Sue Cook presents the series that examines listeners' historical queries, exploring avenues of research and uncovering mysteries.
The British Museum Lottery 1753
"The current national lottery anniversary publicity tends to give the impression that raising money by lotteries for public good works is something relatively new, but wasn't the British Museum partly set up in the 1700s through lottery money, and wasn't there a scandal about it?"
The British Museum owes much to a scandalously conducted lottery launched in 1753. Lotteries had been popular since the 16th century and there were state and private lotteries. Most aimed to raise money for the Government and the prizes tended to be annuities.
The British Museum was founded on the collection of Sir Hans Sloane who died in 1753. He left a magnificent collection worth at least £80,000 then, in return for a mere £20,000 to his heirs, his two daughters. The collection was left to the King for the nation, but the King is reported to have said he did not think there was £20,000 in the Treasury, and in any case was not interested. The matter went to Parliament which was very keen to have the collection, but was less enthusiastic about the cost. This was why a lottery was launched.
The lottery was a big scandal. It was to raise £300,000: there were 100,000 tickets at £3 each, paid for in instalments of £1 and later £2. However, virtually all the tickets were sold before they were put on offer to the public. The market was covered especially by a rich financier, Sampson Gideon, and also by one of the four receivers of the lottery money, Peter Leherpe. They managed to sell the tickets in large chunks before the lottery opened. The Act of Parliament which set up the lottery had said that no one person should have more than 20 tickets. Leherpe, however, allowed people to submit a list of fictitious names so that they could buy many more. After two days, the British Museum lottery tickets were said to be selling for a premium of 16 shillings. Various financiers were reselling them at a profit. Gideon himself had more than 5,000 tickets. When he died he left an estate worth more than half a million pounds, and during his lifetime he was so rich that he bankrolled the Government. However, when a Parliamentary inquiry into the affair was held he was in Paris.
The lottery winner is not known, but the winning ticket number was 46885. The British Museum, after the payment of expenses, received £95,194 8s 2d, some of which went towards buying Montague House, the house on the present site into which the various collections went.
Majorie Caygill, The Story of the British Museum (British Museum Press, 1992)
Marjorie Caygill, editor, The British Museum A-Z Companion (Fitzroy Dearborn, 2001)
John Ashton, History of English Lotteries (Gale, 1969)
Vanessa has presented science and current affairs programmes for BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Discovery and has presented for BBC Radio 4 & Five Live and a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph and the Mail on Sunday, Scotsman and Sunday Herald.
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