A Letter from London: Gambling becomes big business: Girilal Jain

It was a long time ago that a Frenchman described the British to be the biggest gamblers in Europe. He said: “They gamble for fun in the same way as they play tennis and cricket. It is a game.” While the first part of the statement remains true the second has become wholly out of date. Gambling is no more a mere game. It has become big business.

The total estimated turnover in all forms of gambling last year was over £762 million – £14 per head of the population and twice as high as only five years ago. This year the figure is expected to touch the £1,000 million mark. No wonder the famous joke that if only the British saved this amount for a few years they could buy the United States has gained wide currency. The official description of the amount of gambling in this country as “stupendous” is surely one of the great understatements of the decade.

In spite of the many innovations horse races retain the first place in the gambling business. The turnover last year was £440 million, an increase of £50 million over the figure for 1960. Only a small fraction of those who bet on horses go to race meetings. They crowd the thousands of betting shops listening to the “blower” commentary. The dog tracks present an even more deserted appearance. But the betting on dogs goes up each year. The figure last year was £125 million.

Then there are the famous football pools. Over twelve million people do these pools every week. Last year the turnover was over £101 million, £10 million less than the previous year. This fall was, however, more than made up by the steady increase in fixed odds betting. In 1961 it was £45 million. This year it is expected to exceed £70 million. This shift is said to be taking place because many matches end in a draw and there are not many high dividends.


Bingo clubs are the latest craze. These clubs have sprung up in hundreds all over the country following the enforcement of the Betting and Gaming Act which was intended to “prevent the commercial exploitation of gaming.” They are so organised that they do not fall within the purview of the Act and yet frustrate its very purpose.

Bingo clubs usually charge two shillings six pence as admission fee. The cost of a card is two shillings though sometimes there is a special card of ten shillings for the last game. Each club organises two or more sessions of three hours. All that the participants have to do is to cross out the numbers as they are called. Some people spend as much as £5 a week in the hope of getting a prize. This year the turnover is expected to be £ 50 million. This business is proving so profitable that cinema halls and theatres are being converted into bingo clubs.

Britain has its own casino as well. This opened at a hotel in the well-known seaside holiday resort of Brighton, about thirty miles from London, barely six months ago. Already it has 4,000 members who pay an annual subscription of £3 each. As many as one thousand crowd the casino on Saturday and Sunday. The number is smaller on working days. They start at 8.30 at night and play till three, four, five, six and even seven in the morning.

The popular game here is chemmy. The roulette wheel is used in this game of heads or tails, and the odds are strictly even. While in a straight roulette game one can walk about and place the bet whenever one likes, in chemmy one has to sit down to at least one round lasting 35 minutes. The participants have to pay a table fee for each game. The favourite is the £2-table with a minimum bet of one pound and the maximum of £20. Since bets tend to near the maximum the turnover in one game can be as high as £600.

High Table


By top standards of gambling here the table is an ordinary affair. At Crockfords, the best known gaming club in London, the session fee at what is called the high table is £10. Here, as at Le Circle, the Twenty-one Room and Aspinalls New Club and the Clermont, gambling is organised in the old style of private parties when one can lose as much as £1,000 and more in one evening.

Hundreds of “clubs” of yet another kind have sprung up. On the face of it they are just bars. Three doors lead off from the bar, one marked “ladies” and one “gentlemen”. The third unmarked door leads to the green tables. Two persons guard the entry to the table room. Two young girls stand on either side of the table spinning the roulette wheel and taking the bets. In London such clubs have been established in Soho (as disreputable as ever in spite of the ban on soliciting), Fulham and Chelsea.

The question is being asked whether the people can afford to gamble on this scale. The answer has to be yes. Personal incomes in the country, according to a report published earlier this week, rose from £11,900 million in 1951 to £22,600 million last year. In terms of real value the rise may not be as impressive as the figures suggest but it is considerable. The biggest income rises were gained by people who used to earn under £5 a week after tax. Today the average weekly earning of an industrial worker (male) is neatly £16.

The growth of gambling is only one of the results of this sizable use in personal incomes. Over 1.8 million more people own homes compared with 1951. Most of them have bought their houses on mortgage loans. The debt on this account has also doubled in less than ten years. At the end of last year it stood at nearly £2,900 million. Not only the houses but their equipment and furniture and the cars have been financed with borrowed money.

Hire Purchase

Three homes out of four have a vacuum cleaner, one in three a refrigerator, one in five a washing machine and eight in ten a television set. The number of cars rose from 2-1.2 million in 1951 to six million in 1961. As a result hire purchase debt doubled between 1955 and 1961. Last year’s figure was £972 million. The slogan is “live now pay later.” The hire purchase system may not be as crude and vulgar as described in the novel of the same title and the film based on it. It is criticised on the grounds that it induces people to live beyond their means. In fact the system has arisen in response to the psychological needs of new entrants to the middle class in search of the necessary status symbols.

While incomes and debts and the turnover on gambling have only doubled, the incidence of violent crime among the teenagers has almost trebled in the last ten years. No one has been able to pinpoint the causes. The official report said: “Whether these crimes are instigated by the incessant programmes of violence on television is a matter of opinion. But undoubtedly the strong flood of violence among youngsters has swept in since commercial television began”.

This is, of course, only one side of the social life in Britain. The other side is that people buy and read more books than ever before. The interest in music, arts and sports has grown. More people go abroad – 3½ million in a year. There is more dancing here than probably in any country in the world – five million go dancing every week. The people eat better than ever before. They spend 30 per cent of their incomes on food. Teenagers are half an inch taller and three to four pounds heavier than ten years ago.

One result of improved health is early puberty. The average age of marriage has come down to 22 for men and 21 for women. The number of teenage marriages has more than doubled for both boys and girls in last ten years. One in five of these teenage marriages ends in divorce. The official view is that these trends in social life have come to stay.

The Times of India, 22 December 1962 

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