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It Could Be Ye: England’s first lottery


The first Elizabethans did not need Camelot to warn them: ‘it probably won’t be you.’ They quickly worked out for themselves that odds of 1 in 16,000 in winning Queen Elizabeth I’s great lottery of 1568 – England’s first – were stacked to high and they abstained en masse from playing – much to her embarrassment since she had hoped to raise enough money to repair the nation’s dilapidated harbours. Today’s lottery odds of 1 in 14 million would have been totally beyond their comprehension.

Yet, at the time, it must have seemed an ingenious wheeze to Sir William Cecil, arch flatterer, manipulator and principal secretary of state to Elizabeth, in one of the most extraordinary personal and professional partnerships in English history. It had been a good ten years for Cecil, the original Sir Humphrey. He had craftily so extended the powers of the office of secretary that he was now able to interfere in virtually everything from top level international diplomacy to increasing the amount of fish in the national diet. With his support the young Queen, spirited and highly intelligent though disconcertingly capricious on occasion, had made an excellent start. Since her coronation in 1559, England had enjoyed relative peace and prosperity. Compared with the revolts in the Netherlands and the increasingly fierce conflicts in France, governing the nation had been reasonably smooth. And Cecil could justifiably take much of the credit.

However, the outlook was darkening. Events in Europe were starting to impact, seriously disrupting England’s cloth trade, which comprised two-thirds of its exports and underwrote tens of thousands of jobs. Anglo-Spanish relations were fast deteriorating, the Irish wars were beginning to cost too much, and in the Channel, English pirates were ever bolder in threatening trade.

Rebuilding the navy and the merchant fleet was vital, in tandem with the need to restore the ports. Some, like Ramsgate and Sandwich, had declined dramatically due to the sea receding and rivers silting up; harbour mouths became blocked. Calais had been lost to the French a decade earlier, while its counterpoint Dover, the best naval base on the Channel, needed to unblock and repair its superb coastal harbour.

Mismanagement was rife. So poor was Winchelsea that it could not pay its share of the wages of the bailiffs the Cinque Ports used to regulate fisheries; Romney and Sandwich defaulted on upkeep payments and their mayors were threatened with imprisonment. Squabbles soared. A General Brotherhood (the assembly of the Cinque Ports) held at Romney records that serjeants at law had to adjudicate on many ‘fynes, contemptes, stryves, variaunceis, contencions, douttes, questions, debates, varieties, and ambiguities’.

So it was clear to Cecil that resources were needed to improve the ports and their management at a time when sea power and trade were key to England’s prosperity and defence. But how to raise the money? None could be provided by taxation. Parliament, determined to keep England the lowest-taxed nation in Europe, would approve expenditure only at times of real crisis. Nor could any be got from further loans on the Antwerp money market since interest rates there had already soared to an exorbitant fourteen per cent. None could be provided from the Queen’s own income, since she always overspent it. No wonder Cecil complained: ‘lack of money is the principal sickness in this Court.’

Fortunately, his genius lay in dreaming up innovative ways of funding unusual expenditure. Already, in order to pay German mining experts from Augsburg to work mines in the Lake District, he had introduced the then revolutionary idea of a one penny tax on each household, the so-called ‘Peter’s Pence.’

He looked overseas for inspiration and found it across the North Sea in England’s mirror image: the Low Countries. English merchants trading there reported that cities such as Ghent, Utrecht, Antwerp and Bruges had eveloped a particularly clever method of raising public revenues for building fortifications and other municipal projects: a lottery.

By quizzing traders who had seen it operate, Cecil became convinced the idea would work for England, but then he had the unenviable task of convincing Elizabeth, who was suspicious. In this, she resembled another strong-willed female leader who, four centuries on, was to entertain doubts about another national lottery in the United Kingdom: Margaret Thatcher. It took all of Cecil’s guile and obsequious charm to persuade the reluctant monarch.

