Inspiration for new articles comes from many places, and this one was inspired by a bar of soap. No, really. I’ll explain that connection below. It got me thinking about this seat of power that is both the home and workplace for the British Prime Minister.
Number 10 Downing Street is a terraced Georgian building off Whitehall, and a short walk away from the Houses of Parliament. While it is grand on a British scale, it is not grand like The White House. There is no public access – we can’t even walk down the street outside – so it comes with a lot more mystique.
The PM’s staff and official visitors are the only people who get to walk through that iconic black front door. No.10 has first-floor staterooms used for receptions and entertaining, plus a garden next to Horse Guards Parade.
There has been a building on this site since the Middle Ages. It was a brewery owned by the Abbey of Abingdon, which by the early 16th century had fallen into disuse. The current no.10 Downing Street is one large house from three properties.
As Crown-owned land, a building was constructed here in the 1530s, next to Whitehall Palace, known as the House at the Back. Queen Elizabeth I granted the premises to Thomas Knyvet, the Keeper of the Palace, for life without rent. In May 1604, James I, in consideration of the expenditure which Knyvet had incurred in the repairs of the house, granted him a lease of the premises for a term of 60 years to commence at his (Knyvet’s) death.
Knyvet was the man who arrested Guy Fawkes over the foiled Gunpowder plot in 1605.
Knyvet died in July 1622, leaving the residue of his property to his wife (who was the aunt of Oliver Cromwell). She died later the same year and left her property to her niece Elizabeth Hampden, and the house became known as Hampden House.
In 1651 the Parliamentary Commissioners sold the Crown’s interest in the property to Robert Thorpe and William Procter, and in 1654, George Downing acquired the interest from Thorpe, the survivor. Downing had also purchased the lease on land adjacent to the House at the Back and planned to build a row of terraced townhouses “for persons of good quality to inhabit in …”
The Hampden family still had a lease on the land granted by James I (see above), and they did not want to leave. Downing fought their claim but failed and had to wait 30 years before he could build.
The Restoration came in 1660 when Charles II took the throne after the English Civil War that had led to the execution of his father in 1649. This made George Downing’s purchase from Parliament void, but he petitioned the King in 1662.
Mrs. Hampden died in 1665, but Downing still had to wait until the Knyvet lease ended.
George Monck, 1st Duke of Albemarle, the General responsible for the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, lived there from 1660 until his death in 1671. Sir George Downing was his secretary.
In 1671 George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, lived here until he retired in 1676. Then, Lady Charlotte Fitzroy, Charles II’s daughter, moved in when she married Edward Lee, 1st Earl of Lichfield. The property was renamed Lichfield House, and The Crown authorized extensive rebuilding, which included adding a story, thus giving it three main floors, an attic, and a basement.
George Downing Buildings
Born to Puritan parents in Ireland, Downing grew up in Salem Mass in the Massachusetts Bay Colony—where his uncle, John Winthrop, served as governor—and was a member of the first graduating class of Harvard College (1642) before moving to England. Downing was the chief spy for Oliver Cromwell and was known by the title “Scoutmaster General.” He was British Ambassador to The Hague at the time of Cromwell’s death, and he knew to then side with King Charles II.
In 1682 the Knyvet lease came to an end, and Downing entered into possession. Considered a rather unpleasant individual, his intention all along had been to rebuild. Samuel Pepys’s diary mentioned that Downing was a “perfidious rogue,” so it should be little surprise that when Downing acquired the land, he wanted to throw up some cheaply built townhomes on the street that would come to bear his name.
Downing employed Sir Christopher Wren to build a series of 15 to 20 townhouses, with coach-houses and stables, on a cul-de-sac from 1682 to 1684. Although large, the houses were put up quickly and cheaply to maximize profits. The shallow foundations on soft, marshy ground would cause problems for hundreds of years as the buildings were not made to last. (Winston Churchill called the residence “shaky and lightly built by the profiteering contractor whose name they bear.”) So much was a sham that even the brickwork’s mortar was painted on.
