, the 1,000 and 2,000 Guineas.

In 1711, with the encouragement of Queen Anne, races consisting of multiple horses began to take off at Ascot Racecourse. This is also the site where many spectators began to place bets on races in big numbers.

As the popularity of gambling on the ponies began to rise, so did the shady practices by jockeys, horse owners, and bookmakers.

Wide View of Horse Racing in London

In 1750, the Jockey Club was primarily formed to ensure that horse racing remained under the control of noblemen. So, the club itself was essentially a high-society social club where men of high influence could gather.

They were the first to start using the word “jockey” to refer to horse riders, a medieval Gaelic word that means “horsemen.” And they were the first to have jockeys weigh-in before a race because the amount of weight a horse is carrying can influence the outcome of a race, especially over longer distances.

During the late 18th century, wagering on horse racing really took off. The amount of money that bookmakers took in at the track really fueled the growth of the sport and both the lower and upper classes made wagers.

The Jockey Club made sure to keep a certain criminal element out of horse racing and retained tight control over wagers that were made at horse tracks. But with the rise in popularity of the sport, came opportunity for lower class working men who became trainers, jockeys, and breeders.

5 – Gambling Made the Rich Poor and the Poor Rich in the 18th Century

During the 18th century, gambling became a dire problem in the streets of London.

Extremely different types of gambling experiences began to occur. The elite were often known to wager their family fortunes on high-stakes games. These usually occurred at private gambling clubs that were able to enforce big losses by high society members.

One notable high-stakes story involves a member of parliament named Charles James Fox. Over a three-year period, he lost wagers that totaled 120,000 pounds, roughly worth over $7 million today.

But as some of the first casino whales were losing their shirts at the gaming tables and being expelled from high society, some people from the lower classes were able to win a decent amount of cash, secure better employment, and leave the London slums where they had lived all their life.

At the same time in the 18th century, many of the aristocracy were also gambling on the newly-emerging stock market and losing every nickel, or rather shilling, they owned.


Are there other interesting moments in the history of London gambling I should know about? Let me know what you think in the comments.