10 Downing Street in London
10 Downing Street, colloquially known in the United Kingdom as "Number 10", is the headquarters of Her Majesty's Government and the official residence and office of the First Lord of the Treasury, who is now always the Prime Minister.
Situated on Downing Street in the City of Westminster, London, Number 10 is one of the most famous addresses in the United Kingdom and the world. Almost three hundred years old, the building contains about one hundred rooms. There is a private residence on the third floor and a kitchen in the basement. The other floors contain offices and numerous conference, reception, sitting and dining rooms where the Prime Minister works, and where government ministers, national leaders and foreign dignitaries are met and entertained. There is an interior courtyard and, in the back, a terrace overlooking a garden of 0.5 acre. Adjacent to St. James's Park, Number 10 is near the Palace of Westminster, the Houses of Parliament, and Buckingham Palace, the official London residence of the British Monarch.
Number 10 was originally three houses. In 1732, King George II offered them to Sir Robert Walpole who accepted on the condition that they be a gift to the office of First Lord of the Treasury rather than to him personally. Walpole commissioned William Kent to join the three houses together. It is this larger house that is known today as Number 10 Downing Street.
The arrangement was not an immediate success. Despite its size and convenient location near Parliament, few early Prime Ministers lived there. Costly to maintain, neglected, and run-down, Number 10 was close to being razed several times.
Nevertheless, Number 10 survived and became linked with many statesmen and events in British history. In 1985, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said Number 10 had become "one of the most precious jewels in the national heritage."
History of the building
The original Number 10
Number 10 Downing Street was originally three houses: a mansion overlooking St. James's Park (called "the House at the Back"), a townhouse behind it located at 10 Downing Street and a cottage next to Number 10. The townhouse, from which the modern building gets its name, was one of several built by Sir George Downing between 1682 and 1684.
Downing, a notorious spy for Oliver Cromwell and later King Charles II, invested in properties and acquired considerable wealth. In 1654, he purchased the lease on land south of Saint James's Park, adjacent to the House at the Back, and within walking distance of Parliament. Downing planned to build a row of townhouses designed "for persons of good quality to inhabit in..." The street on which he built these homes now bears his name, and the largest became part of today's Number 10 Downing Street.
Straightforward as this investment seemed, it proved otherwise. There was another claim to the land: the Hampden family had a lease that they refused to relinquish. Downing fought this claim, but failed and consequently had to wait thirty years before he could build his houses.
When the Hampden lease expired, Downing received permission to build further west to take advantage of recent real estate developments. The new warrant issued in 1682 reads: "Sir George Downing ... [is authorised] to build new and more houses . . . subject to the proviso that it be not built any nearer than 14 feet of the wall of the said Park at the West end thereof." (See Plan of the Premises Granted to the Earl and Countess of Lichfield in 1677) The likely reason that repair was required is that the house had settled in the swampy ground near the Thames, causing structural damage. Like Downing Street, it rested on a shallow foundation, a design error that would cause problems until 1960 when the modern Number 10 was rebuilt on deep pilings.
The Litchfield family followed James II into exile after the Glorious Revolution. In 1690, King William III and Queen Mary II, gave the "house at the back" to Hendrik van Nassau-Ouwerkerk, a Dutch general who had assisted in securing the Crown for the then-Prince of Orange. Nassau, who Anglicised his named to "Overkirk", lived there until his death in 1708.
Walpole did not enter through the now-famous door; that would not be installed until forty years later. Kent's door was modest, belying the spacious elegance beyond. The First Lord's new, albeit temporary, home had sixty rooms, with hardwood and marble floors, crown moulding, elegant pillars and marble mantelpieces; those on the west side with beautiful views of St. James's Park. One of the largest rooms was a study measuring forty feet by twenty with enormous windows overlooking St. James's Park. "My Lord's Study" (as Kent labelled it in his drawings) would later become the Cabinet room where Prime Ministers meet with the Cabinet ministers.
Shortly after moving in, Walpole ordered that a portion of the land outside his study to be converted into a terrace and garden. Letters patent issued in April 1736 state that: "... a piece of garden ground situated in his Majesty's park of St. James's, & belonging & adjoining to the house now inhabited by the Right Honorable the Chancellor of His Majesty's Exchequer, hath been lately made & fitted up at the Charge ... of the Crown".
The same document confirmed that Number 10 Downing Street was: "meant to be annexed & united to the Office of his Majesty's Treasury & to be & to remain for the Use & Habitation of the first Commissioner of his Majesty's Treasury for the time being."
A "vast, awkward house": 1735–1902
Walpole lived in Number 10 until 1742. He had accepted it as a gift from the Crown for future First Lords of the Treasury. However, it would be twenty-one years before any chose to live there; the five who succeeded Walpole preferred their own homes. This was the pattern until the beginning of the twentieth century. Of the 31 First Lords from 1735 to 1902, only 16 (including Walpole) lived in Number 10.
