The History of the National Lottery: 25 Years of Play Recapped

Learn about the history of the National Lottery and how the simple game of chance shot to fame.
26th February 2024

What are your numbers?


Nearly all of us have heard of the lottery (and if you haven't, where have you been?!). But how much do you really know about this iconic game of chance? 

The National Lottery is a game packed with history – in fact, some suggest that the lottery was even around in 200BC! Nowadays, lottery is hugely popular, with millions of regular players every year and games running throughout the week. And it's more than just a game now – it's also an active fundraiser for organisations across the UK.

If you've ever wondered how the National Lottery shot to fame, or where it all began, then you're in the right place! Make yourself a fresh cuppa, find a comfy chair and let us fill you in.

What is the National Lottery?

Before we hop in our time machine, let's get a quick refresh on what the lottery is all about.

With numbered balls and a ticket system, the lottery follows a similar format to bingo and is just as simple to play. Players place wagers on a set of numbers of their choice and, if the balls drawn match their numbers, then they win a prize.

The exact rules are different depending on which version of the lottery you play. One thing that is the same, though, is that this is a game of chance (we can't tell you the winning numbers, since no one knows!).

Thanks to special computers called 'random number generators', the National Lottery can’t be 'fixed'. There is even a special manager, whose job it is to make sure each draw complies with the regulations.

Where it all began

Ever wondered who invented the National Lottery? The answer might surprise you!

The first evidence of the lottery landing in the UK was hosted by none other than HRM Queen Elizabeth I in 1567. To fix England's harbours, an ambitious advisor suggested a state-wide lottery to raise money. This was the first big lottery hosted by the British royal family, even though lotteries weren't a new invention.

Back then, the tickets cost ten shillings each, which was a lot of money in those days – much more than a regular worker could afford to pay. But the Queen was keen to raise as much money as possible, so she set the value of the first prize at a whopping £5000. That's £100,000 in today’s money.

Unfortunately for the Queen and England's harbours, the first lottery was not a success. They sold so few tickets that they had to change the prizes at the last minute. Even though the odds of winning the lottery were far more than today’s average (16,000:1 vs 14,000,000:1!), the public quickly decided that they'd rather keep their money than take part.

After giving it a fair shot, the Queen decided not to attempt running another state lottery, making it the last one to be held in her reign. History buffs will know this means at least 40 years passed before the lottery made a comeback.

It's a no from the Government

Over the following 400 years, the idea of a National Lottery popped back up a few times but it never managed to stick around for long. It was even ruled as illegal at one point. The ban didn't last too long, though, with local lotteries being legalised in 1934, meaning local councils and organisations could run small lotteries in their areas without worrying about breaking the law.

The 80s was a big decade for so many reasons. Big hair being one of them! And those neon outfits… It was nearly a big time for the National Lottery too. In a bid to raise funds for the NHS, a new lottery was proposed, called (you guessed it) the National Health Service Lottery.

Despite selling thousands of lottery tickets and drumming up a jackpot prize worth a whopping £200,000, the lottery was cancelled at the last minute when Margaret Thatcher's government realised that a NHS Lottery would be illegal.

Maybe taking the failure as a sign, Thatcher made her opinions on hosting another lottery very clear – even taking to the Commons to say she had no intention of the government hosting another National Lottery.

Lottery as we know it launches

Leaving the Thatcher era and (sadly) the big hair behind, the 90s was a time of change for the National Lottery. Stepping into the shoes of Prime Minister after Thatcher, John Major spent the early 90s championing the return of the National Lottery. To keep things separate from the government, Major opened bidding to find an 'owner' of the National Lottery – a title which was scooped up by the Camelot Group in 1994.

Unlike Queen Elizabeth I's lottery, or the various lotteries in-between, this time the lottery proceeds would go towards good causes instead of government projects. One of the first winners of the lottery 'good causes' fund was the Morecambe Brass Band, who received a donation for new instruments. Head up to Morecambe now and you can still hear them play!

And things were a tad more advanced in the 90s compared to Queen Elizabeth I's era. This time, the National Lottery could be broadcast on TV, so everyone could get together to watch the draw unfold as it happened. If you've ever watched Deal or No Deal, then chances are you'd recognise the dashing young Noel Edmunds, who was the first host to announce the draw results back in 1994.

Say hello to Lotto

As with all good things, when popularity grows, demand grows! People were loving the National Lottery so much that lottery operator Camelot launched scratchcards one year later, designed for players hoping for a quick win. Fast forward a few more years and a mid-week draw has been added to the rota, plus a new lottery with the very snazzy name of 'Thunderball'.

Not to risk being outdone, Camelot then made the decision to rebrand our favourite OG lottery game. Introducing: Lotto! Despite the brand-new name, nothing else changed about the game – it just sounded a bit cooler than "the National Lottery".

The end of a Camelot era

Just when we started to think Camelot would always be the owners of the National Lottery, they were knocked off their post by multi-national operator Allwyn. Starting this month, our new National Lottery providers will be Allwyn.

Neither Allywn nor Camelot are actually the owners of the National Lottery, which is important to note. Instead, the regulator of the National Lottery, the Gambling Commission, get to decide who wins the bid for the National Lottery license.

The GC are big players (excuse the pun!) across the whole of the gambling industry – not just the lottery. They license, regulate and advise all gambling providers in the UK to make sure everyone is operating in a secure and responsible way. If you're new to the online bingo crowd, it's always wise to check it holds a valid license from the GC before signing up.

Over 25 years of winners

We love to celebrate winning moments here at Jackpotjoy, and the National Lottery has created plenty of them! Since the very first draw in 1994, the lottery has created over 7000 millionaires, with 365 lucky players scooping a jackpot worth a whopping £1 million or more in 2023 alone – that's an average of one new millionaire a day.

It's worth remembering that lottery jackpots can get even bigger than £1 million. After all, the more ticket sales there are, the more the jackpot can grow. The National Lottery's highest jackpot was won back in 2022, when one lucky UK ticket holder scooped a record breaking £195 million in the Euromillions draw.

And then there's all the good causes that the lottery has donated to over the years! To date, National Lottery players have raised over £48 billion for the Good Causes fund, contributing to more than incredible 685,000 projects across the UK.

Lottery winners have played their part for charity too. Going beyond just buying their ticket, some have even chosen to donate to local causes or organisations close to their heart. From the establishment of the Colin and Chris Weir Charitable Trust to Francis Connolly donating a hefty £60 million to charity, you can find plenty of examples of winners putting their money to good use.

Nowadays, there are eight different lotteries hosted by the National Lottery, with the lottery now being one of the most popular forms of gambling in the UK. Here's a fun fact for you: An estimated 70% of Brits took part in the National Lottery in 2023. That's the equivalent of over 40 million people in the UK!

And you don't need to tune in to watch the national lottery draws anymore (there hasn't been a broadcast since 2017). Instead, you can find all the latest lottery results online, so you can check whether you're holding a winning ticket while on the go.

Find your winning moment

Fancy experiencing your own winning moment? Join the wonderful world of Jackpotjoy, where you can join in the fun of our fabulous online bingo games, dab for a jackpot and enjoy a natter with our friendly players. There are plenty of chances for our members to scoop a prize playing online – in fact, there's a winner every minute at Jackpotjoy!*.

Discover more interesting facts over on the Jackpotjoy blog, where you can find how-to guides, round-ups of some of our favourite games, plus all the latest Jackpotjoy news.

*A Winner Every Minute - average number of winners 01/07/23 – 30/09/23

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