‘Buy a ticket, feed a child this Christmas!’ The radical lottery that wasn’t to be

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This week I won a lucky dip on the National Lottery, not much I grant you, but it means I go into tonight’s draw with an extra line. My chances of winning (and starting to write this blog from a yacht moored in Cannes) may remain slim but they have just increased ever so slightly.

We buy lottery tickets because we dream we might change our lives, and many people have. Lotteries are nothing new of course nor are their critics. In the eighteenth century commentators railed against the London lottery that brought large crowds to the centre to hear the draw, and created a trade in the illegal trading of ‘numbers’.

Legislation at the start of the nineteenth century ruled that anyone running a lottery without the sanction of parliament was liable to a fine or imprisonment for up to three months. This restricted the proliferation of lotteries and so, as was intended, placed a curb on working-class gambling.

Some lotteries were deemed more acceptable than others however. Christmas lotteries, aimed at helping people provide ‘game, wine, spirits, etc’ for the festive period were not legal but it was understood that these were perhaps an exception and were rarely prosecuted.

So it must have seemed to Edwin Darrell that his lottery scheme, which aimed at raising money to ‘provide poor children with dinners’ at Christmas, would be allowed to go ahead. Sadly, Darrell was mistaken.

In December 1897 he was summoned before the Worship Street Police court and accused of selling ticket for the ‘Thirteenth Annual Grand Christmas Lottery’. Darrell was shown to have ordered the printing of 8,000 books of 10 tickets and of posters advertising the draw and prizes. These posters proudly stated that the funds from last year’s lottery sales had meant that ‘70,000 children had been fed’.

In court the prosecution presented the facts, which Darrell’s lawyer (a Mr Geoghegan) did not contest. Instead he stressed the lottery was entirely charitable and assured the magistrate that those buying tickets stood an even better chance of winning than they had in the previous year. In 1896 one of every 77 tickets won a prize, whereas this year one in just 45 was a winner. I wish I had those odds for the modern lottery!

The prosecution demanded that draw be cancelled forthwith as the lottery was illegal and despite Darrell’s protests that it should go ahead since tickets had already been sold (and so would presumably have to be refunded) the magistrate agreed. Mr Cluer told him that if the draw was lottery was folded no further action would be taken by the court but if it went ahead the full force of the law would be applied.

I understand that the law is the law but am surprised that an exception was not made in this case. After all the lottery was in its 13thyear and there was clear evidence that the proceeds were going to charity, and a very good cause at that. I wonder if it had more to do with politics?

Edwin Darrell was the secretary of the United Radical Club that was based in Kay Street, Bethnal Green. Popular labour radicalism had surged in the 1880s and presented an increasing challenge to the Liberal Party that had traditionally secured the votes of many working class men.  Maybe this was an opportunity for the authorities to slap down an emerging political force and remind others that rules, after all, were rules.

[from The Standard, Wednesday 8 December, 1897]

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