Eventually, she agreed; on 23 August 1567, a Royal Proclamation was published, heralded as ‘A VERY RICH LOTTERIE GENERALL WITHOUT ANY BLANCKES.’ The proceeds were for ‘the reparation of the havens [harbours] and the strength of the realme and towards such other publique good workes.’ Posters five feet high and twenty inches wide advertising ticket prices and showing off the prizes were displayed prominently on walls and doors around the City of London.

But the lottery was not popular; the public simply did not trust it. Optimistically, it was hoped that 400,000 tickets would be sold at ten shillings each to yield a net profit of £100,000 for harbour repairs. The plan was to give nearly 30,000 prizes of a total value of about £55,000, returning to each of the 370,000 unlucky players half a crown, or twenty-five per cent of their original bet. The first prize was £5,000 (an attractive £100,000 in today’s money) split £3,000 in cash, £700 in gold and silver plate, and the remainder in good tapestry and the highest quality linen. The second prize was £3,500 (£70,000 today) divided into £2,000 in money, £600 in plate and the rest in tapestry and linen. There were eleven more premier prizes declining in value to £140 and then various others from £100 to 14 shillings. In addition, the very first person to draw a winning ticket got a ‘Welcome’, a bonus of silver gilt plate worth £50, and the next two ‘Welcomes’ of silver plate each worth £30 and £20 respectively.

Foreigners were enticed to take part by only having to pay half the export duties on goods won or goods purchased with money prizes, though given the notoriously corrupt and chaotic customs system of the day, they could probably have got away with paying nothing. The Dutch benefited the most.

Other ingenious incentives were offered such as the freedom from arrest for a seven-day period for criminals coming into the larger towns to buy tickets, though those charged with major crimes such as murder, treason or piracy were not eligible. Guaranteed safe conduct may have been the theory, but in practice it did not work for those naïve enough to trust the amnesty. A State official called I. Aldaye wrote to Cecil on April 30 1569:

‘A prisoner in the Counter [one of five prisons in Southwark] for debt. Thought he should have been protected under the Proclamation for the Lottery, but it was made a jest of.’

Tickets were available in the City of London from the Feast of St Bartholomew (24 August 1567) and also in York, Norwich, Exeter, Lincoln, Coventry, Southampton, Hull, Bristol, Newcastle, Chester, Ipswich, Salisbury, Oxford, Cambridge, Shrewsbury, Dublin and Waterford. In a shrewd move, the Proclamation was sent out in the targeted counties by officials such as Justices of the Peace and sheriffs. Cecil knew most of them personally. They were instructed to set up boards of collectors and promised that for every pound collected in ticket sales the chief collector would be given sixpence to be split among his assistants. It was made very clear that their job was to sell as many tickets as possible to ordinary members of the public. Approaches were made to the 3,500 Merchant Adventurers who ran the cloth trade from ports along the east and south coasts and who represented the bulk of England’s exporters. Members of this government-backed body living in Antwerp were also asked for support, through a special agent called George Gilpin.

Even at this stage, Elizabeth was uneasy. This can be deduced from the letter’s threat to arrest, try and punish for slander anyone who spread stories that the money was for her own private use.

From the start, support was low; even the Irish, belying their reputation as a gambling nation, bought tickets worth less than £500. The length of time between the initial sale of the tickets from 24 August 1567 (the latest day for buying was 15 April 1568 for the country, 1 May for London) and the draw due on 25 June 1568 was a huge disadvantage. Later lotteries were careful not to repeat this mistake. Players were also so confused over precisely when the draw would take place that on 13 September 1567 the lord mayor of London had to issue his own proclamation promising that the draw would not be postponed beyond June 1568 without ‘very greate and urgent cause.’ He spoke too soon. The ill-fated draw had to be put off several times by royal proclamation in the vain hope that enough tickets would eventually be sold. So few were taking part that on 3 January 1568 the Queen issued another proclamation postponing the draw on the grounds that the money collectors had not received their instructions in good time, on account of some being ill, others having died, and others being too busy with their public duties.

