“A vast, awkward house.” — William Pitt the Younger
In the Middle Ages, the ground underneath Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament was known as Thorney Island. It lay between two branches of the River Tyburn (which today flows directly under the Treasury in Parliament Street). The earliest known building on the site of Downing Street was the Axe brewery owned by the Abbey of Abingdon. It had fallen into disuse by the early 16th century.
The first residential house on the site of Number 10 was built by Sir Thomas Knyvet in 1581. He was a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I and arrested Guy Fawkes after the gunpowder plot. It then passed to the Hampden family and was called Hampden House.
The rogue Downing
The street is named after Sir George Downing, who was born in Ireland and brought up in New England, and was one of the earliest graduates of Harvard. He came 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. He constructed 15 houses on shallow foundations. Winston Churchill wrote that Number 10 was “shaky and lightly built by the profiteering contractor whose name they bear”. The house numbering was different too: No 10 was originally No 5 and did not acquire its present number until 1779.
What is now 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.
The last private resident of No 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.
In the early days of Downing Street the area was much livelier. There were lots of pubs nearby, such as the Cat and Bagpipes and the Rose and Crown. Some of them traced their origins back to medieval hostels set up for pilgrims seeking the shrine of Edward the Confessor at Westminster Abbey. Alongside the pubs were livery stables, dressmakers, lodging for MPs and hawkers selling their wares.
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 on April 3 1908 but was too ill to move and died 19 days later. His last words were: “This is not the end of me.”
No 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 a 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.
Larry, Chief Mouser, is a cat from Battersea Dogs & Cats Home who lives at Number 10. He is the first cat to receive this official title.