18th Century Lottery

A Lottery is a taxation Upon all the fools in creation;

And Heav’n be prais’d It is easily rais’d. . . The Lottery

Henry Fielding

We have come across this question in the newspaper, posed to the legal profession on 20th May 1770 about a woman’s right to retain her winning from the state lottery for herself questioning whether her husband had any right to a share of it. So far, we have not found a response to it in the newspapers, so the challenge to our readers is this – does anyone know how such an issue would have been dealt with? any help gratefully received.

john and mary 25 may 1770

John marries Mary, and agrees that part of her fortune, which is in the funds, shall be settled upon her the said Mary, for her own separate use. Mary, from the interest of her money, buys a ticket in the lottery, and gets a ten thousand pound prize. Query, Has John any right, in law, over this ten thousand pounds: or has Mary any obligation, in conscience, to give her it to her husband? A solution of this question will end all disputes, and quiet the much disturbed minds of

John and Mary Somebody

With the question of lotteries in mind we thought we would take a look at 18th century lotteries and see whether it was as popular then as it is today. The answer in short is – yes, very much so.

The lottery ticket, or, The sunshine of hopeThe ticket a blank, or, The clouds of despair 1792

As today, the lottery then had the potential to make massive change to people’s lives. We tend to think that things like the national lottery are very modern, but this is far from the truth.

State lotteries began as early as the 1690s and were established by the Bank of England. In the 1700s, as well as generating money for ‘good causes’ it also generated money which enabled Britain to go to war, for example it was reported that just over a quarter of money raised was used in fighting Napoleon. In the mid-1700s the lottery assured potential punters that they would not lose and that at a minimum they would receive their stake back and potentially win a large life changing amount of money. There was usually one prize winning ticket for every four blanks.

The Lottery’ by William Hogarth 1721 Courtesy of The Met Museum
‘The Lottery’ by William Hogarth 1721 Courtesy of The Met Museum showing the lottery wheels

Apart from individuals many borough corporations also bought lottery tickets for the benefit of poor children; the church was also involved with many parish clerics gambling. The tickets were quite expensive, but then so were the prizes, this led to people who couldn’t afford to buy a full ticket purchasing a share. People even place advertisements in the newspapers for people to share with –

Daily Advertiser (London, England), Wednesday, September 24, 1777
Daily Advertiser (London, England), Wednesday, September 24, 1777

Below is one of numerous examples of what you could win when buying a share.

Lloyd's Evening Post (London, England), January 31, 1794
Lloyd’s Evening Post (London, England), January 31, 1794

It was reported that in 1798 four low paid workers shared a winning ticket valued at £20,000 (approximately £1.2m in today’s money), a female servant from Holborn, a servant of the Duke of Roxburgh, a keeper of a fruit stall and a vegetable carrier from Covent Garden.

gardener greengrocer
Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

It was even possible for gamblers to insure themselves against drawing a blank.

To the subscribers to the Lottery Magazine for 1777 : this plate (representing the four favourites of fortune who receiv’d the four hundred guineas for last years Lottery Magazine) is most gratefully inscribed by their obliged humble sert. E. Johnson

14 thoughts on “18th Century Lottery

  1. thegeorgiangentleman

    I tried to comment re ownership/property rights of married women, but suspect it didn’t get sent Say if you want me to re-send it. MIke

    On Tue, Jul 26, 2016 at 1:02 PM, All Things Georgian wrote:

    > All Things Georgian posted: “A Lottery is a taxation Upon all the fools in > creation; And Heav’n be prais’d It is easily rais’d. . . The Lottery Henry > Fielding We have come across this question in the newspaper, posed to the > legal profession on 20th May 1770 about a woman’s right t” >


    1. All Things Georgian

      Have checked the spam folder just in case, but no luck it didn’t arrive, so yes please we’d love you to send it again Mike 🙂


  2. Whether married women could keep the ‘profits’ from their separate estate is not simple. As the writer suggests, under Common Law the husband could sue for his right to the money during marriage because of his wife’s position under the legal fiction of coverture, but in a court of Equity (e.g. Chancery) and ‘good conscience’ she would have a much better chance of retaining her profits/winnings provided that the legal settlement of her separate estate was soundly set up and its trustees prepared to defend her entitlement. In the 1770s, Lord Mansfield’s judgments in Chancery more frequently supported the rights of women in trade to keep the profits from their separate enterprises and this was reflected in legal treatises at the time. So the wife could have ‘legally’ kept the money at this point, although the morality of seeing lottery winnings as ‘earnings’ may have been questioned. Law is never simple! I hope that helps though.
    Nicola Phillips

    Liked by 1 person

    1. All Things Georgian

      Thank you so much Nicola for such a detailed response, it’s immensely helpful. As you say, whether or not proceeds from a lottery win could be perceived as ‘earnings’ is another matter. We searched in vain to find any legal ruling on that or similar cases, but nothing and no response in any of the newspapers despite it appearing twice. We just hope, assuming it was real, that it got resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.


    1. Sarah Murden

      No unfortunately I don’t know. There doesn’t appear to be any kind of list kept of those who ran the lottery nor of the big money winners. Winners only seemed to appear in the press if it was a substantial win that the lucky winner chose to make public.


  3. Marina Urazova

    Fun fact: Mary Russell Mitford, a Georgian writer, won L20,000 as a child, apparently in the 1797 Irish lottery. Her compulsive gambler father brought her to a lottery office as a 10-year-old kid and had her pick a ticket. She did, and then, since the ticket was only a 1/16 share, they went to other lottery offices and purchased other shares. The prize helped to save the family from debtor’s prison and penury, at least for a few years.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.