90 Ball Bingo History

This article is about the history of traditional 90 ball bingo, which is the game played in the UK and other countries such as Australia and New Zealand. This developed separately from ‘American bingo’ or 75 ball bingo and the history of that game can be found on the history of 75 ball bingo page. It developed directly from early lottery games (see before bingo – the history of early lottery games) and you can read more about how 90 ball bingo developed in the UK below.
Pre-war (WW2) history of 90 ball bingo in the UK
Developing from the earlier lottery type games – in particular a game called lotto, tombola or housey-housey, it was recognizably the same game as modern 90 ball bingo as played in the UK and other countries such as NZ and Aus. It seemed to be associated strongly with the armed services, with the game of tombola being played on Navy ships in the late 19th century and housey-housey being played in the trenches during First World War. The cry of ‘bingo’ was called out when a winning line was hit even if the game itself was not necessarily called that at this time – the association of the term bingo with the game that we now call bingo was made by Edwin Lowe in the USA – see the history of 75 ball bingo. The cry of ‘bingo’ as an exclamation appears to have been a slang term from at least the 1860’s (from the shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles).
Fund raising games, more usually called tombola or lotteries, were organized by civilian entities such as churches and this tradition combined with servicemen returning from the war (First World War, then called the Great War) which led to the game being popular and widespread between the wars in the UK. However these games were technically illegal and sometimes broken up by the police, especially in metropolitan areas – in particularly London where the game was both very popular and also frowned upon by the metropolitan police. This situation existed up until the outbreak of the Second World War. By this time the game was being called Bingo.
Fairground bingo
Concurrent with the metropolitan growth of tombola into bingo between the wars, the game of housey-housey followed a similar pattern in seaside fairgrounds, and indeed travelling fairs. In such establishments games could be played for prizes but not for cash. Again by the time of the second world war the game was known as bingo and the game was very similar in play from the metropolitan version – albeit that fairground bingo was more played for fun and prizes and the metropolitan version somewhat more ‘underground’ and a form of cash gambling.
The main differences were that the fairground version of bingo was not necessarily played with 90 balls due to the limitations of the mechanisms used to play the game, with plastic boards and shutters taking the place of cards and markers. A 75 ball variant was somewhat common – and the boards and shutters layout has been recently reflected in the somewhat novel 80 ball bingo game available online – see how to play 80 ball bingo.
Post war history of 90 ball bingo in the UK
The popularity of the game was cemented during the second world war, and by this time the name bingo was established in civilian circles although it was still called housey-housey in military ones. This popularity continued after the war along with other forms of gambling and the UK government in various acts of parliament tried to control and make gambling illegal despite it being so popular, and also despite the government’s own commissions reporting that gambling amongst the British population was much more a social activity than a social problem. This attempt at control was partially helped along by the newspapers trying to whip up a moral panic about gambling.
In the 1960s however the game of bingo was put on a more legal footing and the setting up of bingo clubs was allowed from 1961. The following decade saw a large increase in bingo being played in clubs in Britain as the number of clubs increased greatly and the popularity of the game grew. A new gaming bill passed by parliament in 1968 tried to introduce very strict limiting controls on bingo and all forms of gaming and gambling – this mainly due to the authoritarian instincts of some parts of government combined with moralising by the newspapers. This lead to somewhat of a drop off in the participation in bingo in Britain, but it still remained very popular to this day – although online bingo (see the history of online bingo) is taking over from club based bingo as the smoking ban and the increase in bingo tax takes hold in the UK (the new high rate tax on bingo came in in August 2009).
Bingo goes online
When internet gaming and gambling started to arrive online in the early part of this century it wasn’t too long before online bingo rooms started opening up. These proved popular, but especially in the UK where rooms offered 90 ball bingo – however the international nature of the internet and web meant that bingo rooms could offer other types of bingo alongside 90 ball bingo. So the UK bingo fan could also play the US style 75 ball bingo as well.
The nature of online bingo means it is easy to offer variants on games and different varieties to choose from. The history of 90 ball bingo continues to take its place amongst in the networked world of online games, and of course can still be played at bingo clubs across the UK.