11th January 1569: the First National Lottery (With a Difference)

On this day in 1569 the first lottery ticket went on sale in England. Elizabeth I, being the business-headed woman she was, wanted to invest more money in the country’s ships, ports and harbours. Why not? It would make England better able to trade, better equipped for war and generally more badass than ever before. The problem was that development wasn’t cheap.

In 1566, Elizabeth hatched an ingenious plan to improve the shipping industry (and various other developments), whilst managing not to piss off her subjects by raising taxes…never a popular idea. She would host ticket sales to nobles for their chance to win stuff which matched the value of the revenue it generated. She would then draw the tickets in a couple of years time, therefore securing herself an interest-free loan for 3 years. Thus the lottery was born.

The tickets were available for ten shilling, which sounds like nothing but was actually a shit tonne of cash in the Elizabethan era,( to keep things in good spirits, she let libraries enter for free). The tickets were so expensive to ensure that the rich would enter, generating a boat load of money for the state, a shit load of excitement for the folk who had been lucky enough to enter and probably a few years of resentment to those who couldn’t afford it.
Anyone who was anyone simply had to have a ticket, meaning the prizes had to be something spectacular in order to make the mere 400,000 entry vacancies appeal to the rich and successful – and spectacular they were.

The prizes ranged from luxury goods such as silver plates, tapestries and cloth, to artefacts belonging to the queen. The first prize was £5000 (which would be equivalent to a few millionish in today’s cash), with subsequent prizes being cash values of descending order. BUT one prize was by far the most attractive: a one week ‘get out of jail free card’. You could commit just about any crime and swan off lording over your victim knowing they could do fuck all about it – well anything except piracy, murder and treason that is.

For the poorer section of the Elizabethan middle class, there were syndicates. People would buy tickets and then sell shares on to the giddy and gullible that were willing to be fleeced for a share of the fun.

The prizes were announced on scrolls sent out up and down the country. The public went wild for it. The tickets were all sold by May 1st, 1568 and on January 11th, 1569 the tickets were drawn in the steps of St.Paul’s cathedral.The crowds were enormous and the excitement was high. The lottery was so successful that subsequent lotteries were held, however they soon fizzled away as people decided to keep their cash.


the lottery prizes as advertised in scrolls

There is a lesson in this somewhere for Camelot, (the UK Lottery operator), but I’m not sure I know what it is.


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