UK casino city guide April 2019
Where to gamble in Blighty
It is only in the last 55 years that casino gambling has been legal in the UK. Bingo halls – the lifeblood of so many a working-class area – were legalised in 1960 when the Betting and Gaming Act was passed. It was this legislation that would also usher in the country’s first legitimate casinos.
The history of casinos has two distinct tiers. The first of these is the illegitimate side which is hard to discuss in too much depth on account of so much of it having been conducted behind closed doors. Certainly it’s known that South London gangs such as the Elephant Boys hosted gaming events in and around the Elephant and Castle, the district from which they took their rather unusual name.
This nefarious past was to colour the early days of the legit London casino scene with Mayfair establishments such as Esmeralda’s Barn being run by Ronnie and Reggie Kray, the Bethnal Green bad boys who terrorised the capital throughout the early 1960s. Not that this was the first casino to open in the UK. No, it would appear that that honour must go to the Casino Club in Port Talbot, Wales. Serving its first customer in 1961, the club was owned by George Alfred James, who’d earn a reputation for himself as the country first casino mogul by opening further establishments in London and the north-west coastal resort of Southport.
If it took a while for casinos to catch on in the UK, it was largely because of the restrictions that the Betting and Gaming Act had imposed upon the industry. With the introduction of a new act in 1968, the way was clear for the phenomenon to spread. This it did in part thanks to the popularity of Chemmy, a Baccarat variant that proved a particularly big hit in the upmarket venues of Mayfair and Park Lane.
If it owes its origins to Britain’s worst so the country’s casino scene’s refinement came courtesy of those who considered themselves to be the nation’s best. Aristocrats with too much time and money on their hands brought gaming out of the gutter and into the most expensive venues in the land. Though many of these blue-blooded innovators are now dead, the establishments they created continue to exert a strong grip not only on the business but upon the popular imagination.
As the decades drifted by so casinos became more and more a part of everyday life. Further legislation passed in 2005 paved the way for what the tabloids referred to as ‘super casinos’. A bugbear of the Daily Mail and the blue-rinse brigade, the proposed venues never came into being but the change in the law allowed British casinos in general to assume far greater size and to offer an enhanced range of facilities.
Ten years since the 2005 Gambling Act came into effect, the UK’s casino landscape is very different indeed. Name a city and the odds are that it showcases not just one but a range of gaming venues; this in a country where there wasn’t a single casino prior to 1960.
And with this expansion has come, not the collapse of society, but a new addition to the range of events that can make-up the great British evening out. People who would never dream of setting foot in a betting shop or in paying a visit to a greyhound stadium revel in evenings at the local casino. And while the gambling might be part of the appeal, the fact that the bulk of customers’ money is spent on food and drink demonstrates that betting isn’t the be-all and end-all for casino-goers.
With regard to the future, it would seem that the greatest threat to Britain’s brick-and-mortar casinos is provided not by pubs and clubs but by people’s growing preference for playing at online casinos. Current figures put the UK’s online gaming population at a little over two million and that number looks likely to explode over the next few years.
Having waited so long for casinos to catch on in Great Britain is the general public willing to let them fail simply so they can enjoy the convenience of gambling in their front room? The most likely answer is that, with casinos now occupying a space on the country’s social agenda, they will continue to thrive since people will always be looking for a good time. And good times are a market the country’s casinos have cornered pretty comprehensively in next to no time.