History of Casinos in the UK
There is a long history of gambling in the UK with the industry worth well in excess of £14 billion which includes all land based casinos, sports betting, lotteries, and bingo.
It is suggested that gambling actually dates back as far as the 16th century when Queen Elizabeth I introduced a lottery as a way of helping to raise taxes in order to help fund the building of the country’s infrastructure.
Also, there are suggestions that gambling, more specifically the game of hazard - which was an early interpretation of the game of craps - was invented by Sir William of Tyre in 1125, played by soldiers during the crusades and brought back to England from there. As a result, gambling was initially popular among the upper classes, with the activity quickly spreading around the country.
The UK has always had a strong affinity with gambling and today is one of the biggest engagers with the industry as a country. It also sadly means that the UK has one of the biggest and most widespread gambling problems in the world. Let’s look at how this all started.
Gambling in the Middle Ages
The middle ages was an interesting period of time for a kind of gambling which would look quite out of place today. Following the crusades it was King Richard I who carried on the trend, although this was only allowed for the more elite of society. Indeed, he banned anyone below the rank of knight (essentially, peasants) from partaking in gambling, though it is believed that they would still engage in this pastime illegally.
In 1461, however, King Edward IV’s government prohibited the activity of dice and cards, and two years later his parliament passed yet another anti-gambling bill to ban the importation of playing cards. However, there was a suggestion that this was a move to encourage their production in England. Despite King Edward’s apparent enthusiasm to outlaw gambling activity where he could, he actually introduced the blood ‘sport’ of fox hunting, bringing it out as a different variation called ‘fox and geese’ where the fox would hunt the geese and spectators would be allowed to bet on the outcome.
When King Henry VII came to the throne in 1485, he carried this stance of anti gambling in the country for the peasants. It was 1495 when his parliament passed a law that prevented ‘an apprentice, agricultural worker, labourer or employee in craft’ from gambling, while these restrictions did not apply to a privileged few of society.
There was perhaps a shade of irony to this; such was his apparent opposition to the legalisation of gambling, that King Henry VII would amass significant debts betting on dice, chess and tennis and as a result need to borrow from those around him.
Due to the fact that gambling was banned for the peasants and lower classes, it meant that the prizes that could be won were considerably high stakes. Money would change hands between the rich at an alarming rate, with King Henry VII placing a number of notable wagers.
These included £10 to Jakes Haute for tennis, £20 worth of gold to the King’s grace for playing cards and £3 to the Lord of York for a game of dice. In the 15th century, these sums of money were significant and allowing for six centuries worth of inflation would likely range from between five and seven figures comparatively.
The first sighting of an actual casino/gaming establishment in the UK was in 1828 when the gaming club, Crockfords opened on Curzon Street, London, with the backing and approval of the Duke of Wellington. After this proved to be successful, other gaming clubs started to open in and around London.
The Victorian era and Beyond
During the 19th century casino gambling became popular among the rich upper classes, with a number of establishments in and around the wealthy St James’ district of the West end of London regularly filling up. In Victorian Great Britain, gambling was all the rage.
Throughout the early 20th century gambling continued, especially in and around London, and now became particularly popular among the working classes. A well oiled system was set up, which involved ‘bookmakers’ taking residence in friendly pubs with runners employed to relay odds. While the moralistic middle class did their best to make this illegal with the 1906 Street Betting Act, the police were subsequently reluctant to enforce it and could often be paid to ‘look the other way’, while any gambling activity was taking place.
It was mainly the working class who contributed a substantial amount of support to the bookmakers during this time, as gambling provided more than adequate excitement for them in what was often a mundane existence. During World War I, soldiers played cards to pass the time and this is where gambling became more accepted between classes.
Following the end of the war gambling was still very much prohibited, though 1920s London appeared to be more active than ever with underground establishments attracting a range of different customers who happened to be in the know.
