This post originally appeared on Austen Authors on 20 July 2019. Enjoy!
In her unfinished novel Sanditon, Jane Austen introduced the character of Mr. Parker by describing his love for the sea-side town of Sanditon in this manner:
Sanditon was a second wife and four children to him, hardly less dear, and certainly more engrossing. He could talk of it forever. It had indeed the highest claims; not only those of birthplace, property and home; it was his mine, his lottery, his speculation and his hobby horse; his occupation, his hope and his futurity.
When Jane spoke of “his mine, his lottery, his speculation and his hobby horse,” she wasn’t talking about games and toys; she was specifically talking about things involving chance and risk, including lottery games similar to those we have in the U.S. today.
In Jane Austen’s lifetime the lottery itself was government run, a fact that gave ticket-buyers a false sense of security, as did the requirement that ticket sellers be licensed or appointed by the government.
Sometimes ticket dealers were stock brokers, sometimes bankers; and sometimes the sellers were partnerships formed by businessmen, such as the firm of Hazard & Co, which created this advertisement:
The government used the proceeds from lottery ticket sales to fund various projects. One great example is The British Museum; it had its start thanks to funding provided through the sale of lottery tickets priced at £3 each. (Interestingly, the government substantially cut players’ chances of winning by requiring that all winners be present at the time of the drawing or forfeit their prize.)
That lottery was a great success. The needed funds were raised to purchase the libraries and collections of Sir Hans Sloane and Sir Robert Cotton (which were combined to form what we know as the Harleian Library), and to purchase a suitable building in which to house the collections. The result formed the nucleus of what is now the British Museum.
Ticket sellers used all sorts of promises and lures to encourage people to risk their money on lottery tickets. This excerpt from a lottery handbill encouraged elderly spinsters to play so they could lure young husbands:
And this bill cites a Mr. J. Merone’s history of selling winning numbers, implying players might have better luck buying one of his tickets:
The 1806 handbill below—published by the aptly-named firm of Richardson Goodluck & Co.—dazzled potential ticket buyers with lists of potential cash prizes.
The unfortunate truth was that not all prizes were awarded. Sometimes, the lottery drawing resulted in a ticket “this day drawn blank,” which meant that no one won the big prize. That was the case for this lottery drawing held on December 26, 1781:
But that didn’t stop people from buying lottery tickets.
During Jane Austen’s lifetime, playing the lottery was a national craze that lasted well into the 1820s. I’ve sometimes wondered why she didn’t mention the lottery more frequently in her letters and stories; but my JAFF imagination can think up plenty of opportunities for Austen’s characters to hand over their hard-earned money for a chance at a jackpot.
Can you imagine Lydia Bennet recklessly wagering her pin money on a chance to win a lottery prize?
What about George Wickham? Do you think he would have played the lottery in hopes of making his fortune (and perhaps paying off some of his debts)? Or perhaps he might have run a lottery ticket scheme of his own.
I think it’s possible William Elliot would turn to gambling on the lottery, once he realized he had lost his cousin Anne to Captain Wentworth in Jane Austen’s Persuasion.
What about you? Have you ever won a lottery prize?
If you’d like to know more about lottery games in England, you can read this book for free HERE:
It’s full of fun anecdotes and great illustrations.