By 1566, England’s harbours and coastal defences were looking a little shabby. To fix them, Queen Elizabeth I would either have to raise taxes (boo) or hold a glittering prize draw and raise the money that way. Unsurprisingly, she chose the latter.
Selling tickets for the chance to win a prize was nothing new. The idea had been around on the continent for at least a hundred years, where lotteries were sometimes held by merchants looking to shift expensive stock that wasn’t selling.
On 11 January 1569, outside the west wing of the old St Paul’s Cathedral in London, punters huddled together against the chill to see what they had won in England’s first state lottery draw. The event was hardly a runaway success. Less than 10% of the 400,000 tickets had been bought at ten shillings each. (If you thought that was a bit steep, you could always buy a share of a ticket – a sort of Renaissance office syndicate.)
Every ticket was guaranteed a prize, and that made for a lot of waiting around – until 6 May to be precise. Prizes ranged from silver plate and tapestries to a £5,000 jackpot, so it was worth bracing the winter weather.
Your lottery ticket was a blank piece of paper. On it, you wrote your name and a unique ‘device’, which often took the form of a prayer or a line or two of verse. One ticket that survived from the 1569 lottery read, “God send a good lot for my children and me, which have had 20 by one wife truly”. It’s probably fair to say they needed the money.
The way lotteries were run in this period, explains historian Lorraine Daston, is that a child, who was sometimes blindfolded, would pick a name ticket from an urn, and pair it with a prize written on a slip of paper drawn from another vessel. The device of the winner would be read out, but not the name, to protect the winner’s identity. This was repeated over and over again, until all the prizes had been given away.
England’s defences received a much-needed spruce up from the money raised, just in time for the Spanish Armada to call in in 1588. But overall, the lacklustre take-up of England’s first lottery meant that in 1571, the whole scheme was quietly shelved.