Manorial Counsel

The History of 10 Downing Street

The iconic front door of Number 10 Downing Street.

10 Downing Street is probably one of the most famous addresses in the UK. Its black front door has become a familiar backdrop to many a long awaited prime ministerial announcement, as well as the comings and goings of ministers during a cabinet reshuffle. But, at the end of the day, it’s just a building… and all buildings have a history. So we thought we’d dig a little deeper to understand more about this iconic location.

How it all began

10 Downing Street became the official residence of the Prime Minister in 1735, but the area of Westminster in which it sits had been a significant location for a long time before. King Canute built a palace in the area, and Henry VIII built Whitehall Palace as his own personal leisure centre. Henry’s palace burnt down in 1698, and Downing Street is set on the edge of the palace site.

In the Middle Ages, the location was a brewery owned by the Abbey of Abingdon, but by the fifteen hundreds it had fallen into disrepair. The first proper house to be built was owned by Elizabeth I. She leased it to one of her favourites, Sir Thomas Knyvet in 1581. And it proved to be a worthwhile investment, for Knyvet played a key role in arresting Guy Fawkes in 1605. When Knyvet died, his niece, Elizabeth Hampden, took it on and it was named Hampden House.

When Elizabeth Hampden passed away, however, a nefarious character took possession of the building. His name was Sir George Downing. Downing was a high-profile spy for Cromwell who then switched sides. It is this historically disliked, duplicitous man who is the person responsible for the street, the buildings, and of course its name.

Downing contracted Christopher Wren to redesign the row of houses in 1682 and the cul-de-sac we now know as Downing Street was created. Despite its distinguished designer, however, it is not the best constructed building in the world. Built on marshy ground, with shallow foundations, Winston Churchill referred to the row of houses as ‘shaky and lightly built by the profiteering contractor whose name they bear’.

That statement notwithstanding, though, even in its early days it was a notable residence for various notable people. In the 1730s, George II presented it to Sir Robert Walpole, the First Lord of the Treasury – effectively the Prime Minister in those days, and that title is still on the brass letterbox of the front door. Walpole refused the gesture as a personal gift, and instead requested that it become his official residence. And hence its governmental role began.

In truth, it wasn’t a popular place for actually living in. The Walpoles used it to entertain, and by the eighteen hundreds, most prime ministers were still choosing to live day-to-day in their own residences; presumably because they were more comfortable. Thus by 1868, when Disraeli had hit the scene, the building was in a pretty bad way.

Over the next few years, it was renovated and modernised. Disraeli paid for the redecoration of the private quarters himself, however he did persuade the state to pay for the work done on the public rooms. The big scoop of the day was that he installed a hot and cold-water bath. And from 1902, it became the home of every Prime Minister of Britain. Gladstone introduced electric lighting and the first telephones. And in 1937 it was graced with central heating. At this time, the attic was also converted into a flat… for the Prime Minister.

There’s more to it than meets the eye

One of the fascinating things about 10 Downing Street, however, is that though it just looks like a normal suburban terraced property from outside, it’s like a Tardis. Once you walk past the famously ordinary front door with the wonky zero, you step into a warren of rooms (approx. 100) that tentacle out behind several housefronts via a network of hallways and stairs. The banal exterior hides the walls within which some of the most powerful decisions have been contemplated for over 400 years.

It did suffer a strike during the blitz in 1940. The kitchen and the state rooms were damaged whilst Churchill was eating just a few metres away in the Garden Room. But rather than demolish the building – which was up for discussion at the time – it was decided to carry out a complete renovation instead.

Some interesting bits of trivia about Number 10.

We said above that all Prime Ministers since 1902 had resided at Number 10, but that isn’t strictly true. The Camerons lived next door at Number 11, because it offered more space for a growing family. Also, there is no lock on the outside of the front door; it can only be opened from the inside. And for trivia fans, this is worth tucking away in your archive… It was originally Number 5, not Number 10. When the property was presented to Walpole, it was in fact two houses; the one we see with a front door, and a significantly larger one that stood behind. Walpole combined the two, and the property was officially renamed Number 10 in 1779.