Sept. 22 1735 – Robert Walpole becomes the first British “Prime Minister” (actually First Lord of the Treasury) to live at 10 Downing Street.
10 Downing Street, the locale of British prime ministers since 1735, vies with the White House as being the most important political building anywhere in the world in the modern era.
Behind its black door have been taken the most important decisions affecting Britain for the last 275 years.
In the 20th century alone, the First and Second World Wars were directed from within it, as were the key decisions about the end of the empire, the building of the British nuclear bomb, the handling of economic crises from the Great Depression in 1929 to the great recession, and the building up of the welfare state.
Some of the most famous political figures of modern history have lived and worked in Number 10, including Robert Walpole, Pitt the Younger, Benjamin Disraeli, William Gladstone, David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher.
Number 10 has 3 overlapping functions. It is the official residence of the British Prime Minister: it is their office, and it is also the place where the Prime Minister entertains guests from Her Majesty The Queen to presidents of the United States and other world leaders.
The Prime Minister hosts countless receptions and events for a whole range of British and overseas guests, with charitable receptions high up the list.
The building is much larger than it appears from its frontage. The hall with the chequered floor immediately behind the front door lets on to a warren of rooms and staircases.
The house in Downing Street was joined to a more spacious and elegant building behind it in the early 18th century.
Number 10 has also spread itself out to the left of the front door, and has taken over much of 12 Downing Street, which is accessed by a corridor that runs through 11 Downing Street – the official residence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Origins And Early Inhabitants
The area around Downing Street was home to ancient Roman, Anglo-Saxon and Norman settlements, and was already a prestigious centre of government 1,000 years ago.
The Romans first came to Britain under the command of Julius Caesar in 55 BC. Making their capital at Londinium downriver, the Romans chose Thorney Island – a marshy piece of land lying between two branches of the river Tyburn that flowed from Hampstead Heath to the Thames – as the site for their early settlement.
These Roman settlements, and those of the Anglo-Saxons and Normans who supplanted them, were not very successful. The area was prone to plague and its inhabitants were very poor. A charter granted by the Mercian King Offa in the year 785 refers to “the terrible place called Thorney Island”. It took royal patronage to give the area prestige. King Canute (reigned 1017 to 1035) built a palace in the area, and Edward the Confessor (reigned 1042 to 1066) and William the Conqueror (reigned 1066 to 1087) maintained a royal presence there.
The position of Westminster (as the area became known) as the centre of government and the church was solidified following the construction of the great abbey nearby, on Edward’s orders.
The earliest building known to have stood on the site of Downing Street was the Axe brewery owned by the Abbey of Abingdon in the Middle Ages. By the early 1500s, it had fallen into disuse.
Henry VIII (reigned 1509 to 1547) developed Westminster’s importance further by building an extravagant royal residence there.
Whitehall Palace was created when Henry VIII confiscated York House from Cardinal Wolsey in 1530 and extended the complex. Today’s Downing Street is located on the edge of the Palace site.
The huge residence included tennis courts, a tiltyard for jousting, a bowling green, and a cockpit for bird fights. Stretching from St James’s Park to the Thames, it was the official residence of Tudor and Stuart monarchs until it was destroyed by fire in 1698. It made the surrounding real estate some of the most important and valuable in London – and the natural home of power.
The first domestic house known to have been built on the site of Number 10 was a large building leased to Sir Thomas Knyvet in 1581 by Queen Elizabeth I (reigned 1558 to 1603). He was one of the Queen’s favourites and was an MP for Thetford as well as a justice of the peace for Westminster.
His claim to fame was the arrest of Guy Fawkes for his role in the gunpowder plot of 1605. He was knighted in 1604 by Elizabeth’s successor, King James I (reigned 1603 to 1625), and the house was extended.
After the death of Sir Knyvet and his wife, the house passed to their niece, Elizabeth Hampden, who continued to live there for the next 40 years.
The middle of the 17th century was a period of political upheaval and Mrs Hampden’s family was right in the middle of it. Her son, John Hampden, was one of the MPs who opposed King Charles I (reigned 1625 to 1649), and Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector, was Mrs Hampden’s nephew.
