Old victorian purse on ground with some coins falling out

Where did the UK lottery start?

There are many lotteries around the world today. More than 100 countries have big government-operated lotteries, and that does not even include the smaller, privately-run ones. According to the Telegraph, 70% of UK adults, more than 32 million people, play the UK lottery on a regular basis. 

With so many lotteries, coming in all shapes and sizes, and with so many people playing on a daily basis, it’s hard to imagine a world without it.

But just like everything else, UK lotteries do have a history, and a very interesting one at that. We’ve done our research and found that the British tradition of national lottery can be traced back to the 16th century, proving that using a lottery to raise money for a good cause is nothing new.


Commissioned by Queen Elizabeth I in 1566

A letter, written by Queen Elizabeth I more than 450 years ago, has emerged, which marks the beginning of lotteries in the UK. The letter, which includes a blind embossed paper seal with her distinctive, flourishing signature, was written to Sir John Spencer, giving him instruction to issue books of numbers and tickets. A total of 400,000 lots were made available, each costing 10 shillings.


The letter reads:

“Where we have com[m]anded a ceratine carte of a Lotterie to be published by our Shirif of Countie in the principall townes of the same.”


All for a good cause

Britain’s first lottery was, as with today’s lotto charity funds, intended for a good cause. The British needed financial support for the expansion of the country’s export markets around the world and the lottery was to raise money to build ships and develop ports.

The queen wrote that the funds raised shall be “employed to good and publique acts and beneficially for o[u]r Realme and o[u]r Subjects.”


The prizes

The £5,000 jackpot, equivalent to close to £900,000 today, was paid out in money and tapestries, expensive linen, etc. The queen commanded that persons of “good trust” be entrusted with the prizes.

The letter specified that “WHOSOEVER shall winne the greatest and most excellent price, shall receive the value of Five thousande Poundes sterling.”  This was paid out in “Three thousande Pounds in ready money,” as well as a variety of merchandise: “Seven hundreth Poundes in Plate gilte and white, and the rest in good Tapissarie meete for hangings and other covertures, and certaine sortes of good Linnen cloth.”

A total of eleven prizes were awarded, made up of varying amounts of money and merchandise.


A delay in plans

It took quite some time for the novel idea of a national lottery to gain support among the masses, especially with 10 shillings being way too much for the average citizen to afford. The queen sent her instructions to Sir John Spencer, promising him an incentive of 50 shillings for every £500 pounds sent to London.

To encourage as many people as possible to buy tickets, England’s first ever lottery was advertised to the public in 1567. The advertisement promised all ticket holders freedom from arrest for all crimes other than murder, felonies, piracy or treason.

The advertisement even offered incentives for the first three people who bought tickets: “THE FIRST person to whome any Lot shal happen, shal have for his welcome (bysides the advauntage of his adventure) the value of fiftie poundes sterling in a piece of sylver Plate gilte.” The second and third rewards were slightly smaller.

However, due to the challenging logistics in selling the tickets around the country, the lottery was not an instant success and the draw was not held until three years later, in 1569.


This lottery died out, but there were similar draws held between 1750 and 1826. Today, of course, it’s easy to recognise the value of this pioneering venture, as no one needs special invitations or extra incentives to play UK lotteries (although it would be nice to have.)