The Grand Canal lottery

In the R&CHS Journal No 229 Alan M Levitt discussed

… another method for canal (and for other public projects) financing: the lottery. […] I have not been able to locate any references to such a financial-route for canals in the UK.[1]

That rang a bell: I thought I had come across some mention of a lottery to fund the Grand Canal in Ireland. I have spent a little time searching the British Newspaper Archive; it seems that, in the 1770s, an annual lottery raised money for an extension of the canal in Dublin. That was before the Act of Union, so Ireland was not at the time part of the United Kingdom.

I should make it clear that this account does not pretend to be comprehensive: I have not attempted to consult any archives; I have looked at nothing but the British Newspaper Archive, a few articles and the standard history of the canal[2]; some significant questions remain unanswered. This is a place-marker, to show that there is something to be investigated, but I won’t myself be able to devote any more time to it for the moment.


The lottery was initiated early in the life of the Grand Canal. The Commissioners of Inland Navigation appointed Thomas Omer as engineer and he began work in 1756 — at a point five miles outside Dublin, from which he completed the canal for twelve miles westward, away from the city but towards a water supply. From 1763 Dublin Corporation became interested in the project as a potential source of water for the city and it appointed an engineer in 1768. In 1772 a “group of noblemen and merchants”, incorporated as the Company of Undertakers of the Grand Canal [aka the Grand Canal Company], took over. The drinking water supply to the City Bason began in 1777 and the canal was opened to traffic in 1779.[3]

According to Henry Phillips

A suggestion in 1773 that the Company raise money by means of a lottery was abandoned, owing to the opposition of the City Assembly which thought that a rival lottery would interfere with the Royal Exchange lottery and with lotteries for Dublin charities.[4]

However, the company seems to have had second thoughts: a canal lottery was first advertised in 1774.

The Trustees for raising a Sum of Money towards compleating a Canal of Communication between the Grand Canal near the City Bason, and the Liffey and Harbour of Dublin, Toll free to the Public, having determined to offer to the Public a Scheme of a Lottery, grafted upon the State Lottery of the present Year, towards compleating the said Communication, a Subscription is opened at Mr Bayly’s in Essex-street for that Purpose. — NB The particular Scheme will be published immediately after the Scheme for the State Lottery shall appear in the Papers.[5]


The lottery was to fund a link between the Grand Canal and the River Liffey. It was to run from the canal near the City Bason (reservoir), where the canal harbour was to be built. At the time, the intention was to go direct from the canal north to the Liffey; when the link was eventually built, it was indirect, via the Circular Line running south of the city to the Grand Canal Docks and thus to the River Liffey.

The two maps below are annotated screenshots from the online version of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland’s maps. The first is from the 25″ map of around 1900, which shows such recent innovations as railways.

Dublin: the Grand Canal to the south, the Royal to the north and the River Liffey in the centre. Clondalkin, where Omer started work, is to the west (OSI 25″ ~1900)

The second map is from the Ordnance Survey of Ireland 6″ map of around 1835: still much later than the period of the lottery, but without railways.

Dublin: Grand Canal, Liffey, City bason and Canal harbour (OSI 6″ ~1840)




The details of the scheme

The details were given in an ad in September 1774.

Grand Canal

The Trustees for executing the Canal of Communication between the Grand Canal and Harbour of Dublin, Toll free, confiding in the Determination of the Public, to support a Work of so great National Utility, have unanimously resolved upon the following Scheme, grafted upon the State Lottery for this present Year, for raising a Fund for that Purpose. The Necessity of this Application to the Public at present, will appear from a Report from the Committee of Works of the Grand Canal Company, certifying, that the Works contracted for by Mr Trail, between the Liffey at or near Sallins and the City Bason, are in such Forwardness, as to render it absolutely necessary to proceed in making the above-mentioned Communication early in the next Year; the said Report is in the Hands of the Secretary to the Grand Canal Company.

2 Prizes of £2000 is £4000
4 Prizes of £750 is £3000
5 Prizes of £150 is £750
10 Prizes of £50 is £500
20 Prizes of £20 is £400
40 Prizes of £5 is £200
180 Prizes of £1 10s is £270
600 Prizes of £1 is £600
19150 Prizes of £0 6s is £5745
First drawn, first three Days, £40 is £120
Last drawn £200 is £200
is £15785

NB Not quite Two Blanks to a Prize; and the Public will take Notice, that £35 is accounted for more than the Tickets will amount to.

Ten per Cent to be deducted from the Prizes, for the Benefit of the Scheme.