Hampden House, as it was then known, gave Mrs Hampden a prime view of the tumultuous events during the Civil War and the Commonwealth and the early years of the Restoration.
The execution of Charles I in 1649 took place on a scaffold in front of Banqueting House in Whitehall, within earshot of the house. Mrs Hampden was still living there when King Charles II (reigned in Scotland from 1649 to 1685) was restored to the English throne in 1660.
The Parliamentary Commissioners, who took over Crown lands during the time of the Commonwealth, described the house in 1650:
Built part of Bricke and part with Tymber and Flemish qalle and covered with Tyle, consistinge of a Large and spacious hall, wainscoted round, well lighted, and Paved with brick Pavements, two parls wherof one is Wainscoted round from the seelinge to ye floor, one Buttery, one seller, one Large kitchen well paved with stone and well fitted and Joynted and well fitted with dresser boards.
And above stayres in the first story one large and spacious dyneinge Roome, Wainscoted round from the seelinge to the floore, well flored, Lighted and seeled, and fitted with a faire Chimney with a foote pace of paynted Tyle in the same. Also 6 more Roomes and 3 Closetts in the same flore all well lighted and seeled. And in the second story 4 garretts…
The Emergence Of Downing Street
George Downing gave his name to the most famous street in the world. It is unfortunate that he was such an unpleasant man. Able as a diplomat and a government administrator, he was miserly and at times brutal.
However, George Downing was responsible for the street, its name and the building we know today. A former diplomat at The Hague serving the Commonwealth, he changed allegiance with finesse.
He traded enough secrets to gain a royal pardon in March 1660 and, by the Restoration in May 1660, to be rewarded with a knighthood.
Interested in power and money, he saw an opportunity to make his fortune in property. He had already gained the Crown interest in the land around Hampden House, but could not take possession as it was under lease to Knyvet’s descendants.
In 1682 he secured the leases to the property and employed Sir Christopher Wren to design the houses.
Between 1682 and 1684, existing properties were pulled down and in their place a cul-de-sac of 15 to 20 terraced houses was built along the north side of the new street, Downing Street.
In order to maximise profit, the houses were cheaply built, with poor foundations for the boggy ground. Instead of neat brick façades, they had mortar lines drawn on to give the appearance of evenly spaced bricks. In the 20th Century, Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote that Number 10 was:
Shaky and lightly built by the profiteering contractor whose name they bear.
A rather important neighbour complained, however. The new houses were built directly behind a large and impressive house overlooking Horse Guards. Its occupier, the Countess of Lichfield, daughter of Charles II, was less than pleased with the emergence of the unwelcome terrace behind. She complained to her father, who wrote back with advice:
I think that it is a very reasonable thing that other houses should not look into your house without your permission, and this note will be sufficient for Mr Surveyor to build up your wall as high as you please.
The original numbering of the Downing Street houses was completely different from what we see today. The sequence of numbers was haphazard, and the houses tended to be known by the name or title of their occupants.
The current Number 10 started out life as Number 5, and was not renumbered until 1779.
The Downing Street house had several distinguished residents. The Countess of Yarmouth lived at Number 10 between 1688 and 1689, and was followed by Lord Lansdowne from 1692 to 1696 and the Earl of Grantham from 1699 to 1703.
The last private resident of Downing’s terrace was one Mr Chicken. Little is known about him except that he moved out in the early 1730s.
King George II presented both the house on Downing Street and the house overlooking Horse Guards to Sir Robert Walpole, who held the title First Lord of the Treasury and effectively served as the first Prime Minister.
Walpole refused the property as a personal gift. Instead, he asked the king to make it available as an official residence to him and to future First Lords of the Treasury – starting the tradition that continues today. The brass letterbox on the black front door is still engraved with this title.
Walpole took up residence on 22 September 1735, once the townhouse on Downing Street and the house overlooking Horse Guards had been joined together and completely refurbished. Walpole employed architect William Kent – who had already worked on Walpole’s Norfolk home, Houghton Hall – to undertake the work.