At first, Cecil was convinced that a major propaganda campaign to persuade boroughs, towns and villages to enter would do the trick. Lacking the resources and techniques of today’s mass media and the services of spin doctors, he decided to send a body of twenty surveyors backed by treasurers, collectors and hundreds of constables to tour the country and whip up enthusiasm. This operation was to be masterminded by a surveyor of the lottery, appointed with strict instructions to ensure ‘that ther shall not one parishe escape but they bring in some money into the Lottes.’ The campaign opened on 12 July 1568 with a circular, probably one of the first direct mailshots in history, being sent to all Justices of the Peace, treasurers, mayors, sheriffs, bailiffs, constables and lottery collectors already appointed in Kent, Sussex, Surrey, Southampton and the Isle of Wight.

This urged them to sell more tickets. Initially, the surveyor, wielding an iron fist beneath a velvet glove, seemed to be making progress. A number of municipalities paid up. Even Yarmouth, traditionally independent, bought two blocks of tickets each worth £15. Its motto read:

Yermouth haven, God send thee spede 
The Lord he knoweth thy great need

Another deserving port, Hastings, also subscribed, stating hopefully:

From Hastings we come
God send us good speed
Never a poor fisher town in England
Of ye great lot hath more need

Rather louchely, Brighton declared:

Draw Brightemston a good lot
Or else return them a turbot

The lord mayor of London, who bought thirty tickets, said simply:

‘God preserve the Cytye of London.’

Despite the best efforts of this Queen’s army of surveyors et al, the scheme continued to be viewed with the deepest suspicion by Elizabeth’s not so loyal subjects, who remained untempted by the beautiful silver and gold plate on display as prizes at London houses such as that of the Queen’s goldsmith and engraver to the Mint, Antony Derick.

These dazzling exhibitions helped to encourage contributions from City livery companies. Towns, public bodies and individual Justices of the Peace and sheriffs also bought tickets as a civic duty. The public, convinced they were being diddled, did not. So many books of tickets had not been returned that Elizabeth had to proclaim another postponement until 11 January 1569. The draw itself was a farce, the sixteenth-century equivalent of Carry On Up The Lottery.

It took place in a timber and board lottery house built against the wall near the west door of old St Paul’s Cathedral. Although as dilapidated as any of the harbours, it was an appropriately raucous and raffish venue for a lucky draw. Lackadaisical senior clergy had allowed the whole area to be degraded into a mix of public market, street carnival and promenade ground for Elizabethan fashion victims.

Money-lenders operated in the south aisle, horses were sold in the nave and servants waited to be hired at a central pillar. Choir boys swarmed ‘like so many white butterflies’ around gallants entering the building to demand an entrance fee. Porters carrying beer casks and great baskets of fruit, fish and bread, butchers, water-bearers and colliers with sacks of coal used the nave as a shortcut, while horses and mules were often led through the building. The font served as a convenient meeting place for settling debts and making payments; St Dunstan’s chapel had become a glass storehouse and parts of the crypt had been colonised by stationers and trunk-makers whose constant banging and knocking disturbed church services. Drunks and beggars slept on the pews, urinating and defecating where they lay; it was ‘veryye lothsome to beholde.’

Outside, it was worse. Brawling, and the drawing of swords was common. Archers practised longbow and crossbow shooting using the cathedral’s external statues as target practice. Hoodies of the day threw stones at the pigeons, crows and jackdaws, further vandalising the semi-ruined parapets which towered over the square mile of narrow streets just up from the River Thames.

It was in this circus-like atmosphere – Cecil, control freak that he was, must have hated it – that the draw, preceded by a trumpeter, began on 11 January 1569. The process was laborious, long-drawn out and continued ‘daie and night’ for four months until 6 May.