15000 Tickets, four Numbers each, at £1 1s each Ticket, to Subscribers for a Lot of not less than 50. Price to Non-Subscribers one Guinea each Ticket.

Subscriptions are now receiving, and Tickets delivering out, at the Navigation-house in Grafton-street, and Mr Bayly’s in Essex-street, where the Prizes will be paid immediately after the Arrival of the Numerical Book from London.

The Securities required from the Subscribers, viz Bankers Notes, Government and Fire-office Insurance Debentures, and City Bonds, are to be lodged in the Bank of Thmas Finlay, Esq and Company.

The Names of the Trustees, for carrying the above Scheme into Execution, may be seen at the Navigation-house in Grafton-street, or at Mr Bayly’s in Essex-street.[6]

Another ad later that month omitted Mr Bayly and directed enquiries about the trustees to Mr Baggs, Secretary to the canal company.[7] The same issue carried this item:

24th September, 1774

The Trustees appointed by the Grand Canal Company, for conducting the Canal Lottery, from the great Encouragement which their Scheme has met with, are enabled to assure the Public, that they will undoubtedly stand the Drawing. — NB All the Prizes will be paid by Mr Baggs, at the Navigation-house in Grafton-street, immediately upon the Arrival of the Numerical Book from London. Subscriptions for the Tickets unsold will continue to be received until the 15th Day of October next, on which Day the Subscription will be finally closed.[8]

The trustees were still paying out prizes in April 1775:

The Trustees of the Canal Lottery, having discharges all the Capital and almost all the small Prizes in the Canal Scheme, do hereby give this public Notice, that after the 1st of April, they will attend at the Navigation-house in Grafton-street, on Wednesday in every Week, between the Hours of 11 and two o’Clock, for paying such Prizes as shall remain due, and payable after the 1st of April, until the Whole shall be discharged.[9]

Later years

In the following month the trustees advertised their determination to run a larger lottery,[10] for which almost all tickets had been sold by November, by which time the lottery was being run from a separate Canal Lottery Office at No 2 Cork Hill, Dublin.[11] The third year’s lottery was advertised in May 1776, run by the same trustees as in the two previous years;[12] in July they announced that

The Prizes in the Canal Scheme will for the future be paid on every Monday, from twelve o’clock until two.[13]

The scheme announced in September 1776 differed in some details from that of 1774. The prizes were larger and the total prize fund was £28615, almost double the original £15785. Three amounts of £50 were to be paid to charitable causes: the House of Industry, Clergymen’s Widows and the Relief of Prisoners. The amount going to the canal fund was no longer a 10% share of the prizes: it was now a flat sum of £1735, which was a larger amount even though it was a smaller percentage of the total income. The total outgoings were to be £31500, which was to be raised by selling 60000 Numbers at 10s 6d each: there were two numbers to a ticket but single numbers were sold too.[14]

In 1774 the trustees had said that it was “absolutely necessary to proceed in making the above-mentioned Communication early in the next Year”,[15] but they did not start spending money until October 1776:

The Trustees of the Canal Lottery, finding themselves fully enabled, by the general Concurrence of the Public, in purchasing their Tickets, to proceed in digging the Ground for the grand Reservoir intended, near the City Bason, have let Labourers at Work, on Friday last for the Purpose.

Such Subscribers for Tickets as have not drawn from their Office, No 2, Cork-hill, the Remainder of their Subscriptions are hereby desired to take them immediately, as the Demand for these Tickets is so great, that they must be otherwise delivered to Persons who are daily applying for them. Oct the 19th, 1776.[16]

The “grand Reservoir” may refer to the canal harbour, built beside the City Bason.

The 1777 lottery was on a slightly smaller scale than that announced in 1776: only 50000 tickets, a prize fund of £24425, charitable donations of £150 and £1675 for the canal and charges. The advertisement ended with this exhortation:

The IMPROVEMENT of the KINGDOM being the great Object which the Canal Trustees propose to obtain by their Scheme, it is hoped that every WELL-WISHER of IRELAND will unite in giving it a Support, proportional to the Importance of their Undertaking.[17]

The trustees later issued this reassurance:

The Trustees of the Canal Lottery observe with very sensible Satisfaction, that the ample Support given by the Public to their Scheme in the present Year, seems to be derived from a Discernment of their true Interest, upon which the Trustees congratulate the Public, assuring them that they are fully enabled to stand the Drawing. Sept. 23, 1777.[18]

