For over two hundred years, Downing Street has housed the official residences of two of the most senior British Cabinet ministers: the First Lord of the Treasury, an office now synonymous with that of Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and the Second Lord of the Treasury, an office held by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Downing Street is located in Whitehall in central London, a few minutes’ walk from the Houses of Parliament and a little farther from Buckingham Palace. The Prime Minister’s official residence is 10 Downing Street; the Chancellor’s official residence is next door at Number 11. The Government’s Chief Whip has an official residence at Number 9.
The houses had several distinguished residents. The Countess of Yarmouth lived at Number 10 between 1688 and 1689, Lord Lansdowne from 1692 to 1696 and the Earl of Grantham from 1699 to 1703. The diarist James Boswell took rooms in Downing Street during his stay in London of 1762-3 at a rent of £22 per annum. He records having dealings with prostitutes in the adjacent park.
The houses on the west side of the street were demolished in the 19th century to make way for government offices, now occupied by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
The street was built in the 1680s by Sir George Downing, 1st Baronet (1632–1689) on the site of a mansion called Hampden House. Downing was a soldier and diplomat who served under Oliver Cromwell and King Charles II, and who invested in properties and acquired considerable wealth.
In 1654, Downing purchased the lease on land south of Saint James’s Park, adjacent to the House at the Back, and within walking distance of Parliament. The Hampden family had a lease which prevented construction of the houses for thirty years. When the Hampden lease expired, Downing received permission to build further west to take advantage of recent real estate developments.
Between 1682 and 1684, Downing built a dead-end street of two-storey town homes complete with coach houses, stables and views of St James’s Park. The addresses changed several times; Number 10 was ‘Number 5′ for a while and did not become ’10’ until 1787. Downing employed Sir Christopher Wren to design his houses. Although large, they were put up quickly and cheaply on soft soil with shallow foundations. The fronts, for example, were façades with lines painted on the surface imitating brick mortar.
Downing probably never lived in his townhouses. In 1675, he retired to Cambridge where he died a few months after they were completed. His portrait hangs in the entrance foyer of the modern Number 10 Downing Street.
The houses between Number 10 and Whitehall were taken over by the government and demolished in 1824 to allow the construction of the Privy Council Office, Board of Trade and Treasury offices. In 1861 the houses on the west side of Downing Street gave way to new purpose-built government offices for the Foreign Office, India Office, Colonial Office, and the Home Office.
The first barriers in Downing Street were erected at the St James’s Park end of the street for the unveiling of the Cenotaph on 11 November 1920. They were a public safety measure intended to prevent the crowds in Whitehall from becoming too dense.
With the movement for Irish independence increasing in violence, it was decided that these barriers would be retained, raised and strengthened. In addition, substantial wooden barricade at the end of the streets were erected. Vehicle gates were included in the barrier. The barriers were taken down in 1922 with the creation of the Irish Free State, but vehicle access has been curtailed since 1973 when metal barriers were placed across the entrance to the street.
In 1974, the Metropolitan Police proposed erecting a semi-permanent barrier between the pavement and carriageway on the Foreign Office side of the street, to keep pedestrians off the main part of the street. The proposal came with assurances that tourists would still be permitted to take photographs at the door of Number 10. However then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson rejected the proposal, feeling that it would appear to be an unacceptable restriction of the freedom of the public.
In 1982 access was more fully restricted with railings and a demountable gate. This was replaced by the current black steel gates in 1989. The increase in security was again due to an increase in violence, particularly by the IRA.
Downing Street is known for housing the official residence of the British Prime Minister, but it also accommodates other British Government figures. Throughout the history, ministers have lived by agreement in whatever rooms they thought necessary. Sometimes they use Downing Street flats only for formal occasions and live elsewhere.
9 Downing Street was named in 2001 and is the Downing Street entrance to the Privy Council Office and currently houses the Chief Whip’s (who is responsible for the party’s voting discipline) office. It was formerly part of Number 10.
10 Downing Street is the official residence of the First Lord of the Treasury, and thus the residence of the British Prime Minister, as in modern times the two roles have been filled by the same person. It has fulfilled this role since 1735.
11 Downing Street has been the official residence of the Second Lord of the Treasury since 1828, and thus the residence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. On some occasions Number 11 has been occupied not by the Chancellor of the Exchequer but by the individual considered to be the nominal deputy Prime Minister (whether or not they actually took the title); this was particularly common in coalition governments.
12 Downing Street, formerly the Chief Whip’s Office, currently houses the Prime Minister’s Press Office, Strategic Communications Unit and Information and Research Unit. In the 1820s it was occupied by the Judge Advocate-General, although it remained in private ownership. It entered government hands when purchased by the East India Company in 1863, and became occupied by the marine and railway departments of the Board of Trade. It was originally Number 13, but was partially rebuilt and renumbered following the demolition of Number 14 in 1876. It was badly damaged by a fire in 1879, and underwent further changes as a result.
14 Downing Street formerly closed off the western end of the street. It was acquired by the Crown in 1798, and was used by the War Office and Colonial Office in the 19th century. Some parts were demolished in the 1860s, and by 1876 it had been removed completely.
15-16 Downing Street, long since demolished, formerly held the Foreign Office, which also occupied two houses on the west side of the street.
18 Downing Street was occupied by the West India Department of the Colonial Office.
20 Downing Street was occupied by the Tithe Commission.
Both the Prime Minister’s residence at number 10 and the whole street has appeared in a number of films, but when it comes to depicting the inside of the PM’s house, usually it was not portrayed by the actual location but rather staged in studios.
Until the late 19th century, Prime Ministers were required to furnish Number 10 at their own expense. This arrangement began to change when Benjamin Disraeli took up residency in November 1877.
For most of its history, Downing Street was accessible to the public. There was some security at Number 10 but it was minimal: a police officer standing guard. The front door has no keyhole on the outside. A second officer is on duty in the entrance hall to open it for the Prime Minister.