A few enjoyed living in Number Ten. Lord North, who conducted the war against the American Revolution, lived there happily with his large family from 1767 to 1782. William Pitt the Younger who made it his home for twenty years—longer than any First Lord before or since—from 1783 to 1801 and from 1804 to 1806, referred to it as "My vast, awkward house." While there, Pitt reduced the national debt, formed the Triple Alliance against France, and won passage of the Act of Union that created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Fredrick Robinson, Lord Goderich took a special liking to the house in the late 1820s; he spent state funds lavishly remodelling the interior.
Nevertheless, for seventy years following Pitt's death in 1806, Number 10 was rarely used as the First Lord's residence. From 1834 to 1877, it was either vacant or used only for offices and meetings.
One reason many First Lords chose not to live in Number 10 was that most were peers who owned homes superior in size and quality. To them, Number 10 was unimpressive. Their "possession" of the house, albeit temporary, was a perk they could use as a political reward. Most lent it to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, others to lesser officials, and still others to friends or relatives.
Another reason was that Number 10 was a hazardous place to live. Prone to sinking because it was built on soft soil and a shallow foundation, floors buckled, walls and chimneys cracked; it became unsafe and frequently required repairs. In 1766, for example, Lord Charles Townshend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, pointed out that the house was in a dilapidated condition. His architect's letter to the Treasury read: "... we have caused the House in Downing Street belonging to the Treasury to be surveyed, & find the Walls of the old part of the said House next the street to be much decayed, the Floors & Chimneys much sunk from the level ..." Townsend ordered extensive repairs, but they were still incomplete eight years later. A note from Lord North to the Office of Works, dated September 1774, asks that the work on the front of the house, "which was begun by a Warrant from the Treasury dated 9 August 1766", In 1783, the Duke of Portland moved out because it was once again in need of repair. A committee found that the money spent so far was insufficient. This time the Board of Works declared that "the Repairs, Alterations & Additions at the Chancellor of the Exchequer's House will amount to the sum of £5,580, exclusive of the sum for which they already have His Majesty's Warrant. And praying a Warrant for the said sum of £5,580—and also praying an Imprest of that sum to enable them to pay the Workmen." The "new" Number 10 consisted of about 60% new materials; the remaining 40% was either restored or replicas of originals.
Reconstructed exactly as in the old Number 10 included the following: the garden floor, the door and entrance foyer, the stairway, the hallway to the Cabinet Room, the Cabinet Room, the garden and terrace, the Small and Large State Rooms and the three reception rooms.
The staircase was rebuilt and simplified. Steel girders were hidden inside the columns in the Pillared Drawing Room to support the floor above. The upper floors were modernised and the 3rd floor extended over Numbers 11 and 12 to allow more living space. As many as 40 coats of paint were stripped from the elaborate cornices in the main rooms revealing details unseen for almost 200 years in some cases. (See The Entrance Door c1930: As seen from the outside)
After the IRA mortar attack in 1991, the original black oak door was replaced by a blast-proof steel one. Regularly removed for refurbishment and replaced with a replica, it is so heavy that it takes eight men to lift it. The brass letterbox still bears the legend "First Lord of the Treasury". The original door was put on display in the Churchill Museum at the Cabinet War Rooms.
Beyond the door, Couse installed black and white marble tiles in the entrance hall that are still in use. A Chippendale guard's chair sits in one corner. Once used when policemen sat on watch outside in the street, it has an unusual "hood" designed to protect them from the wind and cold and a drawer underneath where hot coals were placed to provide warmth. Scratches on the right arm were caused by their pistols rubbing up against the leather.
Couse also added a bow front to the small cottage—formerly Mr. Chicken's house—incorporated into Number 10 in Walpole's time.
The main staircase
When William Kent rebuilt the interior of Number 10 between 1732 and 1734, his craftsmen created a stone triple staircase with no visible supports in the main section. With a wrought iron balustrade embellished with a scroll design and mahogany handrail, it rises from the garden floor to the third floor. Kent's staircase is the first architectural feature visitors see as they enter Number 10. Black and white engravings and photographs of all the past Prime Ministers decorate the wall; they are rearranged slightly to make room for a new picture of the most recent former Prime Minister. There are two photographs of Winston Churchill. (See The Main Stairway c1930 General view showing portraits of the Prime Ministers and Detail of the Wrought Iron Balustrade ) (See also Simon Schama's Tour of Downing Street. Pt4: The Staircase) Often in films Hedsor House in Buckinghamshire has been used as a replica location due to its near identical main staircase.
The Cabinet Room
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, the Cabinet Room was extended, giving the space its modern appearance. Probably not completed until 1796, this alteration was achieved by removing the east wall and rebuilding it several feet inside the adjoining secretaries' room. At the entrance, a screen of two pairs of Corinthian columns was erected (to carry the extra span of the ceiling) supporting a moulded entablature that wraps around the room. The resulting small space, framed by the pillars, serves as an anteroom to the larger area. Hendrick Danckerts' painting "The Palace of Whitehall (shown at the beginning of this article) usually hangs in the ante-room. Robert Taylor, the architect who executed this concept, was knighted on its completion.
