Sir Robert Walpole Moves in to 10 Downing Street
- 22nd September 1735 -
When you think of grand palaces and homes of the leaders of nations you think about the impressive White House in Washington, the Elysee Palace in Paris, the Kremlin in Russia or the Quirinal Palace in Rome. You don’t tend to think of a terraced house in a London cul-de–sac. Admittedly the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is not the head of state but s/he lines up alongside the other world leaders.
The area around Downing Street has been occupied since Roman times. The Saxon and Normans built on this area with King Canute and Edward the Confessor having royal palaces here. The building of the large abbey by Edward the Confessor, completed in 1066 just before his death, helped to cement its place as the centre of government.
The first known building occupying that site is thought to be the Axe brewery, owned by the Abbey of Abingdon. It fell into disuse by the early 1500s. At around the same time Henry VIII was carving out a new palace at Whitehall. He had earlier confiscated York House from Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in 1530 after Wolsey had failed to obtain the divorce Henry so craved from Catherine of Aragon. Having been accused of treason Wolsey was making his way north, to his trial, but died at Leicester on the way. On the site of this Henry developed a large royal estate equipped with tennis courts, fine buildings and beautiful grounds.
The first domestic house on the site of 10 Downing Street was leased to Sir Thomas Knyvet in 1581 by Queen Elizabeth I. Thomas was an M.P. and the Justice of the Peace for Westminster. His claim to fame is as the man who arrested Guy Fawkes and he became a firm favourite of James I. On his death the house passed to his niece, Elizabeth Hampden who was resident there for 40 years. There is political history with the Hampden family. Elizabeth’s son, John, was one of the key M.P.’s who opposed Charles I that led to the Civil War in the 1640s. He was one of 5 Members of Parliament who Charles I tried to arrest in 1642 by entering the chamber of the House of Commons with a group of soldiers. The 5 had been tipped off and had already fled. It is rather appropriate to think that this key parliamentarian lived in 10 Downing Street.
John Hampden died of his wounds after the Battle of Chalgrove Field on 24th June 1643. Elizabeth Hampden was still in residence however when Charles II returned in 1660. The house was known as Hampden House. The history then changes as Sir George Downing bought the lease to the buildings and asked his friend Sir Christopher Wren to re-design it.
Downing was born in Ireland and brought up in New England, graduating from Harvard – one of the first to do so. Although he was Cromwell’s chief intelligence officer and British Ambassador to The Hague, he nimbly changed sides in 1660, after the Restoration, and pledged his allegiance to Charles II. It was in 1682 that he bought the lease and set about designing a cul-de-sac, intending to make as much money from this property development as possible. Downing, although a most competent diplomat, was not well liked. Samuel Pepys called him a ‘perfidious rogue’.
The 15 terraced houses were poorly constructed – a fact alluded to by Winston Churchill when he lived there. He said that the houses were ‘Shaky and lightly built by the profiteering contractor whose name they bear’. They were cheaply built, with shallow foundations on boggy ground.
The numbering was rather haphazard and the house we know as 10 today was originally number 5 – although many of the houses were better known by the people who lived in them. The current number 10 became so in 1779. Other residents of the house included the Countess of Yarmouth, Lord Lansdowne and the Earl of Grantham among others. The present Number 10 is actually made up of two houses – the one in Downing Street and a much grander house at the back, overlooking Horse Guards Parade that was built slightly earlier in 1677 and was lived in by Charles II’s daughter, the Countess of Lichfield. She was not happy that her view was being ruined and that these cheap terraced houses now looked into her own house.
The last private owner of 10 Downing Street was a certain Mr Chicken, rather ironically, of which very little is known. He left the premises in 1732 and it was after this that George II offered both 10 Downing Street, and the one behind, as a gift to Sir Robert Walpole – his First Lord of the Treasury. Walpole refused to accept these as a personal gift and asked the King to make them available to the holder of the position of First Lord. (The title Prime Minister was not used until 1905). The brass plaque on the door still bears that title.
Walpole got the architect William Kent to re-design the building. He connected the two buildings on two storeys, created some grand entertaining rooms and used as the main door the one off Downing Street. In effect the Downing Street house became a passageway to the main building behind. He also built an unusual three-sided staircase – still a feature today. Walpole used the ground floor for business and used the largest room as his study – in what is now the Cabinet Room.
The following two Prime Ministers – Henry Pelham and the Duke of Newcastle did not use the house – preferring to live in their own houses and it was not until Arthur Balfour became the leader in 1902 that the Prime Minister was expected to live in the building. Only one PM has ever died in the building. Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman resigned on April 3rd 1908 but was too ill to be moved and died 19 days later with the words, ‘This is not the end of me’.
In 1763 Lord North moved in and installed the famous black and white chequered entrance floor, the lamp above the front door and the brass lion’s head door knocker. Today, just inside the front door, sits a black chair with a hood on. This was originally the chair for the man who guarded the front door. The hood was used to shield him from the wind. The black bricks that make up most of the external walls of Downing Street are actually yellow underneath. They blackened with the smog in the nineteenth century and were then painted black in the 1960s as this is what everyone had become used to.
Key features were installed over the years as the house was constantly being upgraded and modernised. In 1877 hot and cold water was available for the first time, along with a bath when Benjamin Disraeli moved in. Electric light and the first telephone arrived in 1894 followed by central heating in 1937. 1963 saw a major renovation including new wiring and telephone system. In 1982 a hotline was installed between Washington and London by Margaret Thatcher to speak with Ronald Reagan, video conference facilities were available to John Major in the 1990s and in 1996 the first No.10 website was launched. In one of the latest developments, Larry the cat was brought in from the Battersea Cats and Dogs home. Larry is the first cat to be given the official title of ‘Chief Mouser’.
10 Downing Street is one of the most heavily guarded buildings in Britain. The front door cannot be opened from the outside because it has no handle. You must pass through a scanner and a set of security gates manned by armed guards. The door itself used to be made of oak but is now made of bomb proof material after an IRA bomb exploded in the garden at the back. Since 1989 entering Downing Street itself has required passing through a security checkpoint and the street is patrolled by armed guards. Slightly worryingly in the five years after Tony Blair became PM 37 computers, 4 mobile phones, 2 cameras, a mini-disk player, video recorder, 4 printers, 2 projectors and a bicycle were stolen from the building.
It may not look like a palace, it may be cramped, but it has become an iconic building in the same way as the White House or the Elysee Palace. It is the centre of government in Britain and remains one of the most recognisable buildings in the country. I wonder if George Downing could have foreseen that his poorly build terrace would become the central building in Britain’s political history.