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The First English Lottery

The First English Lottery
by Anthony Waldstock

The efforts to establish a National Lottery in the UK in the latter half of the 20th century met with fierce opposition from church groups, anti-gambling groups and some charities. It was not until 1994 that this opposition was overcome and the currently thriving and popular National Lottery established. Supporters of the move had argued that failure to establish the lottery not only meant that the State was unable to raise badly needed additional funds for “good causes” but it also left Britain looking rather puritanical and foolish beside our continental neighbours who had long enjoyed the weekly flutter. In fact,it did more than that – it made modern Britain look foolish and puritanical in comparison with its 16th, 17th and 18th century predecessors. The first English lottery was an extraordinary affair initiated by Elizabeth I in 1567…..

The First English Lottery


Find St Paul’s on the Map

On January 11th 1569, at the west door of St Paul’s cathedral, began the extraordinary process of drawing the winning tickets in the First Lottery to be held in England. The draw continued, according to John Stow, “day and night till the sixth of May”.The first list of prize winners in the draw of 1569

The origins of the Lottery go back to the early years of Elizabeth’s reign. The Tudor State finances were in a parlous state from the reign of Henry VIII onwards. When Elizabeth succeeded to the throne England was “a relatively poor country and the standard of living was low. In the production as well as in the consumption of wealth, in industrial technique and scientific skill, she was markedly behind her nearest neighbours on the Continent. Her extractive industries, with the exception of lead and tin mining, which were of ancient standing, were so backward that it was necessary to import Germans to run the copper mines at Keswick; and coal was only beginning to come into its own as a fuel, either for the forge or the domestic hearth” (Black, J B, 1959, The Reign of Elizabeth, The Oxford History of England, pp. 236-7).

England’s greatest economic asset at the time was the cloth and woollen industry. English sheep and wool were acknowledged as the best in the world. The industry was, in fact, crucially important to the national economy. For example, for the year 1564-5 it accounted for 81.6% of the total value of all goods exported from England. However, 42% of the export trade in woollen products was in the hands of foreigners and the finer branches of the process were practised in Holland, not England. Indeed, at the beginning of the reign, the export tr5ade in cloth, so far as it was conducted by English merchants, was confined to Antwerp where the Merchant Adventurers had their staple. However, there had been, since 1550, a gradual expansion of industry and this slowly brought about an awareness that foreign markets were increasingly essential if the expansion was to continue. This, together with the added stimulus of the growing rivalry with Spain, was to mark Elizabeth’s reign as the watershed in England’s exploitation of the sea.An early Lottery ticket

This great movement to expand England’s horizons demanded, however, ships and, even more important, well equipped and developed ports – both of which demanded the investment of large sums of money. The exchequer did not have the resources to provide the required finances and other means had to be sought. Amongst these was the Lottery which, in 1567, Elizabeth’s Government authorised Pietro Grimaldi and George Gilpin to organise. Grimaldi was an Italian banker with some experience of fund raising by this means – the first lottery had been held in Florence in 1530 and had quickly spread to the other Italian states. The broadsheet which advertised it promised “a very rich Lottery General, without any blanks, containing a great number of prizes, as well of ready money as of plate.” The intention seems to have been to raise the sum of £200,000, half of which would be paid out in prize money.A range of lottery tickets dating between 1793 and 1820

The first prize was set at £5,000 which was made up from a combination of cash, plate and furnishings. A second prize of £3,500 was similarly constituted and a descending scale culminated in 9,418 prizes of 14 shillings in cash. Tickets were priced at ten shillings and were therefore out of the reach of the ordinary citizen. A great deal of pressure was put on institutions, such as the London Livery Companies and town corporations to buy batches of tickets. As an added incentive, all purchasers were promised freedom from arrest for crimes and misdemeanours other than murder, felonies, piracy or treason.

The closing date for the purchase of tickets was May 1st. 1568. However, the response was nothing like what was hoped for and this deadline had to be extended. As yet another incentive, interest was to be paid on all money invested after June 1568 and before the date of the draw. However, this was still not enough and the overall subscription was so low that the total prize money available was reduced to a mere £9,000 about one twelfth of the original.A list of prizes in a lottery of 1746

The method of finding the winners was extremely complicated as the original number of 400,000 tickets was retained even though they had not all been sold. To make the numbers add up and because of the shortfall in sales, each holder of a ten shilling ticket had his name entered twelve times. There were two piles. In the first were 400,000 counterfoils with the purchasers names, in the other, 29,505 winning tickets, whose value was scaled down by one twelfth, plus 370,495 blanks. The draw proceeded by drawing a ticket from the first pile and matching it against whatever was drawn from the second pile. The prizes actually awarded were nothing like those original intended and, in fact, the scaling down resulted in some very disappointing “wins”. For example, the lowest prize amounted to one-third of a penny, the recipients of which included the Lord Mayor, Thomas Rowe, and the corporations of Cambridge and Bexley.A 1711 certificate of a subscriber of £100 to the Million Bank

Subsequently there were regular lotteries to raise State funds between 1694 and 1768. Funds from the Million Adventure Lottery which was held to fund a government loan in 1694 were used to establish the Million Bank. This bank converted the funds into a long-term investment that ran until 1796. One of the most notable of subsequent lotteries was the London lottery of 1612, established by James I in order to raise funds for Jamestown, Virginia – the first British colony in America. There were some mutterings when two of the three winning tickets were found to be held by Anglican churches. Another was the lottery of 1753 which was held to raise funds for the establishment of the British Museum – it raised £300,000. Lottery tickets continued to be expensive and out of reach of the majority of the population. In the 1740s a lottery ticket cost £10 but did offer the opportunity to win a prize of £10,000. The last national lottery of the 19th century was held n 1824. Besides the national lotteries there were a number of smaller ones which were held for specific purposes. Examples of these were that held to raise funds for the construction of the Sunderland Bridge and the Lying-In Hospital in Dublin. These smaller ventures were required to be scrutinised by the Board of the Inland Revenue and as a result the Public Record Office in London (https://www.pro.gov.uk) has a variety of accounts and tickets from them in its collection.A ticket from the 1766 draw

In the 20th century the introduction of the Premium Bonds in 1956 could be seen as a form of lottery for, although designed to encourage saving, they included the incentive of a range of prizes awarded in a monthly draw. A proposal to re-introduce a national lottery was made in 1968 but it was shelved amongst fierce opposition from church and anti-gambling interests and it was not until 1994 that the current National Lottery was established.