7 June 1753: The British Museum is established by Act of Parliament

British Museum © Getty Images
A public lottery hoped to raise £300,000 to build the museum

Sir Hans Sloane, born in 1660 to a well-to-do family in Ireland, collected over 71,000 items throughout his long globe-trotting life, to which he added a library and a vast array of plant specimens.

When he died, his trustees offered the entire collection, worth around £80,000, to King George II for the nation. In return, they asked for £20,000 for Sloane’s two daughters.

The king was hardly overwhelmed by the offer, and replied that anyway, “he doubted if there was money sufficient in the Exchequer”. The trustees then knocked on Parliament’s door and received a warmer reception.

Parliament would be delighted to receive the collection in order to create a national museum. It had already acquired another collection in 1700 that had belonged to Sir Robert Cotton.  Also up for sale was the Harleian Collection of manuscripts and medals that had belonged to the earls of Oxford. The problem was, Parliament had nowhere to house the collections, and no money to buy them with.

Not wanting to lose Sloane’s collection to the Russians or the French, Parliament passed the British Museum Act on 7 June, providing for a public lottery to raise £300,000. But in keeping with the politics of the age, the lottery was corrupt.

A hundred thousand tickets were meant to be sold for £1, and later £2 each. No one was allowed to own more than 20 tickets. However, a wealthy City banker by the name of Sampson Gideon sold many of the tickets before the public could get a look in, and kept 5,000 tickets for himself. Similarly, one of the receivers, Peter Leherpe, allowed buyers to snap up as many tickets as they liked, as long as they provided additional fictitious names.

A black market in lottery tickets sprang up. After just two days, tickets were selling at a 16-shilling premium – those lucky enough to be on the inside were making huge profits.

We’ll probably never know who the winner was, but we do know he held ticket number 46885. £95,194, eight shillings and two pence was handed over to the newly created British Museum to buy Montagu House, which stood on the same site as the present museum.

  • BigEnso

    I was at the British Museum the last week in May. It is, without doubt, one of the finest museums in the world. While I spent an entire day there, you could spend an entire month or longer and not see the entirety of it. In addition to the quality of the collections, there is something else that makes the British Museum (and the other national museums of Britain – Victoria and Albert, Tate Modern, National Gallery, etc.) special. It is completely free of charge for all the permanent exhibits. And by free, I don’t mean just to British subjects. It is free to all the citizens of the world. Want to go see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris? That will be 15 Euros please.