A vast, awkward house


10 Downing Street


There is a feeling that you have been cut off from the outside world. Number 10 is more of a monastery than a power house.

The Rogue Downing

Downing Street is named after Sir George Downing who was one of the earliest graduates of Harvard University. He returned to England during the Civil War and by 1650 had become Cromwell’s intelligence chief, known as the Scoutmaster General. In 1657 he became British Ambassador to The Hague. The next year Cromwell died and Downing deftly offered his services to Charles II. In 1682, Downing secured the lease on a piece of land close to Westminster and set about building the street that bears his name. Samuel Pepys described him as a ‘perfidious rogue’.

Downing didn’t do a particularly good job when it came to building on the marshy ground, constructing 15 houses on shallow foundations. Today’s No. 10 is made up of two connected houses; Downing’s cheap terraced house at the front and a much grander one at the back, overlooking Horse Guards Parade. This was built in 1677, and was the home of Charles II’s daughter, the Countess of Lichfield. She was very cross about Downing’s development, as his houses looked into hers. 

Larry, the Downing Street cat earned the title Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office.

Prime Minister’s Residence

It is only since Arthur Balfour became Prime Minister in 1902 that the Prime Minister has been expected to live at No. 10. Only one former Prime Minister has ever died there: Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who resigned as Prime Minister on the 3rd April 1908 but was too ill to move and died 19 days later. His last words were: ‘This is not the end of me.’

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, and no one can enter the building without passing through an airport-style scanner and a set of security gates manned by armed guards. However, in the first five years after Tony Blair became Prime Minister, 37 computers, four mobile phones, two cameras, a mini-disc player, a video recorder, four printers, two projectors and a bicycle were stolen from the building.

10 Downing Street was originally 5 Downing Street.

Mr Chicken

The last private resident of 10 Downing Street was called Mr Chicken. Nobody knows anything about him other than his name. He moved out in 1732, after which King George II presented both houses to Sir Robert Walpole. Walpole refused to accept the property as a personal gift and asked that the King make it available to him and all future First Lords of the Treasury in their official capacity (the title ‘Prime Minister’ wasn’t used until 1905). The brass letterbox on the black front door is still engraved with this title.

MARGOT ASQUITH (1864-1945)

An inconvenient house with three poor staircases.