Construction seems to have continued in 1777: in an ad largely devoted to condemnation of independent ticket sellers, the trustees told the public that, “as a Proof of their Performance of Covenant”, they were working on the canal of communication from the City Bason to Rainsford Street, at great expense. They were bringing in earth by boat to form the banks and intended that the canal would meet the Liffey opposite the barracks.[19]

In 1778 the lottery was run again, this time with only 48000 tickets: the prize fund was down to £22165, donations stayed at £150 but the canal got £2885.[20] The last lottery seems to have been in 1779, when the trustees said:

The Trustees who have hitherto conducted the Schemes for raising a Fund to execute the great national Work of opening a navigable Communication between the Grand Canal and Harbour of Dublin, Toll free to the public, the beneficial Influence of which will not be partially confined, but must diffuse and extend itself to every Part of this Country, have determined to have a Scheme for this Year grafted on the State Lottery, of 49000 Numbers, at Half a Guinea each. […][21]

By June 1780 the trustees had “almost discharged all Demands on them” and announced that prizes would be paid on Saturday mornings at their office on Cork Hill.[22]

The end of the affair

But — as far as my search terms can find — the trustees announced no further lotteries. That might be because, from 1780 to 1801, the Irish state ran its own official lottery, which might have discouraged smaller organisations from competing.[23] I do not know what happened to the fund raised by the canal lottery or how far the canal of communication progressed. By 1785 the plan to join the Liffey upstream of the port had been abandoned:

We are happy to find that it now begins to be a matter of serious consideration to effect the communication of the Canal with the Liffey. — The mode first proposed, of carrying it across Thomas-street, so that every boat must pass through all the bridges up the Liffey, before they could enter the locks, is abandoned, and the plan of Mr Chapman, the engineer, bids fair to answer the expectation of the subscribers, and prove of utility and the highest ornament to the city. Mr Chapman’s plan is to continue the cut from the Rialto Bridge on the Circular Road, and that the Canal should skirt the Circular Road to the part beyond the rere of Merrion square; thence to run due east through the Low Grounds and the Vice Provost’s garden, and afterwards to discharge into a capacious bason, where part of George’s-quay now stands, and directly opposite the New Custom-house. This forms a grand opening to the noble pile, and will present a view to all that part of the town of an edifice worthy the boast of an independent nation.[24]

By 1789 the Grand Canal Company was ready to value the lands to be acquired for the new route[25] and by November 1790 work was well under way:

With such unremitting diligence is the Grand Canal communication cut with the Liffey carrying on, that it is expected to be completely finished in the course of next Summer. This will be a great public advantage, and its produce will amply reward the Company of Subscribers for their spirited exertions.[26]

It was actually completed in 1796.[27]


[1] Alan M Levitt “A further means for financing canals (and other works) in Journal of the Railway & Canal Historical Society Volume 39 Part 2 No 229 July 2017

[2] Ruth Delany The Grand Canal of Ireland David & Charles, Newton Abbot 1973

[3] This precis is based on Delany op cit; any errors are mine

[4] Henry Phillips “Early History of the Grand Canal” in Dublin Historical Record Vol 1 No 4 (March 1939)

[5] Saunders’s News-Letter 17 June 1774

[6] Saunders’s News-Letter 2 September 1774

[7] Saunders’s News-Letter 23 September 1774

[8] ibid

[9] Saunders’s News-Letter 17 April 1775

[10] Saunders’s News-Letter 26 May 1775

[11] Hibernian Journal; or, Chronicle of Liberty 29 November 1775

[12] Saunders’s News-Letter 6 May 1776

[13] Saunders’s News-Letter 17 July 1776

[14] Saunders’s News-Letter 11 and 18 September 1776

[15] Saunders’s News-Letter 2 September 1774

[16] Saunders’s News-Letter 25 October 1776

[17] Saunders’s News-Letter 24 September 1777

[18] Saunders’s News-Letter 4 October 1777

[19] Saunders’s News-Letter 6 October 1777

[20] Saunders’s News-Letter 22 July 1778

[21] Saunders’s News-Letter 18 June 1779

[22] Saunders’s News-Letter 3 June 1780

[23] I have not read Dr Rowena Dudley The Irish Lottery, 1780–1801 Four Courts Press 2005

[24] Saunders’s News-Letter 2 September 1785

[25] Saunders’s News-Letter 6 October 1789

[26] Dublin Evening Post 16 November 1790

[27] Ruth Delany Ireland’s Inland Waterways: celebrating 300 years Appletree Press 2004

One response to “The Grand Canal lottery

  1. Typo – Circular Line was completed 1796 (not 86).

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