An evening in the bingo hall is one of those classic British activities. In 2013, reports showed that there was 400 bingo halls in the UK; and while that number represents half of the bingo halls that existed in the country in its heyday, it remains an incredibly popular game in the UK.
So, what’s the story of bingo? And what’s the future of the traditional UK bingo hall? Read on to find out more.
A bit of bingo history
As a game, bingo has its roots in both Italy and France. A game of probability, it involves players marking off numbers on their cards as they’re drawn at random by a caller. In order to win the game, you need to be the first person to mark off all your numbers on your card. The origin story for bingo takes place back in Italy in 1530 and is based on the Italian lottery Lo Giuoco del Lotto d’Italia. From there the game travelled to France. During the 1700’s it became known as Le Lotto and was predominantly played by the French aristocracy. It continued to become popular across Europe, first being played in Great Britain during the 18th Century. In the 19th century, a similar game called Tombola was played in Germany and used as a tool in schools to teach children everything from history to maths and spelling.
While historians’ debate where Bingo gets its name, it has been recorded as being from early British slang as “A customs officers’ term, the triumphal cry being employed on a successful search”.
The bingo of the present
The late 20th to early 21st century saw the traditional bingo hall rise in popularity — especially with older people. But over the past ten years, it’s seemed to be in rapid decline at a rate of one closing every month. In 2005 there were almost 600 bingo halls, a number that was more than halved less than ten years later.
There are a variety of factors that have resulted in the closing of these traditionally well-loved establishments. The modernisation of the game has had an impact on its social nature — where in the old days, the numbers popped up on balls, technology has made it so that in many halls, these numbers are now generated by a small machine. Today, free bingo platforms offer convenience, the comfort of the online environment, something which old fashioned venues are unable to compete with. The high tax and the smoking ban have both had detrimental impacts, meaning many people now prefer to play the game online instead of physically visiting a bingo hall. And it’s easy to see why. Online bingo games can be just as fun as playing in person, and the ease of being able to play from anywhere — at any time — from your mobile phone, tablet or computer.
Bingo is now easily accessible and can be played anywhere.
Of course, there’s nothing like the nostalgia of playing in an actual hall. And the social environment can be important, especially to people that might not otherwise get many interactions outside the home. A 72-year old woman named Janet White, a bingo fanatic from Cheltenham, Gloucestershire said: “I’ve played for 40 years and if I didn’t come somewhere like this I’d be stuck at home,” she says. “It’s like a social club and I really enjoy the game as well.”
Francis Dyer, the manager of the Ace Bingo Club where Janet attends said: “Not only does bingo keep them mentally alert, for many it is a very important part of their life.
He adds: “When someone loses a partner they often go downhill very quickly and I’ve seen that with people who lose their bingo hall or cannot come anymore,”. Unfortunately, not everyone feels the same – and the rise in the amount of disused bingo halls has risen dramatically.
How are bingo halls salvaged?
Of course, disused bingo halls must undergo a transformation. They often have prominent positions in town and city centres, making them ideal acquisitions for both upcoming and established businesses.
Traditional bingo halls have been transformed into completely different establishments, including a block of flats in Portsmouth in June 2021 and a ten-storey, boutique block of 66 new apartments in Hoxton on the East End.
Although, gaining approval often isn’t easy. There were plans to build a state-of-the-art gym and offices in Westbourne, in place of a bingo hall which had been in operation from 1977 to 2021. Simon Bartlam, the businessman who acquired the building, explained that visitor numbers had fallen to about a quarter of their peak, so the bingo hall was no longer viable. But the application was refused by the council due to concerns about the loss of the community facility.
Arguably, the most interesting conversion has come in Brighton, where a disused bingo hall is now a new mixed-use headquarters for an expanding pharmaceutical company, creating 50 new jobs in the process.
Into the future
All is not lost for the future of the traditional form of the game.
The Bingo Association, the trade body for the industry, has called on the Government to align bingo’s tax with other leisure pursuits in the country. And bingo halls have made an effort to attract a younger, and more diverse, clientele by widening its offering. In Oldbury at Mecca bingo, the attempt has been to make the hall feel more like a nightclub than your traditional bingo hall, with themed nights, gigs by local bands and special events. Some bingo halls have updated their decor and even their technology, introducing handheld gaming terminals that have allowed players to have a more chilled out experience with friends while the devices focus on the game.
Some Bingo Halls have tried to attract a younger audience by introducing party themed nights.
However, just because there are a reduced number of people playing the game in its traditional format, the total number of players isn’t dropping. A report found that one in five people over 55 are now regularly playing bingo online. And with technology, and the games, improving every day, there’s definitely a reason more and more people are enjoying bingo from the comforts of their home.
It’s likely that the game will continue to be popular for people of all ages across the UK. As traditional halls may change to accommodate a younger crowd, and online bingo sites proliferate, it’s likely people will continue to play bingo for years to come.