Delays were inevitable. Because one twelfth only of the £400,000 had been collected, under the terms of the original scheme, the prize list had to be reduced to about £9,000 instead of rather more than £100,1000. So, under this system, the first prize winner could expect to receive only £416, 13s and 4d (being a twelfth of the £5,000 top prize). On the other hand, the number of chances given to each ticket was increased in inverse proportion to the reduction of prize money. This meant the name of each player of ten shillings was placed twelve times in the lottery wheel containing the counterfoils. Thus in one wheel 400,000 counterfoils were placed, inscribed with the players’ names and mottos. In the other were placed 29,505 prize tickets bearing one twelfth of the original value, together with 370,495 blanks. The problem was to match the two sets of tickets because each had to be drawn by hand from the two wheels. Some livery companies became suspicious and despatched representatives to attend the draw in twenty-four-hour shifts.

Attempts were made to liven up these tedious proceedings through a device similar to that used in the Low Countries. In order to conceal the identities of ticket-holders, jocular remarks had been written instead of names on the counterfoils of the sold tickets. These were read out to jeers and cheers of the crowd, swilling ale and munching pies baked by an enterprising entrepreneur in an oven cheekily dug into a nearby buttress. They were the progenitors of the joking TV personality presenting the weekly results of the UK National Lottery.

Protestants assembled there would have surely applauded, ‘In God I hope and a fart for the Pope’, contribution of William Seintleger of Canterbury, who held ticket number 230,364.

Everyone must have been baffled by Thomas Watson of Cirencester, ticket number unrecorded, who had written the decidedly enigmatic motto, ‘The head of a snake with garlic is good meat.’

Annam Waldegrave of Buris, ticket number 343,775, was refreshingly straightforward with her ‘Seeing shillings ten, shall thousands win/Why should I fear to them in.’

Desperation clearly crept into the offering from William Dorghtie de Westholme, ticket number 193,315, who implored: ‘God send a great lot for my children and me, which have had twenty by one wife truly.’

The lottery was not a success. Despite everything, it sold fewer than 34,000 tickets at ten shillings each instead of the 400,000 originally planned and raised less than £5,000 instead of the £100,000 envisaged. No-one seems to have won very much. The Drapers contributed £54 and received in return some undistinguished pieces of armour which, not being soldiers, they could not use. Sportingly, they gave a two-shilling tip to the lottery house porter and sixpence to the servant who brought the useless breastplates to their hall. The only person who benefitted, if a report filed by the French Ambassador, Monsieur de la Motte Fenelon, is to be believed, was the Queen herself. According to him, she withdrew a large sum of the prize money for her own use shortly before the draw. As she always found it impossible to live within her income despite frequent investigations by auditors, people believed the slander.

As for rebuilding the ports, an emergency twelve-month loan had to be raised from London merchants via the Privy Council. Future repairs, including the modernisation of Dover harbour, relied on bizarre schemes such as charging a two shilling and sixpence fee for all new licences for the nation’s taverns.

Although Elizabeth never launched another public lottery, twenty years later she rewarded the lord mayor with ‘bason and ewre’ for organising a private one. Some livery companies such as the Drapers, distrustful on account of the 1569 debacle, did not subscribe. Its purpose is not known, but this time great care was taken to run the event honestly and efficiently, with ‘certaine psonnes of credite and trust.’ The draw, held at the Lottery House in St Paul’s churchyard in June 1585, was witnessed by many respectable City men, including three witnesses from the Merchant Taylors’ Livery Company. It took just four hours, from 8am to noon, instead of the four months of the port’s lottery. It was not free from controversy.

Five years later, Sir Richard Sherborne, Lord Lieutenant, Lancashire JP and secret Papist, was charged with an amazing variety of crimes including adultery, incest, threatening to hang constables, never lending money to the Queen and ‘retaining sundry sums due to people on the end of the last lottery.’ For the remainder of Elizabeth’s reign lotteries were out of fashion.

Extracted from Fate’s Bookie: How the Lottery Shaped the World by Gary Hicks

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