A nation’s rough habit, Piet de Jong

On A Roll: A History of Gambling and Lotteries In New Zealand
David Grant,
Victoria University Press, $39.95

Victoria University Press has backed a winner with this history of gambling and lotteries in New Zealand.

The subject has everything. It is packed with amazing stories, has left behind plenty of documentary evidence, generates strong opinions, is economically vast (around $5 billion a year) and until now has been neglected as a subject for serious social history.

Take the amazing stories. They come at about the rate of one a page – and there are 336 pages in this encyclopaedic and immaculately researched work. They are the kind of stories which make you laugh and say to whoever is in the room with you: “Did you know that a major prize in Queen Elizabeth’s first lottery in 1659 was immunity from arrest for seven days, except for major crime.”

If you are alone at the time you pat the cat or get up and make a drink as your mind takes a little journey – wondering what it would be like to have immunity from arrest for seven days. Or live in Elizabethan England. And then you are back into it. Feet curled beneath you on the couch: “68-year-old widowed Pahiatua mother of eight wins the big one in 1929 with her last 3 shillings”, “drunk Golden Kiwi winner falls down the stairs and dies.” Poor bugger. I’m really enjoying this book.

But not every user of this book will be reading it on a couch. It is a serious history of gambling. Grant drapes his lively stories out to dry over a powerful institutional framework. Hastily sketched the framework goes like this …

Teeming in the back streets of Victorian England were thousands of working people, rolling hoops with sticks and generally drinking gin, rutting and gambling. This lively lot were joined in the ships to New Zealand by a smaller measure of idiot aristocrats, whose minds were half blown with in-breeding and too much snuff. On reaching New Zealand each continued its tradition, one lot betting pennies on anything that moved – a boxing fight, a cockfight or two flies crawling up a window – while the other lot were in the Canterbury Gentlemen’s club betting (sometimes literally) sheep stations on a hand of cards.

Meanwhile the two central dialectics of New Zealand gambling began to rumble.

In the first of these, religion versus gambling, Protestant ministers rode about on horses to condemn gambling with as many colourful alliterations as they could muster – rum, romanism and rebellion; sin, satan and sensuality. That kind of thing. (Incidentally, I think historians rely far too much on these colourful expressions. They are cute because they are colourful and the language is anachronistic. They have survived in a few well-known speeches and sermons – but does the historiographer’s undue reliance on them distort history?)

These protestant types then spend the next 100 years beating up on gambling until they are cunningly bought out because their own charities begin to rely heavily on the annual grants from the proceeds of lotteries.

The other big dialectic is state control versus anarchy as the organising principle for gambling. Early on it was pretty much do whatever you want to do – the frontiers of the gold field, the village in the bush, the troop ships, the desert. But bit by bit (thankfully, I feel) the state has got the screw on and dampened down the worst excesses and scored the revenue for redistribution to (surprise, surprise) the middle-class causes of sport, arts and culture.

Make no mistake about the extent of this funding: the Hillary Commission for Sport and Recreation, the Arts Council Toi Aotearoa and the New Zealand Film Commission all rely on it.

Grant’s admirable, patient and reliable account of these two central dialectics is leavened by a foray into the weltanschauung of the New Zealand Chinese community and an even briefer one into the mindset of Mangere women playing housie.

The Maori relationship with gambling is an echoing silence in the book.

Along the way Grant deals with cards and dice games, horse racing, lotteries and casinos. He investigates the impact of new technology on gaming methods and spending and is especially good on the political machinations of dividing up the lottery spoils. At one stage under a National Government National-held electorates were receiving 3 pounds for every pound distributed in Labour-held seats.

An aspect of the book I greatly enjoyed was the author’s apparent engagement with the mindsets of New Zealand’s two longest-serving lottery organisers. A Mr McCarthur served for 44 years and a Mr Kiddle served for 22 years. The honorifics are deliberate. These men seemed to be public servants in the true sense of the word and managed to run a dirty business without a hint of dirt in 60-odd years. I was interested and concerned to learn that Keith Hancox’s company, Kiwi Lotto, had been one of the most vociferous groups bidding to operate Lotto. Along with Fay Richwhite, it missed out. The Government stuck with a state-controlled model.

