There’s been a lot of fuss recently about the British National Lottery, which has recently increased the number of balls from forty-nine, to fifty-nine, decreasing the chances of winning the top prize from one in fourteen million to one in forty-five million. The first English lottery, which was drawn, or rather began to be drawn, on this day in 1569 had much better odds. Everyone won a prize. Also all the money that was raised was spent on prizes. 40,000 lots were sold at ten shillings each. That meant it raised £20,000. The top prize was worth £5,000 made up of £3,000 in cash £700 in silver and gold plate and the rest in tapestries and expensive fabric. The many smaller prizes were either luxury goods or a small cash prize. I imagine you’re wondering how anyone profited by this. Well, they didn’t, not really. But rather than waiting till the end of the week to find out if you’d won, the ticket holders had to wait three years. The tickets had been sold in 1566. What the money did do was provide an interest free loan for the government which was used for the: “reparation of the havens and strength of the Realme, and towardes such other publique good workes”. Specifically it was used to strengthen our ports at a time when England was competing with Spain, Holland and Portugal to set up colonies overseas and establish export markets.
To promote the lottery, scrolls were posted all over the country showing drawings of the prizes on offer. Despite the tempting prizes and the assurance that no one would lose, ticket sales were slow . Queen Elizabeth was forced to offer other inducements to ticket holders. Anyone with a ticket could visit certain towns in the kingdom and do anything they liked there for seven days, without fear of arrest. Just so long as it wasn’t treason, murder or piracy. The drawing of the lottery began on January 11th outside Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Each ticket had to be matched against a prize and recorded. It took a really long time. The lottery continued to be drawn day and night until May 6th. I’m afraid I don’t know who won the big prize.
It can’t have been a huge success, Because the second ever English lottery seems not to have taken place until 1585. it was to win a rather splendid suit of armour. We know that in 1612, James I granted a lottery to raise funds for a colony in Virginia which was won by a poor tailor, so that’s nice. Lotteries really took off in the reign of Charles II. The government had learned by this time that they could make far more money if they included ‘blanks’ in the draw, which meant there were people who didn’t win anything at all. They would raise money for a scheme by selling £10 shares in the lottery to brokers who actually paid around £16 for them. The brokers then offered the tickets to the public for about £20. In practice, not many people could afford to buy a whole ticket and it was common for them to sell a person half a ticket, a quarter, an eighth, even a sixteenth. The money they could get from sixteen people for a sixteenth share would be more than the £20 they could get for a whole share, and they made the most money this way. What you have here, in essence, is a stock market.
Lottery brokers would vie with each other for custom by advertising how many previous winners they had sold tickets to. As though, just because they had once had a couple of winners, they were somehow lucky and would be favoured again. One firm of lottery ticket contractors paid an old woman £50 a year to become a nominal director simply because her name was Mrs. Goodluck. Then, as now, people had their favourite lucky numbers. Some people won and their stories were recorded: The baby who won £1000 the day after his birth; an innkeeper who won £20,000 and bought a new coach and horses for the coachman who brought him his ticket, but mostly they lost. The real winners were the government and the brokers. By 1826 people had got a bit fed up with the way the lottery was run and the whole thing rather imploded. Robert Chamber’s, in his Book of Days has rather a lot to say about lotteries on his entry for this day. Writing in 1864, he can’t believe people could ever have been so stupid as to think they had a chance of winning. I wonder what he would think if he could see us now?