Kent carried out extensive work on the 2 houses, connecting them on 2 storeys. The main entrance now faced onto Downing Street rather than towards Horse Guards, and the Downing Street building became a passageway to the main house. At the back of the house, where the Walpoles lived, Kent created grand new rooms suitable for receiving important guests, and built an unusual, 3-sided staircase. It is still one of the most impressive features of the building.
Walpole used the ground floor for business, taking the largest room, on the north-west side of the house, as his study. This is now the Cabinet Room. Upstairs on the first floor, the Walpoles lived in the rooms facing onto Horse Guards Parade.
Lady Walpole used today’s White Drawing Room as her sitting room, and the present day Terracotta Room served as their dining room. The Walpoles were soon entertaining important guests in their smart house, including George II’s wife Queen Caroline, politicians, writers and soldiers. Number 10 became – as it continues to be today – a place for politics and entertainment.
Pelham To Pitt
When Walpole left Downing Street in 1742, it was over 20 years before another First Lord of the Treasury moved in. His successors saw the house as a perk of the job, and Prime Ministers Henry Pelham (1743 to 1754) and the Duke of Newcastle (1757 to 1762) preferred to live in their own residences.
In 1763 George Grenville (1763 to 1765) took up residence but was sacked by King George III in 1765 for imposing stamp duty on the American colonies. The next Prime Minister to move into Downing Street was Lord North (1770 to 1782). He was very fond of the house and often entertained there. Visitors included the writer Samuel Johnson and Thomas Hansard, founder of the parliamentary reporting system that is still in use today. One guest, Clive of India, was so popular that furniture was made for him, which is still present today in the first floor anteroom and Terracotta Room.
During one memorable dinner party held by Lord North on 7 June 1780, civil unrest broke out in the street outside when angry Protestants unhappy with North’s policy towards Roman Catholics rioted all over London, in what became known as the Gordon Riots. The Grenadier Guards held off a large mob, a situation that might have ended with bloodshed had North not gone outside to warn the protestors of the dangers of being shot, following which the crowd dispersed. North’s dinner guests climbed to the top of the house to view the fires burning all over London.
Major improvements were made to the house during North’s time, including the addition of many distinctive features: the black and white chequerboard floor in the entrance hall, the lamp above the front door and the famous lion’s head door knocker.
Following the loss of the American colonies, North resigned and was followed by the Duke of Portland, who was Prime Minister for only 9 months in 1782.
Fall And Rise Of Number 10
At the turn of the 19th century, Downing Street had fallen on hard times. Although Number 10 continued to serve as the Prime Minister’s office, it was not favoured as a home. Most prime ministers preferred to live in their own townhouses.
But by the 1820s, Downing Street had emerged as the centre of government. Prime Minister Viscount Goderich employed the brilliant, quirky architect Sir John Soane, designer of the Bank of England, to make the house more suitable for its high-profile role. Soane created the wood-panelled State Dining Room and the Small Dining Room for elegant entertaining.
But this wasn’t good enough for his successor, Lord Wellington, who only moved in while his own lavish home, Apsley House, was being refurbished. Later leaders such as Lord Melbourne and Viscount Palmerston used Number 10 only as an office and for Cabinet meetings. In 1828, Number 11 became the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s official residence, but the surrounding area was becoming seedier, with brothels and gin parlours multiplying. Things became so bad that by 1839 there were plans to demolish Number 10 and the other buildings on the north side of Downing Street to make way for a remodelled Whitehall.
Security also became an issue. In 1842, Edward Drummond, secretary to Prime Minister Robert Peel (1841—1846), was murdered in Whitehall on his way back to his home in Downing Street by an assassin who mistook him for Peel. The prestige of Downing Street was reduced even further by the building of the magnificent new Foreign Office building at the end of the 1860s. George Gilbert Scott’s creation, with a huge open court and elaborate state rooms, dwarfed Number 10 opposite. It even had its own Cabinet Room in which the Cabinet sometimes met, rather than at Number 10.