Another major gift of the book is the engagement it permits with one’s personal history of gambling – whether it is the disappointment of being “hushed” by Mum because she “just” wanted to hear the “scratchings from Trentham” or a grandmother who was always checking her Art Union ticket.

Just in case you also remember the expression “Art Union” and you also have no idea what it means – I had better explain. Back in the days when the dialectical clash between the pro-testants and the pro-gamblers was at its height, the only acceptable way of packaging a state lottery was to pretend it was a fund-raising exercise for artists. And for many years the prizes were literally works of art. The name was officially used until 1959, but my grandmother was still calling her weekly Golden Kiwi an “Art Union” until 1977, when her enduring concern with the financial health of the nation’s artists was ended prematurely by an experience not unadjacent to death.

What are the “scratchings” anyway?

I always used to think that they were injuries caused by keeping the racehorses in paddocks with barbed-wire fences. But if this was the case, why did the number of scratchings increase on wet days? Because the horses slipped over and scratched themselves on the barbed wire, stupid! Of such childhood misunderstandings are books like Janet Frame’s To the IsLand made. And resentments against horse racing entered.

On a Roll brings dozens of richly resonating words rolling to the front of your mind; words like “Bone-Crusher”, “Golden Kiwi”, “Haining Street”, “trifecta”, “second leg of the double” (something to do with those barbed-wire fences again?), “one dollar each way”, “calcutta”, “full house”, “crown and anchor”. It is almost a pleasure to hear these words again. Like finding an old photo album.

But, just like old photos, they hide a lot of pain.

And Grant is not particularly good at recovering this pain. He does delve into oral history in places but tends to suffer from colourful-language-itis. He does produce compendious statistics about spending (and they are always staggering), he does repeat the religious denunciations of gambling, but in the end, and perhaps this is a criticism of the medium of written histories, he cannot say what the pain of winning and the joy of losing was actually like for anyone. He cannot isolate the turning point in an individual’s life – when Taupo Tiger or Kungfu Boy floundered in the mud and lost by a nose. Or when a fortune went west. Or east.

And I am not just talking about the big losses – a thousand here or there. They are tiny when compared to the little losses: the loss in communication within families, the loss in communication between an individual and their own soul. Gambling and its inseparable companions, tobacco, alcohol and sexual excitement, come between a person and living. They mitigate against planning and development for the long term: self-improvement, pride and love.

For the most part David Grant maintains a professional distance from the moral dimensions of the issue at hand. The fact of his employment by a vitally interested party in the gambling equation, the New Zealand Lotteries Commission, does provoke the reader to interrogate this book for bias. And I believe, regrettably, slithers of such bias are present. I refer to the defensive tone in the final sections dealing with Lotto and Instant Kiwi and particularly his interpretation of a 1990 statistic that 8% of 8-14-year-olds were “playing” Instant Kiwi. The statistic, he says, seems to indicate youth gambling is not a problem. I disagree.

Of course, as with all the best history books, the next chapter of the book of gambling remains to be written. Casinos are here and people are already losing money on them. Why, the very contenders for the casino licences had themselves to put up non-refundable deposits of $840,000 just to bid for a licence. Another dark horse in the race is gambling machines. Grant reveals that $850 million a year is already going down the slots.

It goes on.

The TAB is currently trying to get people to return to the horse track. Their advertisements try to humanise racing by focusing on the personality of the jockey Lance O’Sullivan. A heavy male voice-over says something like: “He controls over half a ton of flying horse. Pound for pound he’s stronger than Inga the winger.” The metaphor remains unclear. It does not say whether the statistic includes the horse!

The good news is that as this goes on New Zealand history and sociology now has a near-definitive text on the background to the current issues. David Grant has created a framework and assembled information which will have a shelf life of at least a decade. After reading this book I can resume life with a heightened awareness of gambling history, if not the psycho-sociological causes and effects of this, our nation’s rough habit.


Piet de Jong, a Wellington writer, once won $654 with a $1 bet on a horse called Kung Fu Boy. His specialist topic for a sociology masters, later published as Saturday’s Warriors, was New Zealand’s rugby sub-culture.


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