Lotteries, rhubarb, and rude stockbrokers

This day in London history: on 11 January 1569, the world’s first national lottery was held to raise money for public works in England. In addition to money, one of the prizes included immunity from arrest for one week (but not if a serious crime was involved).

Lottery ticket
The original lottery ticket

Elizabeth I decided against introducing a tax, which might well have proved unpopular; instead she went for the lottery option. Tickets were sold three years beforehand, giving the government effectively an interest-free loan from the people. The ticket price of ten shillings was beyond the reach of the average person, but apparently the lottery was a huge success socially, and less successful financially.

According to the official ticket, it was “A very rich Lotterie generall, without any Blanckes, contayning a great number of good Prices, aswel of redy Money as of Plate and certaine sorts of Marchaundizes, having ben valued and priced by the commaundment of the Queenes most excellent Majestie, by men expert and skilfull.”

On 11 January 1668/69, Samuel Pepys notes in his diary that he went “with W. Hewer, my guard, to White Hall, where no Committee of Tangier met, so up and down the House talking with this and that man, and so home, calling at the New Exchange for a book or two to send to Mr. Shepley and thence home, and thence to the ‘Change”.

The ‘Change’ to which he refers is the Royal Exchange, founded in 1565 by Sir Thomas Gresham to act as a centre of commerce for the city, and officially opened by Queen Elizabeth I, who awarded the building its Royal title, in 1571.

EAS_4102There is a Change Alley in London, which is nothing to do with metamorphosis, but is an abbreviation of ‘Exchange Alley’ – from the Royal Exchange. Towards the end of the 17th century, the Exchange was so crowded that many stockbrokers transacted their business in local coffee houses, Jonathan’s Coffee House in particular. [Some sources say that stockbrokers’ were banned from operating in the Royal Exchange because of their rude manners.]

The current Royal Exchange with the Shard and Gherkin in the background

In any event, Jonathan’s was also the scene of the disastrous ‘South Sea Bubble’ scheme, speculation that ruined the purses and lives of thousands of investors. It started with the South Sea Company, given exclusive trading rights first with South America and then the South Seas. The company originally planned to convert the National Debt to a lower rate of interest and then take it over completely. Money poured into the scheme, resulting in gross over-speculation and the eventual bursting of the bubble. It was not just the unwary investors who were ruined financially: Members of Parliament were shown to have taken bribes and the bubble was a national scandal.

And also on this day in 1770, the first shipment of rhubarb went from London to the US: when Benjamin Franklin sent a plant to a botanist friend, John Bartram, in Philadelphia.

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