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Downing Street

Downing Street is the world famous street in central London which contains the buildings that have been, for over two hundred years, the official residences of two of the most senior British cabinet ministers, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and the Chancellor of the Exchequer.


George II of Great Britain
presented 10 Downing Street to Sir Robert Walpole
as an official residence

Downing Street itself is located in central London beside Whitehall, a couple of minutes walk from the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace. The Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the Chief Whip[?] all officially live in houses on one side of the street. The houses on the other side were all replaced by the massive Foreign and Commonwealth Office (generally described as the Foreign Office) in the nineteenth century. In the 1950s and 1960s, plans were considered to demolish both the Foreign Office and the rest of Downing Street and build "something more modern". However the plans were never implemented and have long since been abandoned.

Table of contents

No. 10

10 Downing Street, commonly known as "Number 10", is sometimes described as the 'house that isn't', in so far as almost everything people presume about it is wrong.

  • It is not the residence of the British Prime Minister.
    It is in fact the residence of an ancient governmental office of the Crown called the First Lord of the Treasury, as the brass on the entrance door makes clear. However the office has almost invariably been held by the person who is Prime Minister, hence the fact that the Prime Minister almost always officially lives there. (In reality many prime ministers have lived elsewhere, but maintained the pretence of living there for security and privacy reasons, while secretly exiting by a side door to return to their 'private' home.)

  • Its external brickwork is not black; it is yellow.
    With the use of photography from the mid nineteenth century, pictures began to appear of 10 Downing St. They all showed a rather dark, dank street lined by black buildings. In the 1950s, it became clear that No. 10 was in such a poor state of repair that it was in immediate danger of collapse. (The pillars in the cabinet room that held the upper stories in place were themselves found to be held together by little more than two hundred years of layers of overpainting and varnish, with the internal orginal wood having rotted away almost to dust!) After considering demolishing the entire street, it was decided that, as occurred in the White House in the 1940s, the facade would be preserved while the interior would be gutted down to the foundations, and a 'copy' of the original building erected using modern steel and concrete, over which furnishings of the original interior could be grafted. When they examined the exterior facade, they discovered that it was not black at all; it actually was yellow, the black look a product of two centuries of severe pollution. After considering restoring the exterior to its original eighteenth century yellow look, it was decided instead to preserve its 'traditional' look of more recent times, so the newly cleaned yellow bricks were painted black to resemble their previous polluted colour.

  • There are in fact two 'Number 10s', not one.
    From Downing Street, Number 10 looks like a reasonably small town-house. In reality, it is two houses joined together, with the 'back' house, which faces onto Horseguards Parade, the larger and more impressive. Over the centuries, both houses were merged into one building.

The First Prime Minister


Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington
Prime Minister
(1828-1830)
refused to live in Number 10 because it was too small

Number 10 has been the residence of the First Lord ever since it was given to Sir Robert Walpole (who was also the first 'prime minister of Great Britain'*) by King George II on behalf of the nation and the Crown. Walpole accepted the gift on the condition that the house was a gift to the incumbent First Lord of the Treasury rather than to him personally, so that ownership passes to each incoming First Lord, who with rare exceptions is also Prime Minister.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, 10 Downing Street was generally seen as a small, unimpressive mediocre, building that was far below the quality and standard possessed by leader peers. Hence a number of prominent prime ministers, notably the Duke of Wellington, chose to live in their rather more spacious and grand personal London residences, giving Number 10 over to be used by some more junior official. When he became prime minister in the early 1920s, Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour Prime Minister, faced a different problem. In an era when ministers of the Crown received only minimal pay and in effect had to subsidize themselves through their own private wealth, MacDonald, lacking the wealth of former 'grandee' prime ministers, found himself moving into an almost unfurnished house, surrounded by household staff he could not afford - some of whom, despite their low wages, earned more than he did.

By the 1940s, economic and social changes led to major change in the use of 10 Downing Street. Instead of being a large residence run by servants, it became a working office, with the Prime Minister and his office relegated to a small 'flat' created specially among the old servants' rooms in the roof-space. The cramped nature of that 'flat' and its location above what is now a busy office-complex, has led some prime ministers to 'secretly' live elsewhere, though both they (through being photographed entering the front door) and the media conspire, often for security considerations, to keep the fact hidden.

Security

A police officer traditionally stands outside the black front door of Number 10 - a door which can only be opened from the inside. Gates were installed at either end of Downing Street during the Premiership of Margaret Thatcher to protect against possible terrorist attack. However on 7th February 1991, the Provisional IRA launched a mortar through the roof of a white van parked in Whitehall. The mortar exploded in the back garden of 10 Downing Street, blowing in all the windows of the cabinet room, whilst then Prime Minster John Major was leading a session of the Cabinet. While the building underwent repair, Major was moved to Admiralty House nearby, which is generally used as a sort of 'alternative 10 Downing Street' when for whatever reason (from security and rebuilding work to simply rewiring and repainting) the Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury has to move elsewhere.

The Rest of the Street: Who Lives Where?


William Ewart Gladstone
Prime Minister in the 1880s and 1890s
moved his family into Numbers 10, 11 & 12.

11 Downing Street is the home of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is in effect the British Minister for Finance.

9 Downing Street was named in 2001 and is the Downing Street entrance to the Privy Council Office and currently houses the Chief Whip[?]'s office.

12 Downing Street, formerly the Chief Whip's Office, currently houses the Prime Minister's Press Office, Strategic Communications Unit and Information and Research Unit.

Throughout the history of these houses, ministers have lived by agreement in whatever rooms they thought necessary.

During his last period in office, in 1881, William Gladstone claimed residence in numbers 10, 11 and 12 for himself and his family. This was less of a problem than it might have been had he not been both Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister at the time.

After the 1997 General Election in which Labour took power, a swap was carried out by the present incumbents of the two titles, Tony Blair being a married man with three children still living at home, whilst his counterpart, Gordon Brown, was unmarried at the time of taking up his post. Although Number 10 continued to be the prime minister's official residence and contain the prime ministerial offices, Blair and his family actually moved into the more spacious Number 11, while Brown lived in the more meagre apartments of Number 10.

In reality, two and a half centuries of use as government residences has let to so much interlinking between the houses that it can be hard to know where one ends and the other one begins.


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