The Betting and Gaming Act was passed on September 1, 1960, paving the way for betting shops, bingo halls and casinos to appear on British high streets.
Before the Act went through Parliament, there were no legal betting shops or casinos in Britain – and legal betting on horse racing could only take place at the tracks themselves.
Harold Macmillan’s government hoped that the new act would take illegal gambling off the streets, allowing punters to walk into local shops to legally place their bets. It was also a response to the post-war rise of bingo – or ‘housie’ – which had been a popular game among the armed forces during World War II and grew in popularity when the troops returned home.
The Act followed the 1951 Royal Commission on Betting, Lotteries and Gaming, which deemed gambling to be a “relatively harmless issue” and recommended that off-course betting should be legalised – not least because it would raise money for the government.
The bill legalised not just betting shops but also gaming machines in pubs. Bingo halls and casinos were also made legal – as long as they were members-only establishments and took their money from membership fees and charges.
Applications from bookmakers and other establishments were accepted from March of the following year – and when betting shops were allowed to open from May 1, 1961, they did so at a rate of over 100 a week. After six months, there were around 10,000 betting shops in Britain, reaching 15,000 in 1968.
These new betting shops bore little resemblance to the ones we know on our high street today, however: their windows were blacked out, there were no seats, no televisions or radios, and no loitering was allowed. As the Home Secretary at the time, Rab Butler, later explained: “The House of Commons was so intent on making betting shops as sad as possible, in order not to deprave the young, that they ended up more like undertakers’ premises.”
One thousand casinos were set up during the first five years of the Act. Welshman George Alfred James opened what is believed to be the first legal casino in 1961, turning the first floor of his Port Talbot shop into The Casino Club. James would go on to shape the gambling industry in Britain, opening casinos across the country, bringing croupiers over from Las Vegas, and introducing the ‘jost’ roulette wheel from France.