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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of Downing Street in London

What is Downing Street?

Downing Street is a street in Westminster, London that houses the official residences of the Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer of the United Kingdom (and their families).

10 Downing Street Door

Downing Street History

For the residence and office of the Prime Minister, No. 10 Downing Street is rather ordinary. Instead of a royal palace or a grand presidential mansion, No. 10 is a seemingly normal (if elegant) Westminster town house. The PM’s lodgings, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s at No. 11, appear claustrophobically tucked into a quiet terrace off Whitehall, making Downing Street almost unnoticeable if it were not for the recent high security additions. In fact, the street’s narrow façades, designed by distinguished 17th-century secular and ecclesiastical architect Sir Christopher Wren, hide the amalgamation of houses and extensions behind. In a maze of corridors and staircases, offices and apartments, Downing Street’s 160 rooms host the executive branch of the British Government. Its modest appearance belies its central role as the setting for Britain’s political evolution.

Downing Street was built in the 1680s by Sir George Downing, a soldier and diplomat for both Oliver Cromwell and King Charles II. Advertised ‘for persons of good quality to inhabit’, its early residents included aristocrats, politicians, the doctor Tobias Smollett, and the diarist James Boswell; all of varying quality.

Just like the position of Prime Minister, No. 10 was not purpose-built. Because Britain’s democracy was not designed from first principles, it evolved in a very curious fashion. In the mid-17th century, the British Civil Wars led to political experiments under Oliver Cromwell. After just over ten years of Cromwell’s Commonwealth (or Interregnum in the royalist telling), Charles II was restored to the throne. His successor, James II, a Catholic who attempted to lessen the hold of Anglicanism on the English state, was eventually deposed in 1688. He was replaced by his daughter and her Dutch husband, Mary II and William of Orange, and parliament ensured that the incoming monarch would live by new rules. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 placed limits on the sovereign, radically shifting power away from royalty to parliament.

Downing Street Sign and Gates

It was in the throes of the early 18th century that Britain’s first de facto Prime Minister emerged. As England and Wales entered a political union with Scotland in 1707, the country’s two political parties – Whigs, in favour of liberal imperialism, and more protectionist Tories were being formed and entrenched. (Tories had backed James II in the 1680s; Whigs had pushed for his expulsion.) Accordingly the roles of ministers and their responsibilities became established. And of course, while all the ministers in the sovereign’s government were meant to be equal, the one who controlled the nation’s purse strings and liaised with the monarch became the most important. So, although he had to ‘unequivocally deny that [he was] sole and prime minister’, Sir Robert Walpole is considered Britain’s first Prime Minister when he became First Lord of the Treasury in 1721.

If you’re lucky enough to be invited to Downing Street, you can still see this title engraved on No. 10’s brass letterbox. Within this organic system of political parties and ministerial cabinets, politics was ordered more by convention and tradition than written codes. Indeed, as long as the confidence of their party and the House of Commons can be held, British Prime Ministers have traditionally not had term limits.

When the property came into the ownership of the Crown in 1732, George II offered it as a gift to Walpole, who suggested it be gifted not to him, but to the office. Since 1735, every victorious Prime Minister has walked through No. 10’s famous black door.

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