Someone in Hull is a pounds 1m winner. In five days, they could be a loser

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The Independent Online
THE MAN with the Bible and the doomladen voice was warning Hull's shoppers that their time was rapidly running out. They barely afforded him a glance.

But the man preaching under the grey sky was right. For the people of Hull the clock is against them - not perhaps if they are searching for spiritual salvation, but certainly if they are pursuing its darker cousin: untold wealth.

For the third time in as many years the port is the centre of a search for a missing lottery ticket worth more than pounds 1m. Bought somewhere within the city at the beginning of the year, the ticket became worth a fortune on the night of 30 January when its numbers matched those randomly selected in the National Lottery's 324th draw.

For the ticket-holder, the numbers 7, 19, 32, 37, 40, 44 and the bonus 47, are worth pounds 1,234,612 - but only if they come forward within five days. At 11pm next Thursday the 180-day period in which the rules say prizes have to be claimed will pass - and with it will end someone's chance of becoming a millionaire.

"We are asking everyone to make one last search for that ticket," said a spokeswoman for the lottery organisers, Camelot, refusing as ever to reveal which outlet sold the ticket. "It would be a great shame if the money is not claimed by the winner."

On the face of it Hull is not the sort of city to lightly turn its back on such wealth. Despite the local council insisting on the using the city's somewhat grand full title of Kingston-upon-Hull, the port is only starting to find its feet again after years of hardship following the devastation of the fishing industry. Indeed, there have been plenty of efforts to find the missing ticket.

The city's Rugby League team, Hull Sharks, have fronted a local campaign urging people to search behind their sofas. A breakfast television programme even hired a medium who told viewers that the winner was a schoolteacher called Dave who had left the ticket in a wardrobe while visiting his mother in Middlesex. It was briefly all very exciting, but Dave the forgetful teacher failed to materialise.

The city is no stranger to missing lottery tickets. In November 1996, pounds 2.1m was eventually distributed amongst the lottery's six good causes after another winning ticket bought in the city remained unclaimed. On that occasion the local paper received a letter purporting to be from an 89-year-old widow who had the ticket but decided not to claim the prize because she could not face the fuss. The letter received a lot of publicity but, as with Dave the teacher, no shy, elderly widow was ever found.

Many believe the letter was a fake and that then, as now, the winner was a seaman or foreign tourist who bought the ticket in Hull but then forgot about it when they left. "I think the main feeling is that it was someone off the docks who bought it and then just got back on their ship and sailed off," said Richard Taylor, assis-tant manager of Close Buys mini-market on Marfleet Lane, where the 1996 ticket is thought to have been sold.

Others offer a more basic reasoning. "Perhaps the people in Hull are just stupid. After all this is the third time this has happened," said Paul Broadwell, a butcher in the city's indoor market, referring to another unclaimed prize on a ticket bought last year either in Hull or Cleethorpes.

Camelot points out that while Hull may be exceptional there are plenty of other cities with lost tickets: at present, pounds 35m remains unclaimed. But the reason for Hull's recurring mislaid tickets may be slightly more complicated.

Two weeks ago the city's council-owned telephone exchange, Kingston Communications, famous for its white telephone boxes, was floated. The move resulted in 51,000 local people (representing one in three households served by the company) buying pounds 72.1m worth of shares. The city is now obsessed with the movements of the share price - currently at pounds 3.25 from a sale price of pounds 2.25.

"It's utterly mad. If you go into a newsagent and watch someone buy a paper the first thing they turn to now is the stock market page," said Stan Szecowka, community editor with The Hull Daily Mail, one of very few evening newspapers for which a slight drop in share prices is front- page news. "I somehow fear that missing lottery tickets have become old news to them - they're too busy making money on their shares."

In truth it seems unlikely. It's a fair bet that whatever the paper tells them on Thursday evening about their shares, everyone in the city will have one last look for that precious piece of paper. Just in case.