Although Kent intended the First Lord to use this space as his study, it has rarely served that purpose; it has almost always been the Cabinet room. Painted off-white with large floor to ceiling windows along one of the long walls, the room is light and airy. Three brass chandeliers hang from the high ceiling. The Cabinet table, purchased during the Gladstone era, dominates the room. The modern boat-shaped top, introduced by Harold MacMillan in the late 1950s, is supported by huge original oak legs. The table is usually surrounded by twenty-three carved, solid mahogany chairs that also date from the Gladstone era. 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. The only picture in the room is a copy of a portrait of Sir Robert Walpole by Jean-Baptiste van Loo hanging over the fireplace. Each Cabinet member is allocated a chair based on order of seniority. Blotters inscribed with their titles mark their places. Former US President Ronald Reagan was the first non-Cabinet member to sit at the table during a Cabinet meeting. The Cabinet Room also acts as a library; outgoing Prime Ministers traditionally donate to the collection.
The First Lord has no designated space in Number 10; each has chosen one of the adjoining rooms as his private office.
The Pillared State Drawing Room
Number 10 has three inter-linked State Drawing rooms: the Pillared Room, the Terracotta Room and the White Drawing Room.
The largest is the Pillared Room thought to have been created in 1796 by Taylor. Measuring 37 ft long by 28 ft wide, it takes its name from the twin Ionic pilasters with straight pediments at one end. Today, there is a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I over the fireplace; during the Thatcher Ministry (1979–1990), a portrait of William Pitt by Romney was hung there.
A Persian carpet covers almost the entire floor. A copy of a 16th century original now kept in the Victoria and Albert Museum, there is an inscription woven into it that reads: "I have no refuge in the world other than thy threshold. My head has no protection other than this porchway. The work of a slave of the holy place, Maqsud of Kashan in the year 926" (the Moslem year corresponding to 1520).
In the restoration conducted in the late 1980s, Quinlan Terry restored the fireplace. Executed in the Kentian style, the small Ionic pilasters in the overmantle are miniature duplicates of the large ones in the room. He also added ornate Baroque-style central ceiling mouldings and corner mouldings of the four national flowers of the United Kingdom: rose (England), thistle (Scotland), daffodil (Wales) and shamrock (Northern Ireland).
Sparsely furnished with a few chairs and sofas around the walls, the Pillared Room is usually used to receive guests before they go into the State Dining Room. However, it is sometimes used for other purposes that require a large open space. International agreements have been signed in this room. Tony Blair entertained the England Rugby Union team in the Pillared Room after they won the World Cup in 2003. And, John Logie Baird gave Ramsay MacDonald a demonstration of his invention, the television, in this room. (See The Pillared Drawing Room c1927 ) It is staffed by a mix of career civil servants and special advisers. The highest ranking aide is the Downing Street Chief of Staff, a post currently held by Edward Llewellyn. The Permanent Secretary and civil service head is Jeremy Heywood although as it is part of the Cabinet Office, Jeremy reports to Sir Gus O'Donnell KCB who is the Cabinet Secretary.
It provides the Prime Minister with support and advice on policy, communications with parliament, government departments and public/media relations.
The office was reorganised in 2001 into 3 directorates:
- Policy and government
Took over the functions of the Private office and policy unit. Prepares advice for the PM and coordinates development and implementation of policy across departments
- Communication and strategy, contains 3 units:
- Press office: responsible for relations with the media
- Strategic communications unit
- Research and information unit: provides factual information to No. 10
- Government and political relations: Handles party/public relations
Changes were intended to strengthen the PM's office. However, some commentators have suggested that Blair's reforms have created something similar to a 'Prime Ministers' department. The reorganisation brought about the fusion of the old Prime Minister's Office and other Cabinet Office teams, with a number of units (including the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit) now report directly into the Prime Minister's Office. Since 2005, Number 10's Direct Communication Unit has not used its staff's real names on signed correspondence to MPs and members of the public; this is for security reasons.
However, the Institute for Government has written that the Cabinet Office (of which the Prime Minister's Office is a component) "is a long way from becoming a fully fledged premier's department", primarily based on the fact that the Prime Minister "largely lacks the direct policy responsibilities, either in statute or by convention under the Royal Prerogative, possessed by secretaries of state, who have substantial budgets voted to them by Parliament."
- Residents of Number 10 Downing Street
- Chequers – the Prime Minister's official country residence
- Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office – a cat employed as a at 10 Downing Street
- 10 Downing Street Guard Chairs
- Official residence
- Number 10 official website
- Photos from the Prime Minister's Office
- 10 Downing Street section from the Survey of London