SINCE the advent of the National Lottery and the Euromillions draws, wins of millions and indeed hundreds of millions of euro are not unknown but it is easy to forget that in the not too distant past, lotteries were illegal. In 1956, the Government started the Prize Bond Draws but prior to that, there was the Irish Hospitals Sweepstakes.
Soon after the foundation of the State, the government realised that there was a need for investment in hospitals and that the public finances of the new state could not meet the demand. The Public Charitable Hospitals Act of 1930 established the Irish Hospitals Sweepstake for that purpose.
The government also realised that the sweepstake could not possibly succeed if sales were confined to Ireland but that presented a major problem. Lottery ticket sales were illegal in the UK and the US and sales in those countries were vital for success. The State could not be seen to violate the laws of another country so a private limited company, the Hospitals Trust, was set up. The directors were Richard Duggan, a Dublin bookmaker; Captain Spencer Freeman, a Welsh engineer, and former government minister, Joe McGrath.
The sweeps were based on well-known races such as the Derby, Grand National, Cambridgeshire and the Manchester November Handicap; the tickets were drawn by nurses and supervised by a senior garda officer.
Initially the tickets were posted to other countries where it was major success. However, use of the postal services for lotteries was illegal in the US since 1890 and in 1934, the UK parliament made it illegal to import or export gaming material. In 1935, Britain banned all mail addressed to the Sweep Office in Dublin and the same year, the US Post Office confiscated almost one million similar letters and returned them to the senders.
In 1948, two million tickets were found on board a transatlantic liner and two years later, six men were arrested for importing one million tickets. The clampdown in Britain was very restricting and it caused the sweep to develop a network of agents and sellers in North America and elaborate methods of smuggling. At the start, only about 10% of the business came from the US and Canada but by 1940 this had risen to over 70%.
By the 1960s, revenue began to decline. The sweep had raised over £135 million for hospitals and employed thousands full time and part time. It also made its directors extremely wealthy men. Some of them established other industries, which created further employment. The growth of legal gambling and state lotteries in the US spelt the end for the Irish Hospitals Trust.
When the government here set up the National Lottery, the franchise to run it was awarded to An Post and the hospital trust was wound up. At that stage, it had almost Ir£500,000 in unclaimed prizes but many of the remaining employees were very left very dissatisfied indeed.
The very first sweep winning ticket was owned by a syndicate from Belfast, named Prescott, Tormey and Ward, and the prize was £208,792-16-0. That first sweep was based on the Manchester November Handicap and the draw took place in the Mansion House in Dublin on November 17, 1930 – 79 years ago this week.