How these six numbers changed my life forever
Fifteen years ago, Belfast bus driver Peter Lavery won £10.2m on the National Lottery. In a new book he tells how he has coped with his riches, building up a property and business empire
If you heard my life story from the start, you wouldn’t say I was lucky. I was brought up in a loving but working class family in East Belfast. The Troubles were a way of life. Troops with guns on street corners were as much a part of the landscape as lamp posts.
I worked on the buses in Belfast, driving on the roads that became infamous on news bulletins for all the wrong reasons. I was hijacked, robbed seven times and had a close friend who suffered 70% burns after his bus was fire-bombed. A week earlier I had been driving that route, so it could easily have been me.
But then, completely out of the blue, I won the lottery. It was week 79. I’d put £2 on each week since it started, so I’d paid out £158. I got back £10.2m! It was a staggering sum of money. I went from being a bus driver to a multi-millionaire in a flash. One day I was working and the next I was on a beach in the Caribbean. That beach trip cost £60,000. That was more than four years’ wages. On one holiday.
There was never anything flash about me. I lived in a terrace house, but now I could afford a luxury mansion. I never had enough to buy my own car, but suddenly I could get two cars for £44,000. That’s almost three years’ wages.
But, whatever your background, £10.2m is a massive amount. You need to know a bit more about my life to realise just how much it meant to me and my family.
I’m from a family of three brothers and two sisters. We were brought up in the Short Strand area of Belfast. Our dad, Charles, was a fitter but didn’t work for a while due to ill health. There’s no point denying that things were tight.
Our mum Rita would always see that we were looked after. Then, if she had a penny left, she would put it in the poor box. She believed there was always someone worse off. She would give away the last penny in her purse to help people less fortunate. That has always stuck with me.
Mum died when I was 16. We were all devastated and it was difficult to deal with. Dad took over and looked after the family from that moment on. He died just 14 months before I won.
It has been terrible not having my parents around to share the joy of the win. They worked so hard and made so many sacrifices to make sure we all had a good life. They deserved to be part of this, but I guess it was just not to be. It still makes me sad. They both went too early.
That’s why I set up the Rita and Charles Trust in memory of my parents to raise funds for deserving causes.
I’ve helped raise more than £1m for charity since the win. The best part is the annual Christmas party we put on for around 400 working class elderly people. These are people who may not get that much company during the festive period. It is heartbreaking to see some of them alone over Christmas with no family and no money. It is great to bring them some happiness. I’m so proud of that.
I was born in 1961 and The Troubles began seriously in 1969, so I grew up with them.
Of course, everyone knows someone who suffered: a family member, a friend or a friend of a friend. When I was 10 years old my friend’s mother was blown up in a pub. But, thankfully, none of my direct family experienced anything really bad.
I didn’t get on at school. Everyone else in the family has a good education, but it just didn’t work for me. I was short-sighted and couldn’t see the board. I didn’t want to admit that, so I sat at the back. It was clear that I was not going to learn properly.
The day I left school was one of the happiest days of my life. I walked out on a Friday and started an apprenticeship as a plumber on Monday. Brilliant.
I had no idea then that I would go on to become chairman for 10 years, and the first Catholic chairman, of the East Belfast Community Centre Council, an umbrella organisation for more than 200 community and voluntary groups.
The community work was my passion. I loved meeting people and talking to them. It was the same on the buses. You’d meet nice people from both sides.
The biggest day of my life came in 1995 when I met President Bill Clinton at a conference in Washington for NI community workers. He was keen to help Northern Ireland. He wanted to understand all he could to help bring about peace.
There were hundreds of guests and there was a big marquee on the White House lawn with food and entertainment. It was amazing to be there.
Me, a little old bus driver from Belfast, and the President of the United States. We all got to shake his hand and he spoke about helping. He seemed very genuine.
I thought that was as good as it got. But exactly a year later, to the day, it got even better.
I won the lottery.
It was just another week on the Belfast buses. I got a call from my sister to tell me I’d won, but thought it was a joke. I didn’t even believe her when she called again. I got up in a daze the next morning. My sister, brother and I put the TV on and looked at the numbers. There was one lucky winner! I couldn’t believe it. The ticket shook in my hand.