The Betting and Gaming Act of 1960 was the first legitimate step towards legalising gambling to everyone in the UK and it was met with widespread approval as many establishments started to appear, while those who were already operating illegal bookmakers and the like before turned into official gambling organisations.
As such, the West end of London became an attractive hub for all of the major casinos in the UK, with their glitz and glamour. While many of them still had a leaning towards the more gentrified of society - the majority reflected this by charging high annual membership fees - there was still an awkward stigma attached.
While London was the main gambling district in the UK, this soon began to spread around the country with casinos and bingo halls appearing in a number of the other big cities up and down the UK, particularly Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. What was also interesting was that port cities/towns were also gambling hotspots, with sailors who were on leave often finding that casinos provided the perfect activity to fill their time.
The Best Casinos in the UK
The UK is home to a huge number of casinos which have their own unique place in the gambling landscape. While some have a number of different themes, others are more in line with having a sense of the traditional about them.
Let’s take a look at some of the casinos which are most well known in the UK.
Park Lane Casino - Mayfair, London
Located next to the plush surroundings of Hyde Park, this is one of the most exclusive land based casinos in the UK, and this is reflected in the £1,000 membership fee. With a square footage of 530,000, it also has a popular roof terrace where guests can play a range of popular games such as baccarat, blackjack, roulette, poker and a number of slot games, while there are many different rooms in the casino itself where players can relax and unwind.
Comprising all of the features of a traditional casino, one of its major selling points is that it is particularly exclusive, and as a result it does not get too crowded. There is dining space for 60 people and ample floor space that can comfortably fit 100 gamblers, while there are also VIP rooms for those who wish to enjoy an ultra-exclusive and lavish evening.
The world class restaurant houses Michelin star chefs with cuisines from many different countries, the Dreams Bar serves a wide range of the most hard to find spirits and helps to contribute to an overall high class casino experience.
Hippodrome Casino - West End, London
Situated right on the corner of Leicester Square, the Hippodrome Casino features a different kind of opulence. It has had many lives but started in 1900 as a variety theatre housing sea lions and polar bears amongst other ‘acts’.
The main, distinctive feature of the casino is its main multi-level open space, offering great views from different floors. It also features a 180 seat theatre that hosts a variety of performances from cabaret, music and art; the Hippodrome has played host to a number of iconic stars over the years, including Michael Jackson, Shirley Bassey, Charlie Chaplin, Judy Garland and Tom Jones, among many others.
Since the casino opened in 2012, it has seen well in excess of 7 million people come through its doors, while it has also successfully catered for a number of weddings in true Las Vegas style, with space for 150 guests. Over its three stories, the casino houses 17 roulette tables, 16 blackjack tables, five baccarat tables, five three card poker tables and two dice tables (such as for craps), while there are also seven tombola roulette machines, 100 slot machines and four tables for playing mini baccarat.
Visitors also get an element of luxury with the opportunity to eat in The Heliot Steakhouse restaurant which is a particular selling point of the casino, while there are also many different bars to choose from serving a wide range of different drinks. The Arabian Nights Lounge on the first floor of the casino provides an assortment of entertainment.
Empire Casino - West End, London
Another casino on Leicester Square that used to be a theatre, this has an altogether different vibe to it, feeling not too dissimilar from an establishment you might find on the Las Vegas strip. That makes sense though, given that it is owned by Caeser’s Entertainment Group who have a number of casinos in Las Vegas, some of which are known to be the best in the world.
Laid out over 55,000 square feet, this casino has two expansive gaming floors with a host of different games available, including roulette, blackjack, three card poker, baccarat, punto banco, and pai gow plus a vast selection of slots.
In true Las Vegas style, there is also a VIP service for diamond, platinum, and silver card holders, which grants them access to the Dragon Lounge. Open mainly to the ‘high roller’s, players in the Dragon Lounge receive the ultimate in personalised VIP casino experiences. This includes anything from priority service for food and drinks, generous discounts, and quite often their own member of staff to see to their needs.
