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Downing Street: "shaky" like its "rogue" developer

Updated: Oct 22, 2022

Does the street Churchill called "shaky and lightly built" take after the developer Pepys called "a perfidious rogue"?

10 Downing Street. Source: Sergeant Tom Robinson RLC, OGL v1.0OGL v1.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Downing Street's 17th century developer: a man of many faces

The street where the UK Prime Minister lives (or lodges, perhaps) is named after Sir George Downing, who developed Downing Street towards the end of his life in the 1680s.

A capable politician, financial administrator, linguist, diplomat and spy, he was also a wealthy property owner. However, history has not been kind to him, due to his multiple changes of direction and betrayals of former friends and allies.

Some observers of UK politics might venture to suggest that he bequeathed these characteristics to the street named after him.

Portrait of a Man, probably Sir George Downing (1624-1684), by Thomas Smith. Source: Harvard Art Museums, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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A preacher-turned-soldier, Downing supported Oliver Cromwell against the Royalists in the English Civil War. Anticipating Charles II's restoration to the throne, he switched horses and backed the monarchy.

He blamed his former republican views on "principles sucked in" during his youth in New England, for which he "saw the error". This made him so unpopular in the North American colonies that the phrase "an errant George Downing" for a long time meant a traitor in that part of the world.

The 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys, who for a while worked for Downing as a clerk in government service, described him as "niggardly", "a mighty talker" and a "perfidious rogue".

Another 17th century writer and diarist, John Evelyn, called Downing "a great traitor against his Majestie now insinuated into his favour". Evelyn also noted his transformation from a "fanatic preacher, not worth a groate, becoming excessive rich".

(More on the life of Sir George Downing can be read at the end of this post.)

Home of UK Prime Ministers since 1735

Number 10 Downing Street has been the home of UK Prime Ministers since 1735, when King George II presented the house to Sir Robert Walpole.

Walpole's official position in government was First Lord of the Treasury, but he is the first person to have acted in the role we recognise as Prime Minister and the term was informally used of him. The title Prime Minister was in Parliamentary use by the 1800s, but only officially recognised in 1905 (for Henry Campbell-Bannerman).

Walpole refused to take the property as a personal gift, only accepting it on condition that the king made it an official residence for him and future First Lords of the Treasury.

Houses by Wren for "persons of good quality", but "shaky and lightly built"

When George Downing laid out the new street on his land near St James' Park, he engaged no less an architect than Sir Christopher Wren to design the townhouses. With coach houses, stables and views of the park, they were intended for "persons of good quality to inhabit".

However, they were constructed on the cheap with shallow foundations and lines painted on the façades to imitate brick mortar. Sir Winston Churchill, one of Downing Street's most celebrated residents, described the houses in the 20th century as "shaky and lightly built by the profiteering contractor whose name they bear".

Number 10: bigger than it looks

Today, most of the original Wren townhouses have long since been replaced by government buildings. Only Numbers 10, 11 and 12 remain.

The house at Number 10 is joined to two neighbouring houses towards the Whitehall end of Downing Street and a larger property behind it, giving a total of around 100 rooms, including offices for civil servants, cabinet meeting rooms and rooms for receptions and dinners.

'Plate 112: Nos. 10, 11, and 12, Downing Street, plan of ground floor', in Survey of London: Volume 14, St Margaret, Westminster, Part III: Whitehall II, ed. Montagu H Cox and G Topham Forrest (London, 1931), p. 112. British History Online [accessed 21 October 2022].

There is a private residence on the third floor, officially for the use of the Prime Minister. However, when Tony Blair became PM in 1997, he chose to live next door in the apartment of Number 11 - official home of the Chancellor of the Exchequer - as it had more space for his family. His successors have done the same, while Chancellors have typically remained in their own London homes.

The famously black bricks of the Downing Street townhouses were originally a straw colour, but became blackened by pollution. In the mid 20th century, they were cleaned during renovations, but then painted black to retain their familiar look.

Security gates since 1989 keep the public away from the famous black door

Downing Street was open to and from Whitehall until 1989, when metal gates were constructed across the entrance to the street for security reasons.

Armed police at the gates to Downing Street

Up until that time, it was possible for members of the public to walk along Downing Street to stand outside Number 10. It was common to pose for a photo outside the highly polished black door, as in the photograph below, taken in 1977 (left to right: a policeman, my friend Chris, me, my brother Daniel).

Schoolboys pose outside Number 10 Downing Street, 1977. Photo: Tony Wober

The iconic black door was first installed during renovations in 1772, when three houses were combined into one to create a much larger property. Under Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, who was in office from 1908 to 1916, the door was painted dark green, although few people would have noticed in the era before mass media.

Since an IRA mortar bomb attack on Downing Street in 1991, the door has been a blast-proof steel replica of the original. For security reasons, there is no key hole on the outside of the door, which can only be opened from the inside (there is always a security guard inside to open it).

The door's brass letterbox, which does not open - also for security reasons - is inscribed with the words 'First Lord of the Treasury'. There is no mention of 'Prime Minister'.

Although it is no longer possible to walk up and take photos outside 10 Downing Street, there is a near doppelganger door only about half a mile away at 10 Adam Street, just off the Strand. (Perhaps aspiring Prime Ministers could 'try it on for size' by posing outside it for practice?)

The other Number 10

From the first, and longest-serving, to the latest, and shortest-serving, PM

Sir Robert Walpole was the first and the longest-serving Prime Minister, leading the government for nearly 21 years.

At the time of writing this post (21 October 2022) the most recent Prime Minister - Liz Truss, the 56th - is also the shortest-serving, with only 46 days in office (this will be extended by a few more days until a replacement is chosen).