George Downing never planned to live in Downing Street. He retired to Cambridge in 1675 and died there in 1684, just after the completion of the now-famous street. In 1800 the wealth he had accumulated was used to found Downing College, Cambridge, as had been his wish should his descendants fail in the male line. Downing’s portrait hangs in the entrance hall of Number 10.
Elizabeth Paston lived at Number 10 between 1688 and 1689. From 1690 it became known as Overkirk House when Lord and Lady Overkirk moved in. On the death of the latter in January 1720, it was resumed by the Crown and appointed for the residence of Count Bothmar. It was known as Bothmar House until it was gifted to Sir Robert Walpole.
Sir Robert Walpole
In 1732 King George II offered one of the houses, then known as 5 Downing Street (renumbered in 1779), as a personal gift to Sir Robert Walpole, the First Lord of the Treasury. Walpole accepted the King’s gift on the condition that the properties would be in possession of the Office of the First Lord of the Treasury while in office.
(Beginning with Walpole, nearly all First Lords of the Treasury have simultaneously held the title of Prime Minister, though the title was not made official until 1905.)
William Kent rebuilt the interior between 1732 and 1734 to join the townhouse with two adjoining properties – a larger one behind it (The House at the Back) and a smaller cottage. A man called Mr. Chicken was living in the cottage but was persuaded by Walpole to move to another residence on Downing Street.
Kent created one larger property by building a two-story structure between them, consisting of one long room on the ground floor and several above. The remaining interior space was converted into a courtyard. He connected the Downing Street houses with a corridor. The remodeling created a property with about 100 rooms. Kent also closed off the north entrance and made the No. 10 door the main entrance to make it easier for Walpole to travel to Parliament.
It was during this period of development that his craftsmen created the stone triple staircase. Rising from the ground to the third floor, the staircase has a wrought-iron balustrade embellished with a scroll design and mahogany handrail.
Walpole moved to Downing Street in September 1735 and stayed for nearly seven years. In the early part of 1742, his defeat over the Chippenham election brought about his resignation, and Lord Wilmington became First Lord of the Treasury. The latter, not wanting the house for himself, passed to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Samuel Sandys, and Walpole moved to Arlington Street.
Lord North, who conducted the war against the American Revolution, lived here with his family from 1767 to 1782.
In 1766 it was discovered that major repairs were needed as the floors had sunk into the soft foundations. The work was not completed until 1774 and included the present western part of the Downing Street frontage of No. 10. In 1781–3 further extensive works were carried out.
In the 19th century, the buildings on one side of the street were demolished to make way for new government buildings, which now house the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.
Famous Front Door
The iconic six-paneled, flush-molded, Georgian-style front door was designed by the architect Kenton Couse. Made from black oak, the door was fitted in the 1770s and featured a center-door knob, black lion head iron door-knocker, and a brass letterbox inscribed with the words ‘First Lord of the Treasury.’ Above the door is a semicircular fanlight having radiating bars.
Look closely at the door, and you will see there is no keyhole. That is because the door can only be opened from the inside. As there is always someone on duty, that is not a problem for the occupants.
The entrance doorway has stone dressings with shaped consoles supporting a molded head. An iron gas lamp surmounted by a crown rests on wrought-iron supports forming part of the railings to the front areas. The railings on each side of the entrance doorway finish with a ramp of scrollwork. Kenton Couse also added a bow front to the small cottage—formerly Mr. Chicken’s house—incorporated into Number 10 in Walpole’s time.
The wooden door was restored during renovation works in the 1960s but has since been replaced with a blast-proof steel door in the same design. The door to No. 10 Downing Street that was in use during Churchill’s time as Prime Minister can be seen in the nearby Churchill War Rooms.
The zero of the 10 is painted at a 37-degree angle sloping to the left. Typographers will recognize it as a capital letter O and not a numeral. There are lots of stories about why this might be, but this article seems to confirm it was simply a mistake that they’ve stuck with ever since the 1960s repairs.
In the Hot Seat
Just inside the front door, there is a large black guard’s chair, designed by Chippendale. This was used by the nightwatchman, and there is an incorporated drawer for hot coals under the seat.
