Nowadays, casinos are commonplace in Britain’s towns and cities. Though the threatened Super Casinos never quite materialised in the manner that was expected, large casinos have been built in the likes of Birmingham and Southampton. The United Kingdom’s love affair with casino gambling has never gone away, even if the idea of turning somewhere like Blackpool into a British Las Vegas hasn’t yet happened.
The question we’re looking to answer here, though, is where it all began. Is it possible to identify a building or location that can categorically be called the UK’s first casino? How did the industry change to become what it is today? It’s also interesting to discover whether any of the casinos that were among the first to open legally are still around in the modern world or whether they’ve all made way for the newer breed of venues.
The UK’s History With Casinos
When talking about the first casinos that opened their doors in the United Kingdom, it is important to draw a distinction between casinos that opened after the Betting & Gaming Act of 1960 was passed and those that had opened hundreds of years before. In the 18th century, for example, there were private clubs that allowed the upper classes to gamble their family fortunes away, should someone choose to do so.
One of the most famous examples was that of Charles James Fox, a politician who ran up losses in excess of £120,000 playing a game known as faro. As he was influential in the sphere of politics, his allies supported him by covering his losses whilst his enemies attacked him over it. The middle classes also tended to gamble in private clubs, but usually the sums involved were significantly smaller.
By the 1850s, as many as 150 ‘betting houses’ operated in London. They took smaller bets, with a move to ban them simply resulting in the action moving onto the streets instead. Even so, card games took place in establishments that were known as casinos during the Victorian era, eventually being targeted by reformists and evangelicals in an effort to stop people drinking and gambling.
Whilst they were popular, they still weren’t accepted and the legality of such venues was questionable at best. Regardless, it was clear to see that the country’s relationship with gambling wasn’t going to change just because the more puritanical members of society wanted to protect the working class from the ‘evils’ of the activity. If proof of that were needed then the 75 million people attending greyhound races in 1946 will do it.
The Change In The Law
There were casinos in the United Kingdom well before the Betting & Gaming Act became law in 1960. The difference is that these were mostly illicit venues that you needed to be invited to enter, rather than what we consider to be casinos today. In fact, even when casinos started to open legally after the Act was passed, they still weren’t the open and welcoming venues that they are now.
The Act was passed on the first of September 1960, allowing bingo halls, betting shops and, of course, casinos to open their doors legally on Britain’s high streets. The key word there, of course, is ‘legally’. As we’ve already discussed, it’s not as if bookmakers didn’t operate before then or casinos didn’t exist but rather that they were underground activities that offered customers no legal recourse.
The aim of the Act when Harold McMillan’s government passed it was to take illegal gambling off the streets. There were obviously also going to be added benefits such as an increase in tax earned from these activities that people were doing anyway but which had now become legal and therefore taxable enterprises. The Act was created on the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Betting, Lotteries and Gaming.
The First Casino
Within five years of the Betting & Gaming Act being passed, one thousand casinos were opened on Britain’s streets. The question, of course, is about which one was the first. The answer is open to some debate, though it is widely acknowledged that the first legal casino was opened in Port Talbot, Wales. Countryman George Alfred James turned the first floor of his shop into The Casino Club.
The steel town of Port Talbot was the first in the United Kingdom to open what was, at the time, referred to as a ‘Monte Carlo like establishment’. It promised customers the ability to play roulette as well as certain other popular games of the time. The rules of the Gaming Act meant that it had to operate under an ‘equal chance’ rule, meaning that the casino didn’t have an Edge in the same way as modern ones do.
Casinos were only allowed to operate if they were member’s clubs, with the idea being that they would make their money from charging fees for people to join. The Casino Club in Port Talbot benefited from its location, close as it was to the seaside. It was also fortunate insomuch as the town was a major industrial centre, meaning that there was a fair amount of money flowing through it.
The success of the casino can be seen in its longevity, remaining open for more than fifty years. Given that it lasted into the 21st century, there’s an argument that it was the advent of online casinos that did for it rather than a downturn in interest as far as gambling is concerned. Perhaps its location in Port Talbot, once so crucial to its success, was also partially responsible for its demise as the town lost its industry.
As stated elsewhere, not everyone buys into the theory that The Casino Club was the first casino in the United Kingdom. The main reason for this is that member’s only and gentleman’s clubs had existed in London for hundreds of years prior to the Betting & Gaming Act of 1960. Perhaps the best example of this comes in the form of Crockford’s, which opened for the first time in 1923.
William Crockford’s St James’s Club, better known simply as Crockford’s, closed down in 1845 and then was re-opened in 1928, remaining open until 1970. Boasting a raffish and raucous reputation, the venue was centred around gambling and Crockford ensured it was popular by enlisting Benjamin and Philip Wyatt to build ‘the most opulent palace of gentlemanly pleasure’ in the capital.
Crockford’s closed down a year after its founder’s death. It was reopened as a bridge club in 1928, welcoming some of the country’s finest players through its doors. The likes of Terrence Reese and Kenneth Konstam were regulars, for example. Soon, though, it added the likes of roulette, blackjack and chemin-de-fer to its roster in order to return to the gambling traditions that had helped the club make its name in the first place.
Obviously the fact that Crockford’s had long existed as a gambling house is why it is part of the conversation for some people when it comes to discussing the country’s first ever casino. There were plenty of other gentleman’s clubs that operated in a similar way throughout the capital and other parts of the country, so they could just as easily be part of the conversation around the first casino.
The key, once again, is the word ‘legal’. That is why The Casino Club is widely considered to be the venue that takes the crown of the first casino in the United Kingdom, because it was the first to open with a licence to operate after the Betting & Gaming Act was passed. Plenty of establishments were you could place casino-style bets existed all over the country, but were operating illegally in doing so.