I couldn’t find the phone number for Camelot so had to spend 15p on Directory Inquiries. When I got through, they checked the details, but they couldn’t confirm the win until someone had seen the ticket in person.
I had to go to work because I had two routes to do that day. I drove around with the ticket in my pocket. It was incredible to think I had a piece of paper worth £10m in my pocket. I was a bit scared something would happen to it.
Halfway through the second route, it started sinking in. Here I was, 35 years old, and I didn’t have to work again. What a feeling. My legs started going numb and I couldn’t concentrate. I hit a ramp and bumped over it. A passenger said, “Didn’t you see that ramp?”
“To tell you the truth, no I didn’t,” I replied. I was in shock.
I got back and asked for the next Monday off. I just put ‘personal reasons’ on the form but I knew I would never go back.
I remember the moment Camelot put the ticket through the machine and it confirmed that I was a multi-millionaire. My knees hit the floor and the tears came. It is hard to believe that a piece of paper can be worth so much.
With that sort of money in the bank, I chucked my job in and treated myself and all my family. My own lifestyle has changed beyond belief. I’ve swapped a three-bedroom terrace for a luxury, five-bedroom home on the outskirts of Belfast and another one on the coast.
There are not many bus drivers who can say they’ve been to Florida 20 times, New York, Boston and Las Vegas. I’ve also enjoyed 25 cruises and flown on Concorde.
I’ve got two Jags, a Mercedes, a Lexus, an old Jeep and a DeLorean, the same as the car featured in the movie Back to the Future. It was made in Belfast and is one of the few still around.
For me the lottery has always been about making life better for me, my family and the people of Belfast.
As I got the cheque book out, I knew that I had to use the money to help charity. I would enjoy my own share, but I wouldn’t just let the money sit there and live off it.
I run a property firm and two local stores. I also have a company called Danny Boy, which has its own whiskey, crafts and gifts that are marketed and sold to raise money for charities.
I’ve got ambitions for all my businesses. I really want one of my stores to sell someone a jackpot-winning ticket one day. That would be amazing.
I’ve worked hard to build the property business up, so it is worth a lot. Even though the recent recession has wiped out some of its value, I’m still ahead.
I really don’t like sitting still. That can be a bit of a curse, and is how I came to fall off the roof of my house five years ago.
I could have died. I went flying down the roof headfirst. If it hadn’t been for my older brother, Joe, flipping me over I would have landed on my head and wouldn’t be here now.
I’d gone up to clean the gutters and slipped. I came down like on a kids’ slide. I took off and thought I was going to meet my father and mother earlier than expected.
I thought the party was over and it was the end of this life, but my right foot took all the impact. You could hear the crunch as I landed. It just shattered.
I jumped up in shock with the adrenalin and Joe sat me down until the ambulance came. I lost a lot of blood and needed transfusions. It was touch and go. My blood pressure dropped and I was semi-conscious in the ambulance.
They didn’t know if they could save the leg. I woke up full of tubes and lines and couldn’t feel anything from the waist down. I had to ask if I still had my leg.
The doctors, nurses and all the staff were amazing. I had four operations to rebuild the foot, including grafting muscle, flesh and a vein from my thigh. I was in hospital for six weeks and in a wheelchair for another 13.
It shook me since I could have gone then. Now I’m more determined than ever to look after my family, help charity and enjoy life.
I’ve suffered in property through the recession but not as bad as some. My home was worth £2.5m but, even though that price has dipped, it is still worth much more than the £750,000 I spent on buying it and doing it up.
I’ve never sat back, and I’m really proud that I’ve made that lottery jackpot work. I’ve done well as a businessman, making money from my shops. Danny Boy is proving successful at raising funds for charity. I’ve even launched my own whiskey called Danny Boy. It is not just a rich man’s toy. Everything I set up is to make money and be successful.
I’ve got an awful lot and done an awful lot, but the greatest treasure to me is my family and friends. My family have never asked me for a penny. Can you believe that? Not one penny. They have their own lives and they still work hard.
Everyone I love is here, so it is where I want to be. Belfast and Northern Ireland are special to me and I’ll never leave. I wish we could do something about the rain, but that’s out of even a lottery winner’s hands!
My ambition is to live long and have a lot of years to enjoy my good fortune. No point in having wealth but no health.