22nd September 1735. 17th Century Jerry-Building.
No 10 Downing Street is the home of the First Lord of the Treasury, whose title is engraved on the letter-box.
In the middle ages the area was marsh and known as Thorney Island, lying as it did between two branches of the River Tyburn. The earliest known building on the later Downing Street site, was the Axe Brewery owned by Abingdon Abbey.
It was on such unstable ground, in the late 17thc , that Sir George Downing built fifteen houses to create much of the street as we know it.
In 1731 George II offered one of the houses, we now know as No. 10, as a present to Sir Robert Walpole as a present. The numbering was then different: No 10 being initially No.5 until 1779.
Walpole persuaded the King to allocated it to the First Lord of the Treasury, an office held later, ex-officio by ‘Prime-Ministers’-the official title of PM was not used until 1905.
Of the first occupants some were ‘First Lords’, whilst others were Chancellors of the Exchequer.(1)
Walpole was the first head of government to live there, taking over No.10 Today in 1735, from the previous tenant a Mr Chicken.
Downing Street had seen a chequered history, for it was Lord Thomas James Knyvet, a favourite of Queen Elizabeth (later known for arresting Guy Fawkes), who built in 1581 the first domestic residence- Knyvet House- leased from the queen.
It passed to his niece Elizabeth Hampden, whose nephew was Oliver Cromwell, and then known as Hampden House.
In 1682 Downing developed the street as a terrace, an example of 17thc jerry-building, but in front of a much grander residence overlooking Horse-Guards.
This was the house built in 1677 for Charles II’s daughter, the Countess of Lichfield, who was concerned that she was now overlooked by Downing’s terrace. However the King could only suggest a high wall!
Inevitably No 10 is associated with Winston Churchill, who described the houses in the street as, ’shaky and lightly built by the profiteering contractor whose name they bear’.(2)
Number 11, which has a connecting door to No.10, is home to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and 12 the Chief Whip. These are the only remaining houses of the original 17thc terrace; the rest of the street dates from 1868.
It is only since Arthur Balfour in 1902 that the PM has been expected to live at No.10. Campbell-Bannerman, the first officially designated Prime Minister who resigned 1908, was too ill to move and died at No 10, the only PM to do so. Later Labour’s Ramsey MacDonald’s preferred his home in Hampstead.
In the 19th century PMs were expected to supply their own cutlery and table silver, and as late as 1931 there were two gas-meters, one to be charged to the PM, with the other for entertaining guests.
(1) Among the latter was Sir Francis Dashwood, founder of the notorious Hellfire Club.
(2) Downing who acquired the lease in 1663 of the site, formerly occupied by a cockpit, spied for Cromwell and then switched allegiance after the Restoration to Charles II.
Ref: Image c 1890. Cassell’s History of England. A.W. Cowan/Look and Learn History.
Ref: lookandlearn 922.214.171.1240.Peter Jackson Collection/Image of picture with guardsman.