World’s First National State Lottery

The world-famous Sydney Opera House cost $102 million to build, largely paid for by a state lottery
The world-famous Sydney Opera House cost $102 million to build, largely paid for by a state lottery

by Ray Setterfield

January 11, 1569 — The world’s first state lottery took place on this day. There had been lotteries for centuries but this was the first truly national event.

It was instigated by Queen Elizabeth I who wanted cash to repair and refurbish England’s ships, ports and harbours, so boosting trade and at the same time making the country better fit for war.

The Queen’s advisers had told her that the option of a rise in general taxation would be deeply unpopular.

This, however, was not to be a lottery for every Tom, Dick or Harry: the cost of a ticket was a hefty ten shillings. That was only half of one pound sterling, but it was a sum beyond the means of most working folk.

The thinking was that to raise the serious money the Queen needed, the lottery would have to be aimed at the rich who would happily hand over the expensive cost of entry if fabulous prizes were dangled before them.

And they were. The first prize was £5,000 – equivalent to many millions today. The value of the prizes then decreased so that the tenth prize, for example, brought the winner £200. The prizes were to be paid partly in “ready money” and partly in plate, tapestries and “good linen cloth”.

There would be 400,000 lots (tickets) and scrolls advertising the lottery were posted up and down the country announcing:

“A very rich Lotterie generall, without any Blanckes, contayning a great number of good Prices, aswel of redy Money as of Plate and certaine sorts of Marchaundizes, having ben valued and priced by the commaundment of the Queenes most excellent Majestie, by men expert and skilfull: and the same Lotterie is erected by hir Majesties order, to the intent that suche commoditie as may chaunce to arise thereof after the charges borne, may be converted towardes the reparation of the Havens, and strength of the Realme, and towardes such other publique good workes. The number of Lots shall be Foure hundreth thousand, and no more: and every Lot shall be the summe of Tenne shillings sterling onely, and no more.”

Syndicates were formed so that poorer people could share in the fun. The tickets were all sold and on January 11, 1569 the lottery was drawn by the Queen herself on the steps of St.Paul’s Cathedral in London before an enormous excited crowd. There is no surviving record naming the lucky winner.

One of the great attractions of the lottery was the equivalent of a “get out of jail free” card. For a week, everybody who bought a ticket was immune from arrest for any committed crimes other than piracy, murder or treason.

About 150 years later the novelist and dramatist Henry Fielding wrote: “A lottery is a taxation upon all the fools in creation; and heaven be praised, it is easily raised, for credulity’s always in fashion.”

Had he said that in Elizabeth’s time he probably would have needed the “get out of jail free” card!

But as well as making some people very rich there is no doubt that lotteries have cultural significance. Some historians believe that the Great Wall of China was built partly using cash raised by a form of lottery. And in modern times construction of the world-famous Sydney Opera House was largely funded by the New South Wales state lottery.

In America, religious objections to this form of gambling were overcome in 1655 by the astute organisers of a lottery held in New York (then named New Amsterdam). Participants were asked to estimate the approximate number of bibles sold in a specific time period!

Published: January 2, 2021
Updated: May 6, 2021

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