Housing official residences of some of the biggest names in British politics, Downing Street is one of the most well-known locations in London. Number 10 Downing Street is known the world over as the home of our Prime Minster and although today it’s hard to get a good look at the street (thanks to security additions over the years), Downing Street still remains as one of the most visited sites in our capital city.
Downing Street itself was built in the 1680’s by Sir George Downing who had purchased a large track of land near Parliament, on the edge of St. James’s Park. He originally intended that the street should be full of fine townhouses designed specifically “for persons of good quality to inhabit in…” When building these houses, Downing was assisted by master architect Sir Christopher Wren, who designed the buildings. Most were actually built rather cheaply and were not of good quality – still the case when Winston Churchill resided at Number 10 and he is quoted as saying his house was “shaky and lightly built by the profiteering contractor whose name that bear.”
Earls, Lords and Countesses quickly moved into the prime real estate built here although it seems unlikely that Sir Downing himself ever actually resided on the street that holds his name. Regardless of this fact, a portrait of him still hangs in the entrance foyer of Number 10 Downing Street.
By the 1800’s the houses had nearly all been taken over by government. Some of the original buildings were demolished to allow space to build and expand the Privy Council Office, the Board of Trade and the Treasury Offices. Later, the same fate would befall the houses on the south side of Downing Street which were all demolished to allow room for the Foreign Office, India Office, Colonial Office and the Home Office.
The most famous on the street, Number 10 is the official residence of the First Lord of the Treasury. Now-a-days the job of First Lord of the Treasury is always held by the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom which means it is the Prime Minister who lives in this house. The majority of our Prime Ministers, dating back to the very first, (Robert Walpole) have called Number 10 home since the creation of the job in the 1720’s.
The building itself is made up of over 100 hundred rooms – only part of which is actually residential. There is a private residence on the third floor and a private kitchen in the basement. Everything in between is offices, conference rooms, reception halls, sitting rooms, dining rooms, etc. These rooms are all in constant usage – Foreign dignitaries are entertained here and the Prime Minister and his government base the majority of their work at Number 10.
The front door to Number 10 is most likely the most famous feature of the building. Large, shiny and black and bearing ‘10’ in large brass numbers, the door is most likely one of the most photographed in the world! Originally, the door was made of Georgian black oak; it is today made of blast-proof steel and takes a reported eight men to lift it. The original door can be seen by the public – it is on display in the Churchill Museum at the Cabinet War Rooms!
According to Margaret Thatcher, Number 10 Downing Street was, “one of the most previous jewels in the national heritage.”
Other Notable Numbers
Number 11 – Since 1828, this house has traditionally been the residence of the Second Lord of the Treasury – The Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Number 12 – Previously, the Chief Whip’s Office was based here but today it houses the Prime Ministers Press Office, Strategic Communications Unit and Information and Research Unit (say that three times fast!). Originally, Number 12 was actually Number 13 but it was re-numbered and re-built after a fire in 1876, the demolition of Number 14, and ANOTHER fire in 1879.
Little Known Trivia
Our current Prime Minister, David Cameron, actually resides in a private flat above Number 11 Downing Street – as it is larger than the residence above Number 10!
He is not the first to have done this – in fact, Tony Blair did the same. Both Cameron and Blair still work and base their offices and ministerial business in Number 10, their families, just happen to reside in the more spacious rooms next door! This means that George Osborne (our current Chancellor of the Exchequer) currently lives in the flat above Number 10, although his primary offices are still based in Number 11! Phew…
There have been barriers erected along both sides of Downing Street since the 1920’s. Originally put up to control the flow of pedestrians along Whitehall coming to view the newly unveiled Cenotaph, these barriers were removed and changed throughout the decades. In 1974, it was suggested that permanent barriers should be erected along Downing Street but the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, overturned the idea, feeling that it was not right that the public should be prevented from walking down the street and taking photographs outside Number 10. However, as security has tightened over the years, public access has been further and further restricted and today the closest visitors can get is standing on the edge of the street, attempting to peer through the permanent black barriers (past the armed offices from the Diplomatic Protection Group – all equipped with machine guns) to catch a glimpse of the most well known door in town.
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