Starting with the earliest first, let’s focus on the aforementioned royal (King Henry VIII) and his gambling ways. King Henry was an avid gambling and dice man, but when his soldiers began spending their time betting as opposed to fighting wars and the like, Henry put his foot down and banned his army from gambling. Did this stop him from playing, you might ask? Of course not!
Sir Thomas Neale now has a street named after him in Covent Garden (Neal Street) and his role in royal society was essentially croupier to the kings. Neale acted as a groom to Charles II, James II, and William III, and his main task was making sure the King’s table was furnished with dice, cards, and people willing to lose to his Majesty. It wasn't until 1684 though, that Charles II gave him some real power and assigned him the role of overseeing gambling in London and shutting down illegal gambling dens. In 1870, “King Street” was renamed “Neal Street”, preserving Sir Neale’s lasting impact on gambling and London.
Daniel Defoe was an extraordinarily prolific pamphleteer, whose most popular work is Moll Flanders which was composed in 1722. The novel charts the downwards spiral of Moll, as she becomes more and more desperate to make money and is reduced to thieving, shoplifting, and whoredom across London. In one particularly memorable episode, Moll enters a raffling shop, when a well-dressed gentleman offers to place some money on a raffle for her. He presents her with the prize then asks her into his coach. Moll, being a wily one waits until the man passes out (he was rather drunk) and proceeds to steal all his items from him. Moll often enters into gambling games, only to con the other male players out of the cash and belongings. Daniel Defoe’s text on poverty and decline in 18th century London is an iconic and striking social commentary that hit a mark with the middle and upper classes who were worried about the effects of drink and gambling.
Gambling was a key problem of the 1700s and caused fluctuations between the rich and poor. It wasn’t surprising for a poor fellow to win some cash on a card game, get a well-paying job, and quickly leave the slums where he began life. Similarly, the rich could easily lose all their cash on flamboyant bets and move in to the same newly vacant slum. Gambling and gin were the main “vices” of 18th century London, leading gambling clubs to be renamed “hells” and gambling slums “lower hells”.
After the emergence of a primitive form of the stock market, many began to treat the market as a betting game, often with sour results. Government funded lotteries also proved particularly treacherous, with many losing their entire life savings on these games.
A century on and quite a bit had changed in the world of gambling. In 1828 William Crockford, with the sponsorship of the Duke of Wellington, opened Crockford, which is now London’s oldest casino. Now located on Curzon Street, in Westminster, Crockford is still London’s most exclusive and stylish casino, something William Crockford we're sure would be proud of.
In 1841, Charles Dickens allowed readers a slight insight into his own views on gambling, with his book The Old Curiosity Shop. Dicken’s Victorian yarn tells the story of little Nell and her grandfather, who live in his shop of bric-a-brac. Nell’s grandfather, in a desperate attempt to leave her with an inheritance that will take her out of poverty, begins playing cards and racks up a terrible debt. After being harassed by the evil debtor, Daniel Quilp, Nell’s grandfather, has a breakdown and the two flee to the Midlands. Another relative begins a search for Nell, but by the time he reaches the pair Nell is dead, due to exhaustion from the journey. Dicken’s tale is one of his most famous and both modern day and Victorian readers can’t help but be touched by this terrible story of gambling and loss.
Moving into the 20th century, gambling in London is now synonymous with the Kray Twins. In the 1950s, the Kray Twins owned part of Esmerelda’s Barn, a popular casino in the exclusive and rich area of Knightsbridge. While the twins didn’t have much say in the business, they managed to pocket and incredible amount of money from it. When Reggie went into prison, Ronnie became more and more involved with the workings, which caused great worry to the casinos manager, as he was effectively ruining the once fruitful business. The manager offered Ronnie £1000 a week just to stay away, but he declined and the manager soon packed his bags. Through the casino, the twins were opened up to a world of celebrities and Ronnie even dined at the House of Lords.
Gambling became more mainstream on 1 May 1961 when a new Betting and Gaming Act went into effect throughout the UK. Wagering on games of skill like bridge and betting small sums of cash was now fully legal. A thousand betting shops popped up across London and fruit machines became common in pubs.
After gambling was legalised in the early 1960’s, the Clermont Club was the first casino to be granted a license. When it opened in 1962, the casino attracted the likes of Princess Margaret, Roger Moore and Peter Sellers and still remains one of London’s most respected clubs. Other casinos like the Golden Horseshoe and Charlie Chesters were widely popular with Londoners and tourists alike.
With public support, the government tweaked the Gambling Act in 1963 and again 1968. This ultimately introduced greater regulation to the industry and created local gambling boards tasked with overseeing gambling. By 1970 the number of casinos in the United Kingdom not only dropped from 1000 to 120, but London was dubbed the most tightly-controlled gambling city in the world. At the same time, casino gaming remained legal and patrons from across Britain and Europe flocked to London.
Thanks to legislative changes over the past decade, gambling thrives once again in London. The city is home to 25 casinos ranging from intimate clubs to vibrant establishments that wouldn't be out of place in Las Vegas. While other global capitals have a couple casinos at most, London has something for every taste and budget. Even as Londoners are free to enjoy online gambling, it's not hard to see why players want to take in the nightlife and embrace history all at once.
There's no denying that gambling is an interesting part of London's history, even if the story is sparingly told. The next time you try hitting the jackpot, you'll know full well that you are part of a winning tradition.