Prime Minister’s Home
William Pitt the Younger made no. 10 his home for twenty years (longer than any First Lord before or since) from 1783 to 1801 and from 1804 to 1806. He referred to it as “My vast, awkward house.”
After he died, the building saw continued use as the Prime Minister’s office, but succeeding PMs opted to live in their own London homes for the next 70 years. No. 10 Downing Street was conveniently close to Parliament, but it was very run down and costly to manage.
When Benjamin Disraeli became Prime Minister, he described the house’s condition as “dingy and decaying” and decided that more renovations were in order. He persuaded Parliament to pay for modernizing the office space but paid for the private residence improvements himself. Disraeli became the first Prime Minister to make it his home when he moved there in 1877.
New Prime Ministers were expected to bring all their own bedding, crockery, furniture, and servants to no. 10 Downing Street. Because the house was so big, William Gladstone spent £1,555 on new furniture when he moved there in 1880 because he didn’t have enough to fill the rooms. Electric lighting and telephones were also installed in 1884 under Gladstone.
Arthur James Balfour revived and established no. 10 as his official residence as Prime Minister in 1902. When his uncle and predecessor Lord Salisbury retired, it was an easy transition as he had already been living there as First Lord of the Treasury as Lord Salisbury had opted not to use the residence and let Balfour have it. Balfour was also the first person to bring a car to no. 10.
Central heating was fitted in 1937, and the attic rooms were then converted into a prime ministerial flat.
On 14 October 1940, during the Blitz, a bomb falling nearby caused damage to the kitchen and staterooms. Fortunately, Churchill was dining nearby. While no. 10 had no direct hits, bombs landed close enough to blow out the windows. These issues only added to existing structural concerns, and, come the post-war years, No. 10 Downing Street’s future was uncertain as it was in serious need of renovation. There was a risk of the bearing walls collapsing, the staircase shrinking several inches, and pervasive dry rot throughout the building.
Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was conscious that the post-war general public could react negatively to a Prime Minister apparently electing to spend a large sum of public money on his own house, so he appointed a small independent committee in July 1957. The Crawford Committee was tasked with investigating and recommending a course of action for dealing with the deteriorating buildings at Nos. 10, 11, and 12 Downing Street. It reported less than a year later, recommending that the existing structures be substantially rebuilt as the Downing Street houses had deteriorated further even since the Ministry of Works had conducted its surveys in 1954/5. One of the committee’s suggestions was to tear the properties down and build from scratch, but the Ministry of Works claimed that “the houses in Downing Street are deeply embedded in our history. To destroy them would be an act of impiety”.
But saving the buildings was a real challenge as the houses were now a credible fire risk. Representatives of the Ministry of Works told the Committee that there was now “serious risk of collapse of parts of the building.”
During the structural investigation, it was discovered that the huge timber beams supporting the foundations were severely water damaged, rotted, and crumbling. And the walls were found to consist of rubble with timber rather than proper brickwork, creating the ideal conditions for dry rot. Many were also suffering from insect damage.
Major reconstruction took place from 1960 to 1964, overseen by Raymond Erith. There were plenty of delays that were beyond his control, including worker strikes and archaeological excavations that uncovered important artifacts dating from Roman, Saxon, and medieval times.
New foundations made from reinforced concrete with piles were sunk 1.8m – 5.5m (6ft -18ft) deep, and the original buildings were reassembled on top of it. This allowed for much-needed expansion and modernization. Any original materials that were beyond repair – such as the pair of double columns in the Cabinet Room – would be replicated in detail. This was a formidable undertaking: the three buildings contained over 200 rooms spread out over five floors.
No. 10 was expanded, with the Chancellor pushed out towards No. 12 Downing Street, which was rebuilt to its former height in red brick. Additional office space was opened up on the upper floors, and the building’s capacity was expanded as well as improved in quality.
By the time the renovation was complete, approximately 40% of Number 10 was restored, or replica materials had been used, while the other 60% used entirely new materials. The works took over three years to complete and cost £1,000,000 – one year late and £500,000 over budget.
