UK: Other Legends - Get a ticket to be taken for a ride.

UK: Other Legends - Get a ticket to be taken for a ride. - Taking money from those who can least afford it, promoting idleness and greed ... they were saying that about a national lottery back in the 1500s. Plus ca change?

by Rhymer Rigby.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Taking money from those who can least afford it, promoting idleness and greed ... they were saying that about a national lottery back in the 1500s. Plus ca change?

'As soon as I have received the money, I will marry Grace Towers; but, as she has been cross and coy, I will use her as a servant. Every morning she shall get me a mug of strong beer with a toast, nutmeg and sugar in it; then I will sleep till ten after which I shall have a large sack posset (a spiced milk drink laced with alcohol). My dinner will be on the table by one, and never without a good pudding. I will have a stock of wine and brandy laid in. About five in the afternoon I will have tarts and jellies, and a gallon bowl of punch; at ten a hot supper of two dishes.

If I am in a good humour and Grace behaves herself (author's italics), she shall sit down with me. To bed about twelve.'

Thus wrote a London footman in the late 18th century, describing how he would spend his days when he won the national lottery. Fortunately for Grace, the object of his rather twisted affections, he never did.

Having blown his life savings on a pair of tickets (which were considerably costlier back then), he won nothing and committed suicide by throwing himself off a bridge.

So, in the early 1990s, when the Conservative government introduced a lottery, it was reviving a means of raising revenue that had been ditched a century and a half earlier on ethical grounds.

The first recorded government-endorsed lottery in the UK took place in 1567, when Queen Elizabeth I granted it a royal charter. Some 400,000 tickets priced at 10 shillings each were issued, which 'could be subdivided for the convenience of the poorer classes'. The jackpot was a relatively parsimonious £5,000 - even allowing for inflation, Camelot's pay-outs are much more generous. This particular lottery's good cause was the fortification of the realm.

Lotteries, the government decided, were a good thing. Lottosceptics, like their modern-day counterparts, decried them as a tax on the poor; others argued that they were simply a tax on greed and stupidity. Not that the state was behaving particularly irresponsibly - the tax system was nowhere near as universal as today's and the monies for wars needed to come from somewhere. So other lotteries followed.

In 1612, the government licensed the Virginia Company to run a lottery in order to finance the settling of the Jamestown colony. This formed about half the company's funding for the next nine years before its license was withdrawn following internal troubles. Ensuing lotteries tabbed undertakings as diverse as sewers and aqueducts for London (1620s and 1630s), the British Museum (1753), and numerous projects in the American Colonies. Indeed, one of the British government's lotteries was managed by George Washington.

Much like today, the lotteries advertised themselves whenever and wherever possible, often sending spectacularly vulgar pageants through the London streets, though these were rarely seen in the nobs' neighbourhoods - odd that.

By the early 19th century, however, the tide was turning against the lottery operators. Corruption had worsened in the distribution system and contractors - often stockbrokers - would buy tickets at discounts and sell them at more than face value. The practice of 'insury' was growing, whereby punters placed a side bet on the fate of their tickets, effectively providing an unregulated shadow. And then there was the changing moral climate. Endorsing gambling, the Victorians reasoned, was no way to set an example to the masses.

Having resolved that lotteries were a 'legalised swindle' and encouraged idleness, poverty and madness, the then parliament outlawed them and the last National Lottery was drawn in 1826. The idea of a lottery resurfaced from time to time but never came to much, until it looked likely that foreign operators would be able to sell their tickets here under EU regulations.

Clearly, that would never do and, as of 18 November 1994, Britain could once again boast a lottery of its own. This now has the dubious distinction of being the largest and most lucrative lottery in the world.

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