Perhaps one of the most distinguishing features of this casino though is its outdoor terraced garden which houses the Icon Balcony Bar and looks out over the busy areas of Leicester Square and Covent Garden, while the Carlsberg sports bar allows guests to watch all of the main sporting events. The FuLu Shou restaurant is especially popular and specialises in Asian cuisine.
The Colony Club - Mayfair, London
Another casino in the highly exclusive area of Park Lane, this establishment combines ultimate luxury with perfect simplicity. Its exclusive location in one of the plushest areas of London means that the interior more than adequately lives up to expectations, and the main gaming floor is made up of uniquely handcrafted furniture of dark mahogany as well as brass and cream leather upholstery.
Boasting a wide selection of gaming tables including roulette, blackjack, and three card poker, there is also a range of jackpot slot machines, two of them having progressive jackpots with the chance to win £20,000.
At the Colony Club guests can also make the most of 24 Mayfair, which is the hospitality side of the casino and features a bar that rivals some of the very best in London, serving rare cognacs and vintage wines, while the restaurant features dishes from all over the world on its menu, cooked to perfection and served in a private dining room for the most intimate occasions. Within the restaurant, guests can make the most of the Teppanyaki Bar and indulge in a unique casino live cooking experience.
Their VIP service offers high rollers the chance to play in private rooms, surrounded by marble, wood and glass with stunning views over the capital and uninterrupted, dedicated, one-on-one table service. This all comes at a price though, with different levels of membership available starting from £1000 per year. Open 24 hours a day, this is quite easily one of the most exclusive casinos in London.
Horizons Casino - West End, London
In the heart of the casino district, just off Leicester Square, visitors can find the Horizons Casino which is one of the only establishments in London to allow walk-ins from non-members. Previously called Napoleons, one major difference with this casino compared to others in London is that it attracts a large number of tourists due to its location.
Featuring a number of games including blackjack, baccarat, three card poker, American roulette, as well as a number of slot machines, there is enough choice on offer here for even the most accomplished gambler.
Despite this being a less exclusive casino, the location really helps to give it a great atmosphere and the bar has a ‘Happy Hour’ every day from 4 until 7pm with very reasonable prices for a wide range of drinks. For those who are hungry, the restaurant also serves a wide range of meals, again at competitive prices.
This is a bustling, buzzing casino for the everyman to enjoy. It doesn’t have an exclusive feel to it, but it promises a great night out packed with fun.
Grosvenor Victoria Casino - Edgware Road, West London
Known affectionately as ‘The Vic’, Grosvenor Victoria is in an ideal location for tourists and its defining feature is its poker room, which has been the location of worldwide tournaments and regularly features on the ETP (European Tour Poker) and The World Heads-Up Championships.
Alongside this, there are a number of games which the casino offers including blackjack, roulette, three card poker and dice (craps) as well as a range of different slot machines, some of which feature progressive jackpots.
In terms of hospitality, there are a variety of options available. This includes the main restaurant which has a distinctive Arabian theme with dishes from Lebanon, Kuwait, Morocco and Yemen, while the bar serves a variety of complementary cocktails, spirits, wines and beer.
What perhaps differentiates ‘The Vic’ from other casinos is that this has more of a ‘brand’ element to it compared to the others, and the name itself has considerable pulling power especially among poker players.
The Barracuda Casino - Marylebone, London
Situated in central London just off Baker Street, The Barracuda is one of the only Grosvenor casinos to have its own unique name and is very popular with tourists what with it being surrounded by a number of hotels. One of the reasons for that is because, despite its upmarket location, it has a very relaxed dress code.
It has plenty of regulars too and this mix of tourists and well known customers is what gives the casino its unique atmosphere. It’s a very cosmopolitan place, and there is always something going on so it is lively too.
Visitors can enjoy all of the usual games that you can find in a casino at the Barracuda, including American roulette, blackjack, and baccarat as well as slot machines with progressive jackpots featuring prizes which exceed £10,000.