By the time Benjamin Disraeli became Prime Minister, the house was in poor shape. The living quarters had not been used for 30 years and Disraeli described it as “dingy and decaying”. It was time for modernisation.
The late 19th and early 20th century saw 10 Downing Street transformed from a humble terraced house into a grand residence with modern facilities – a home and office fit for the most powerful politician in the country. Disraeli persuaded the state to pay for renovation to the entrance halls and public rooms, though he paid for the refurbishment of the private rooms himself. His own first floor bedroom and dressing room were improved, and a bath with hot and cold water in the First Lord’s Dressing Room was installed for the sum of £150.3s.6d.
When William Gladstone moved into the house for the first time in 1880, he insisted on redecorating, spending £1,555.5s.0d – an enormous sum for the time – on furniture. During his occupancy in 1884, electric lighting was fitted and the first telephones were installed.
The Marquess of Salisbury, who succeeded Gladstone on one occasion, was the last Prime Minister not to live at Number 10. Salisbury never liked the Cabinet Room, describing it as a “cramped close room”. Preferring to work in the larger Cabinet Room in the Foreign Office and live in Arlington Street, he offered Number 10 to his nephew, Arthur Balfour, who would later become Prime Minister himself. Balfour was the first inhabitant of Number 10 to bring a motor car to Downing Street.
Over the years, more and more changes and improvements were made to the house. When Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald first entered the house, he wanted Number 10 to regain some of the grandeur it had during the times of Walpole and Pitt. Missing a proper library (or at least, one containing more than just Hansard reports), MacDonald set about creating one. He started the Prime Minister’s Library, originally housed in the Cabinet Room.
The custom of the Prime Minister and other ministers donating books to the library continues to this day. Central heating was installed in 1937 and work began to convert the labyrinth of rooms in the attic, which had formerly been used by servants, into a flat for the Prime Minister.
Restoration And Modernisation
By the 1950s, the material state of 10 Downing Street had reached crisis point. Bomb damage had worsened existing structural problems: the building was suffering from subsidence, sloping walls, twisting door frames and an enormous annual repair bill.
The Ministry of Works carried out a survey in 1954 into the state of the structure. The report bounced from Winston Churchill (1951 to 1955) to Anthony Eden (1955 to 1957) to Harold Macmillan (1957 to 1963) as one Prime Minister followed the other.
Finally, a committee set up by Macmillan concluded that drastic action was required before the building fell or burnt down.
The committee put forward a range of options, including the complete demolition of Number 10, 11 and 12 and their replacement with a new building. That idea was rejected and it was decided that Number 12 should be rebuilt, and Numbers 10 and 11 should be strengthened and their historic features preserved.
The architect Raymond Erith was selected to supervise the work, which was expected to take 2 years and cost £500,000. It ended up taking a year longer than planned and costing double the original estimate. The foundations proved to be so rotten that concrete underpinning was required on a massive scale.
Number 10 was completely gutted. Walls, floors and even the columns in the Cabinet Room and Pillared Room proved to be rotten and had to be replaced. New features were added too, including a room facing onto Downing Street and a veranda at Number 11 for the Chancellor.
It was also discovered that the familiar exterior façade was not black at all, but yellow. The blackened colour was a product of two centuries of severe pollution. To keep the familiar appearance, the newly cleaned yellow bricks were painted black to match their previous colour. Erith’s work was completed in 1963, but not long afterwards, dry rot became apparent and further repairs had to be undertaken.
Margaret Thatcher (1979 to 1990) appointed architect Quinlan Terry to refurbish the state drawing rooms at the end of the 1980s. Two of the rooms, the White Drawing Room and Terracotta Room, gained ornate plasterwork ceilings. In the White Drawing Room, this included adding the national emblems of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
All the building work of the past few decades could have been ruined when a terrorist bomb exploded in 1991.
An IRA mortar bomb was fired from a white transit van in Whitehall and exploded in the garden of Number 10, only a few metres away from where Prime Minister John Major (1990 to 1997) was chairing a Cabinet meeting to discuss the Gulf War.