The Prime Minister moved back into Downing Street in September 1963, more than a year later than had been first anticipated. But Erith knew things were not finished as he said, “I am heartbroken by the result. The whole project has been a frightful waste of money because it just has not been done properly.”
In 1964, dry rot was discovered in the State Dining Room, in the second-floor toilet, and under the Cabinet Room patio due to inadequate waterproofing and a broken water pipe. The following year, it was found in the State Drawing Room (otherwise known as the Pillared Drawing Room).
By 1969, discoloration was found on the walls in the White Drawing Room, making it almost certain that dry rot was also present there.
Prime Minister Edward Heath eventually had to accept that even more disruptive work was required and unavoidable, and work was finally complete by 1973.
Before the structural work in the 1960s and 1970s, there had been a need to employ an industrial firefighter full-time to watch over the building and a permanent on-site carpenter to constantly adjust No. 10’s windows and doors as they moved in and out of true. There was not a lot of cost-saving to do away with those roles after such enormous expenditure on the renovations.
On inspection of the exterior façade, it was discovered that the bricks were actually yellow but had been blackened by two centuries of smog. It was decided, in order to retain the famous aesthetic, that the newly-cleaned yellow bricks would be painted black. The thin tuckpointing mortar in between was not painted and so contrasts with the bricks.
And here’s the connection to the bar of soap that I mentioned at the start. BrickSixty sells black soap that includes raw charcoal powder, so carbon, along with a cedarwood scent, is now being used to its advantage: to clean and purify the skin.
No. 10’s longest twentieth-century resident was Margaret Thatcher. She installed the first direct hotline between Number 10 and the White House in 1982.
As the PM’s private apartment is on the third floor in the attic rooms, Margaret Thatcher, a grocer’s daughter, remarked that the PM “lives above the shop” here.
In 1991, the original oak door was replaced with a bomb-proof metal one after an IRA mortar launched from a white van damaged the building’s facade. A splinter from the 1991 IRA mortar attack is still embedded in the plasterwork upstairs.
Ever since the IRA fired mortar shells at no. 10 in 1991 during John Major’s premiership, the street has been cordoned off with a large iron gate.
Breaking with tradition when he came to power, Tony Blair and his family swapped houses with the then-unmarried Chancellor, who traditionally occupied the rather larger flat at no. 11. He also commandeered the offices at no. 12, the traditional base of the chief whip, claiming the need for more workspace. Since then, further prime ministers have also chosen to live at number 11 for more space. The chancellor has either lived in the smaller flat at number 10 or remained at home.
But whichever property they choose, the sunless street is literally overshadowed by the Foreign Office building across the road.
The labyrinthine 17th-century building contains over 100 rooms.
The private residence, in which the Prime Minister’s family lives, is on the third floor, while the basement contains a kitchen. The floors in between contain various accommodations, including offices and conference rooms, sitting and dining rooms.
The walls of the Grand Staircase are lined with portraits of every British Prime Minister in chronological order. It’s a stone triple staircase with a wrought-iron balustrade and mahogany handrail.
The most important room at no. 10 is the Cabinet Room, where the Prime Minister meets all his senior ministers. (The senior ministers of government are called the Cabinet.) It is separated from the rest of the house by soundproof doors and has three brass chandeliers hanging from the high ceiling. The decorations are typical of the early Georgian period with wall paneling and an entablature consisting of an enriched architrave, frieze, and modillion cornice. Folding doors on the west side of the room give access to the terrace and garden below.
The ministers all sit at a long curved table especially designed so that the Prime Minister can see everyone without leaning forward. This was the idea of the former Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. The prime minister’s chair, the only one with arms, is situated midway along one side in front of the marble fireplace, facing the windows; when not in use, it is positioned at an angle for easy access.
It is worth noting that the Cabinet Room itself was not originally designed for its purpose, being referred to in 18th-century floor plans as ‘My Lord’s Study,’ with the adjacent rooms that now housed the Private Office designated as Waiting and Dining Rooms. In Kent’s design for the enlarged Number 10, the Cabinet Room was a simple rectangular space with enormous windows. As part of the renovations begun in 1783, it was extended with the old wall replaced by the two columns that still decorate the room today.