The casino’s restaurant is particularly well known for serving a diverse menu of cuisine from all over the world at affordable prices, while there is also a VIP program with a number of different benefits.
Rainbow Casino - Edgbaston, Birmingham
This ‘free to enter casino’ is particularly well appointed with a functional layout across its main gaming floor and features European roulette, blackjack, baccarat and three card poker. It is also housed in a beautiful old building just off the main road in a quiet residential area, so it is a haven from busy city life.
Although they have branches located in Aberdeen, Bristol and Cardiff, this is their flagship and houses the Clarendon Restaurant on its first floor which has a multi-cuisine facility and caters to a range of customers.
One of the unique selling points of the Rainbow Casino is that it offers lessons to first time gamblers from dedicated staff, while it also provides VIP packages and party packages. This is another casino that appeals to the average casino player rather than trying to be exclusive.
Genting Casino - Fountain Park, Edinburgh
Another casino which also caters for poker fans, this is a great for those who want to take part in poker tournaments as they hold a number of Texas Hold’Em competitions most weeks. As well as this, visitors can also enjoy three card poker and electronic multi-win poker. While it is quite rare to find casinos which have a large area that are dedicated to poker, there are a few around the UK which do fit the brief, especially those which are used to host national poker events.
With American roulette, baccarat, blackjack and baccarat available this functions just like a normal casino, however, the 5-star Fahrenheit restaurant serves some of the finest Scottish cuisine in Edinburgh.
Another benefit of playing here is the offers and promotions the casino runs, both for playing casino games and for using their facilities such as the restaurant.
Grovsenor Casino Leo - Liverpool
Perhaps complementing the vibrancy of the city, Grosvenor’s Liverpool base opposite the Albert Dock is in one of the trendiest areas of the city.
The casino features a considerably large poker room which is the highlight of the casino, housing a number of poker tournaments on a regular basis, but there is also roulette, blackjack and punto banco amongst others.
What is particularly impressive about the Leo is that it has an attractive VIP system with members able to earn access to a range of unique benefits, as well as their own membership ‘black card’.
With two cocktail bars which show live sporting events, a restaurant with waterfront views, and a private meeting room, this casino has it all when it comes to modern evening entertainment.
Why are Casinos and Gambling so Popular in the UK?
The UK has long had an affinity with gambling as a whole, and even the least exclusive casinos have an air of glamour and excitement to them which helps to entice the average British casino goer. Hollywood has doubtless played its part too with numerous movies featuring casinos such as ‘Casino’ and ‘Ocean’s Eleven’, while in the UK, James Bond has been an influence.
Mostly though, it could be argued that casinos and gambling are so popular in the UK for the same reason that people play the lottery every week - the ‘what if I don’t’ sensation or the ‘fear of missing out’. The Lottery’s own slogan says it best: “It could be you.”
For regular casino attendees, they are drawn to the possibility that they could win big at any moment or somehow beat the system, and most would have their preferred casino game that they enjoy the most, such as roulette. Of course, for some people bravado also plays a part in the appeal.
From the 1960s onwards when casinos opened up in the UK and gambling became legal, the majority of the UK population were working class, many of whom were desperate to change their situation and looked to gambling as a way to achieve this.
Over the decades that followed as the country became collectively wealthier, casino popularity in the UK became an in demand social activity. The surge in demand saw many new casinos built around the country, while you also had big chain brands becoming established as well as influence from Las Vegas who identified opportunities for expansion into the UK high street market.
While online casinos are all the rage these days, land based casinos still get their fair share of visitors. Although to help them compete many land based casinos also have the option for their members to play online as well.
It seems highly unlikely that casinos or gambling will ever lose their appeal in the UK, we Brits just love a flutter and the excitement that comes with that. The companies know this and marketing has increased significantly, with many casinos using clever advertising strategies such as using celebrities to endorse them and become brand ambassadors. This has proved particularly successful over the last couple of decades but there is always something new around the corner.