Although no one was killed, it left a crater in the Number 10 gardens and blew in the windows of neighbouring houses. John Major and some of his staff moved into Admiralty Arch while damage caused by the bomb was repaired.
By 2006, it was clear that the Downing Street complex was no longer able to support the business of the Prime Minister’s Office reliably. Independent surveys established that the building was no longer weather-tight, the heating system was failing, and the information and communications technology (ICT) network was at the limits of its operation. Power outages and water leaks were frequent occurrences and impacted significantly on the day-to-day operation of the Prime Minister’s Office.
In addition to deterioration through age, pressures on the buildings had increased dramatically over recent years, through an increase in occupancy (stable at around 50 for many years) to around 170.
In 2006, Prime Minister Tony Blair (1997 to 2007) authorised a new programme of improvements, with the building remaining operational throughout. Work was launched to address structural failure, renew the infrastructure, improve access and enhance the building’s sustainability.
Structural issues were among the first to be tackled, and a phased exterior repair project was launched to address failing lead guttering, cracking brickwork and other structural issues.
The distinctive black colourwash was also renewed, as it had faded away in many areas to reveal the yellow brickwork beneath. During the course of the works it was discovered that the façade of 11 Downing Street was unstable, and had to be secured using 225 stainless steel pins. All work was carried out in consultation with English Heritage.
Other projects have been undertaken to renew the building’s ageing infrastructure and to replace many of the building’s key services, including heating, fire protection and electrical power distribution. Sustainability is a key feature of the programme and a 10% reduction in carbon emissions was achieved during 2011.
Rainwater harvesting was introduced in 2009, providing a sustainable source of water for the garden. Accessibility for disabled visitors has been significantly improved through the introduction of ramps and modernisation of lifts. Many of the public areas of the building have also been restored, including the front entrance hall, the state and small dining rooms and the study.
An ongoing programme is in place to upgrade facilities to modern standards, and to ensure the preservation of this historic building for years to come.
Installations At Number 10 Timeline
Since 10 Downing Street became the official residence of the premier, the building has performed the dual role of both residence and place of work for Britain’s Prime Ministers.
Number 10 has been upgraded – including new technology – throughout its history, to ensure both an acceptable standard of living for its residents and to keep the Prime Minister at the heart of decision making within government.
Often, the prompt for new technology or an upgrade was the arrival of a new Prime Minister.
Here are some of the more notable developments across 3 centuries of history, from the arrival of hot running water to the first tweet:
1877 – hot and cold running water installed. The living quarters were renovated for Benjamin Disraeli – including a bath.
1894 – installation of electric lighting and first telephones. Following Disraeli’s departure William Gladstone redecorated the building and oversaw the installations.
1902 – first motor-car driven onto Downing Street. Arthur Balfour brought the first car and since then, Prime Ministers have looked to select British marques for their official car, with a procession of Wolseleys, Humbers, Rovers, Daimlers and Jaguars sweeping successive Prime Ministers into – and out of – Downing Street.
1937 – first central heating.
1963 – electrical and telephone systems were replaced. 1963 was a major period of renovation for the building.
1982 – the first direct hotline between No10 and Washington was established during Margaret Thatcher’s first term of office.
1982 – first ‘micro-computer’ and microfilm reader installed.
1983 – wider roll-out of computers machines for Number 10 staff following a review of the building’s needs.
1990s – first video conference. John Major used the technology from his study.
1996 – desktop PCs installed at all workstations.
1996 – the launch of the first No10 website.
1998 – internet access became mainstreamed across Number 10 staff desktops.
2002 – dedicated video conferencing suite was installed. This followed the events of 9/11 and allowed the Prime Minister and his team to be in face to face contact with counterparts around the world in an instant.
2005 – a new e-mail account allowed the public to contact the Prime Minister directly.
2008 – Number 10’s very own online TV station – Number10 TV
2008 – Number 10’s first tweet – and there have been over 3,000 since.