Bingo was just a minority game in the late 1800s, played as “tombola”, “Lotto” or “Housey-Housey” by British and Commonwealth sailors and soldiers while on their, ships or at their far-flung outposts of Empire. There are reports of the game being played by Lord Kitchener’s armies during the First World War. Presumably anything that could allow the Tommies (British soldiers) some respite from the horrors of trench warfare would have been welcome.
At the end of the First World War, the game was brought back to England by the troops, and enjoyed some notoriety. Not least because this form of gambling hadn’t been regulated and was therefore illegal! It flourished in Royal British Legion and other Clubs where ex-soldiers relaxed. It was not only the men, but their ladies who also enjoyed the game, and an increasing percentage of women were drawn to the game.
The attitudes of local Police to the Bingo type games where money was changing hands was patchy across the country. In some urban areas, such as London, the games were disrupted and occasionally prosecutions occurred. In other areas, a more laid-back attitude was demonstrated. Some of the games were not even for money, but operated a kind of barter system, where food, clothes, and even services were brought to the Bingo table. If you win, you can have one of my two chickens, and if I win, I want a full day’s worth of labour off of you on my farm!
The game also became popular at festivals, circuses, side-shows at funfairs, and at the seaside. But again, it was soldiers and conflict- the Second World War that developed the game further. Once that war was over the game had well and truly taken root in the UK, and that’s when governments began to get involved and regulate all forms of gambling, including Bingo. A particular form of cheap and cheerful holiday had sprung up during the 1950’s in England. This was the “Holiday Camp” (captured brilliantly in the sitcom series in the 1980s “Hi-de-Hi”. Warner’s Pontins, Butlins all provided inexpensive family holidays, usually near the coast, for hard-up post-war British families. Bingo was popular at these camps, particularly during the not infrequent bouts of inclement weather that traditionally plague UK holiday resorts.
With the coming into effect of the Betting and Gaming Act 1960 on 1 January 1961, the floodgates opened. The first commercial Bingo club opened two days later, and within two years there were over 14 million members of Bingo Clubs!
And the game continues to develop, with online and mobile options for Bingo playing, as well as the traditional live land-based Bingo games. And I wonder whether Britain’s armed services still distract and amuse themselves with Bingo as soldiers used to many years ago?