Number 10 needs to be "gutted from top to bottom"

Although many recent Prime Ministers have carried out redecoration and refurbishment, little structural work has been done to Number 10 since 1957 (apart from some modernising and weather-proofing in 2006).

Former PM Gordon Brown reportedly said it needed to be "gutted from top to bottom", a need that will only become more acute as the building approaches its 350th anniversary.

The problem is that the necessary maintenance works would take around four years.

It seems that political careers today are so "shaky and lightly built" that no Prime Minister can be certain of occupying Downing Street long enough to see the works through, so they leave the renovations to the next occupant.


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George Downing: statesman or perfidious rogue? A life of incident

​George Downing was the son of a London barrister and Puritan who worked as a missionary in Ireland and in New England. He was born in 1623 in Dublin, although some sources say he may have been born in 1625, when his parents were back in London. His parents sent George and his brother John to school in Maidstone, Kent, to avoid an outbreak of the plague in London. While in Maidstone, living in a community including deaf people, George learned sign language. When George was 14, the family moved to America so that his father Emmanuel could take up missionary work at the invitation of the Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Governor was John Winthrop, brother of George's mother Lucy.

The family settled in Salem, Massachusetts, which later gained notoriety for its witch trials in 1692. (Downing's brother John later married Mehitabel Braybrooke, who was accused of witchcraft, while Emmanuel Downing leased a property to John Proctor, who was hanged for witchcraft.) Some historians believe that Emmanuel Downing only agreed to move the family to Massachusetts if there was a suitable College for their son and this prompted the Governor to authorise the establishment of Harvard College (the original school of Harvard University). Described as an able scholar, Downing was part of the first graduating class of nine students and was subsequently hired as the College's first tutor. In around 1645, he took a position as preacher and instructor to the seamen on a voyage to the West Indies, on a ship that also carried slaves. He then sailed to England and became a chaplain to a Parliamentary regiment fighting against the Royalists in the English Civil War.

The regiment's Colonel, John Okey, had sponsored Downing's education in America and was later one of the regicides, the men who signed the death warrant of King Charles I in 1649. Downing's short preaching career may only have been a way to obtain a passage to England, where he saw better prospects than in the colonies. Switching to soldiering in 1647, he served in the Parliamentary army in a number of Civil War battles and was a supporter of the execution of Charles I. In 1649 he became scoutmaster-general of Oliver Cromwell's forces in Scotland. Downing married into one of England's most powerful noble families, his wife Frances being the sister of Charles Howard, first Earl of Carlisle, and a descendant of Thomas Howard, fourth Duke of Norfolk. This connection seems to have helped his advancement. By 1656, Downing held a senior position in the Exchequer, with responsibilities for public finances. He became a Member of Parliament in 1654, first representing Edinburgh and then Carlisle. He also took on well paid diplomatic roles in France and the Hague, where he learned to speak Dutch, later authoring many publications in that language. He developed a network of spies to gather intelligence on exiled Royalists and on Dutch trading intentions. His espionage network is said to have included many spies that were deaf, chosen as they could not reveal information under torture and could communicate silently in a way that few others could understand. Little happened in Europe that Downing did not know about and Royalists feared him. Downing was an advocate of Cromwell's assumption of the position of monarch and the restoration of the old constitution. Cromwell ruled as Lord Protector, but refused the crown in 1657. When it became apparent that Cromwell's son Richard was unable to keep the increasingly shaky Republic together, Downing smoothly switched allegiance to King Charles II in 1660 in time for the monarchy's restoration. Principle gave way to his desire for power and well-paid positions. He passed secret documents from John Thurloe, Cromwell's Secretary of State, to the king, warning of an assassination attempt against the king's son. The new king rewarded Downing first with a knighthood and then with a baronetcy and reconfirmed Downing's positions in The Hague and at the Exchequer. While in Holland, Downing was responsible for the arrest of his former sponsor and commander John Okey and other regicides, who had fled there to escape Royalist reprisals. They were sent for trial and execution back in England, while Downing was rewarded with a lease of land near St James' Park in London (where he later built Downing Street). His ambassadorship at The Hague coincided with a period of growing commercial tensions between England and the Dutch Republic. This spilled over into their North American colonies, where the Dutch surrendered New Amsterdam without a fight when English ships and soldiers were sent to capture the city. Downing's knowledge of New England and the Dutch made him influential in Charles II's decision to take New Amsterdam, which was re-named New York. Back in Europe, Downing's hard line on England's rivalry with the Dutch was a contributory factor in the outbreak of war in 1665, after which Downing was expelled from The Hague for organising espionage. Downing was MP for Morpeth in Northumberland from 1660 until his death in 1684. He was capable on financial and commercial matters and was instrumental in reforming the Treasury. He was influential in gaining Parliament's right to reserve tax revenues for a particular purpose, rather than general spending as the government saw fit. He was also very influential in the passing of the Navigation Acts, which shielded English maritime commerce from competition. The Acts boosted the nation's security and overseas power and led to the expansion of the Merchant and Royal Navy. On a second assignment to Holland in 1671, his mission to break up a new alliance between England, Sweden and the Dutch Republic was so unpopular that he fled in fear. He spent some weeks in the Tower of London as a reprimand for leaving his post, but returned to his Parliamentary career. He received generous salaries for his various posts and invested his money in a large estate of properties, amassing a significant fortune. George Downing was often seen as an outsider and viewed with suspicion. He had undoubted talents, but applied them more to his own ends than those of his country. Moreover, his colonial background, switching sides and betrayal of former comrades - together with jealousy of his ability to rise both socially and financially - have not helped his reputation.

Walks available for booking

For a schedule of forthcoming London On The Ground guided walks, please click here.

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