The Secretaries’ Rooms leads from the Cabinet Room and is decorated in similar Georgian character with carved marble mantelpieces.
First Floor State Rooms
There are three interlinked state drawing rooms on the first floor: the Pillared Drawing Room, the Terracotta Drawing Room, and the White Drawing Room. All have carved marble mantelpieces and molded overdoors with carving to the pulvinated frieze representing oak or acanthus leaves.
The largest stateroom is the Pillared Room which takes its name from the twin Ionic pilasters with straight pediments at one end. There is little furniture as the room is usually used to receive guests before they go into the State Dining Room.
The middle of the three drawing rooms is The Terracotta Room. It was used as the dining room when Sir Robert Walpole was Prime Minister. The room’s name changes according to the color it is painted. When Margaret Thatcher came to power, it was the Blue Room; she had it re-decorated and renamed the Green Room.
The White State Drawing room was, until the 1940s, used by Prime Ministers and their partners for their private use. It is often used as the backdrop for television interviews and is in regular use as a meeting room for Downing Street staff. (The Press Briefing room – seen regularly throughout 2020 – is actually in number 9 Downing Street.)
State Dining Room
When Frederick Robinson (later Lord Goderich) became Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1823, he decided to leave a personal legacy to the nation. He employed Sir John Soane, the distinguished architect who had designed the Bank of England, to build a State Dining Room for Number 10. Work started in 1825 and was completed in 1826 at a cost of £2,000. The result is a spacious room with oak paneling and reeded moldings. The vaulted, arched ceiling rises up through the next level so that it actually occupies two floors. Measuring 42 by 26 feet (12.8 by 7.9 m), it is the largest room in Number 10. Soane was the guest of honor when the dining room was first used on 4 April 1826.
The large kitchen in the basement is another lofty room as it occupies two normal stories with a huge arched window and vaulted ceiling.
The entrance hall leading from Downing Street is paved with black-and-white marble squares. These tiles were added during Lord Frederick North’s time in residence between 1770 and 1782. There are double doors to shut off the corridor, which leads to the Cabinet Room.
A door on the left of the hall leads from number 11 and affords the Chancellor of the Exchequer access through No. 10 to the Treasury.
Government Art Collection
Number 10 is filled with fine paintings, sculptures, busts, and furniture, but only a few are permanent features. These are not owned by the PM as most are on loan. About half belong to the Government Art Collection. The remainder are on loan from private collectors and from public galleries such as the National Portrait Gallery, the Tate Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the National Gallery.
Older buildings in London – especially terraced properties – often have a problem with mice. Downing Street even has rats that are sometimes seen running past the outside when news presenters are on TV.
To ease the problem, Larry the cat has been in residence at Number 10 since 2011. Rescued from the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, since his adoption, he has been installed as ‘Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office.’
The government website tells us that:
Larry spends his days greeting guests to the house, inspecting security defences and testing antique furniture for napping quality. His day-to-day responsibilities also include contemplating a solution to the mouse occupancy of the house. Larry says this is still ‘in tactical planning stage’.
The rear of the building includes an interior courtyard and terrace overlooking a 2,000 sq m garden. As I mentioned in the London parks article, The Royal Parks also manage other important open spaces in the capital, including the gardens of 10, 11, and 12 Downing Street, although they are not classed as Royal Parks.
The terrace and garden were constructed in 1736, shortly after Walpole moved into Number 10. The terrace is large and has views of St James’s Park.
Most of the garden is an open lawn that wraps around Numbers 10 and 11 in an L-shape.
Around the walls of the garden, there are roses plus flowering and evergreen shrubs. The rose beds were commissioned by Margaret Thatcher. They were planted with David Austin roses, including a rose named for Thatcher herself. After the Obama’s visit in April 2009, when they explained about The White House garden being used to grow food, raised vegetable beds were added here too.
Working From Home
As so many of us have done for the last year (and we are still doing), let’s end with a few more photos of Boris Johnson working from home.