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The National Lottery started in the UK on the 19th November 1994, however, this was not the first nationwide lottery to be run in Britain.

“The Lottery” by William Hogarth 1721 showing the two lottery wheels.

The first state lottery was the idea of Master of the Royal Mint, Thomas Neale in order to raise money for the Exchequer (after Neale had taken 10%). It was known as the Million Lottery or later the Million Adventure. A few years into the 18th century the Bank of England was awarded a Royal Charter to run the lottery. As well as generating money for ‘good causes’ it also funded the British Army to fight wars. It is documented that just over a quarter of the money raised between 1803 -1815 was used to finance the Napoleonic wars.

As shown in the picture above the lottery machines were two large wheels or drums that could be revolved and a hatch for the operator to take each winning ticket from within. These wheels were housed in their very own building just off Whitehall near what were the Privy Garden Steps, now under Victoria Embankment Gardens.

Prizes were pretty substantial, the £30,000 first prize shown below amounts to about £4.5 million today, however, so was the cost of a ticket. In 1790s a ticket would cost £14.00.

This would have been well out of the price the ordinary manual worker could afford, so a trade in selling shares in a ticket sprang up, with anything up to 30 shares per ticket being offered.

Lottery tickets were mainly purchased through Stockbrokers and in the case of the City of London, these were mostly based around Cornhill.

A look at directories of the time show many such Lottery Offices, J Sivewright No. 35, Hornsby & Son No.26, Joseph Warner No.16, Carroll & Co No.7 and Nightingale & Co in Popes Head Alley.

Like many of today’s lottery players superstition played a big part in the purchase of an 18th century lottery ticket. People had their own favourite office from where they would always purchase a ticket. However, the general consensus at the time was the closer the office to the end of Cornhill, the better your chances of purchasing a winning ticket.

This superstition was fueled by the three offices at that end of Cornhill, Thomas Bish at No.4, Hodges & Co at No.2, and probably the greatest exponent of them all in terms of playing to the public’s superstitions, J Pidding & Co at number 1 Cornhill. Pidding coined the phrase for the location of his office as “Lucky Corner“, which he used in advertisements proclaiming his office to be the biggest seller of winning tickets in the country.

Lucky Corner, number 1 Cornhill

The lottery ran until 1826. By then it was no longer under the Bank of England’s control and the license to run it was auctioned off on an annual basis. Public confidence in the way it was run had been lessened by several badly handled draws which caused a public outrage. The Government at the time set up a commission to look at the way it was run and concluded the whole system had become too complicated to be run without fear of abuse or fraudulent activity and so revoked the licence.

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