There was a time, not too long ago, when the death of bingo was being discussed on the evening news. Local and national reporters would stand stony faced outside a boarded up building to tell us of the latest bingo hall closures.
The general feeling amongst the public back then was that bingo was a game that had run its course, one with its glory days well behind it. Yet in the space of just 15 years the game has bounced back to a level that would make even Alan Partridge take note.
In this article we take a look at the wider journey of bingo, charting its rise from a popular charity pastime to a global phenomenon in the mid-20th century. Then circling back to its demise at the beginning of the 21st century and the resurgence that it has experienced in recent years.
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Early British Bingo
The game of bingo is thought to have originated in Italy in the 16th century before moving across the continent and finding its way to Britain in the late 18th century. In its first century or so on British shores, bingo was enjoyed more as an educational tool for children learning numbers, than a gambling game.
Then in the late 19th century and early 20th century bingo began to be played up and down the country at fairs and circuses as a means to raise money for charity. Prizes were material rather than cash and all profits would be put toward charitable causes.
Fun Fact: During World War One the British Government set up a fund raising campaign called ‘Tank Banks’ that challenged towns up and down the country to raise money to produce tanks for the war effort. 14 towns and cities raised over £2 million in funds with many using bingo as a fundraising method.
Following the ceasing of hostilities in the Second World War, Britain and its people embarked on a period of great societal change. One of the biggest shifts in behaviour was the mass migration from urban centres to suburban neighbourhoods.
After enduring a tumultuous 6-year war of terror and destruction, Britain’s public were no longer content to live in cramped, inner-city conditions. This led to the establishment of suburbia and the middle classes.
There was however a feeling that a move from cities to suburbia would decrease the sense of collective community and so, great efforts were made to bring people together in their new suburban neighbourhoods.
Bingo became a big part of this with bingo halls popping up throughout the length and breadth of the country in suburban neighbourhoods. The popularity of these establishments eventually piled enough pressure on the government so as to legalise bingo as a licensed gambling activity.
Physical prizes such as meat hampers and vouchers for hotels were replaced with real cash money prizes. The impact of this was seismic. Within a few short years of bingo’s gambling legalisation in 1960 there were 16 million registered bingo players in England out of a population of around 50 million!
Bingo played a big part in creating a sense of community in newly-built suburban areas.
In the following 30 to 40 years after legalisation bingo continued to be a commercial success in the UK, becoming a part of the cultural norm in the process.
A night at the bingo was as quintessentially British as a night at the pub or a Saturday spent supporting your local football club. There were road bumps though, the first of which was Margaret Thatcher’s war on the working classes.
In the late 1970s and 1980s the British Prime Minister not only demonized the working classes but took away the majority of their trade. As such many working class families had to prioritize putting food on the table rather than spending money on their hobbies – bingo suffered as a result.
By the turn of the millennium bingo’s popularity had been steadily declining for the better part of two decades. The government’s decision to introduce the smoking ban in 2005 was seen as the final nail in the coffin for bingo.
The stragglers who had stayed loyal to the game were predominantly smokers who chain smoked their way through packets of Regal Filters whilst enjoying their favourite bingo games. In the wake of this bingo halls all over the country began to close their doors for the final time – at one point, bingo’s playing numbers slumped below 1 million for the first time in over half a century.
The smoking ban looked like being the final nail in the coffin of the bingo industry.
Toward the end of the 2000s a couple of savvy online gambling companies took the decision to move bingo online. This move was at first greeted with great scepticism. There was a feeling, one based almost in fact, that bingo players were too long in the tooth to adapt to the online game.
That’s why the online industry began to market bingo at younger, more affluent demographics. Rather than appealing to the traditional bingo player, they appealed directly to working Mums and Dads in their late 20s to early 30s.
This gamble came off and last year there were almost 5 million registered bingo players in the UK and tens of millions more around the globe. Will we reach a stage where playing numbers return to that 1960s high of 16 million? We wouldn’t bet against it…
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