The world’s most photographed door and CabbieBlog is old enough to have driven down England’s most famous short street in his car, turning around at the end and driving out again. Roll on a number of decades and the last time I drove the cab into Downing Street every corner of the vehicle was checked and checked again, the only purpose at that time of going in was to pick up a bust of the unlamented Tony Blair.
Built-in about 1680 by Sir George Downing, Member of Parliament for Carlisle for persons of “honour and quality”, which presumably excluded MPs nominating them for their second homes, the building’s frontage is remarkably unaltered.
Of the original terrace only numbers 10, 11 and 12 remain, acquired by the Crown in 1732, George II offered Number 10 as a personal gift to Sir Robert Walpole, he being an honourable politician would only accept it for his office as First Lord of the Treasury, a gift that a recent incumbent, now moved to Connaught Square, would have bitten His Majesty’s hand off to acquire.
Since that date it has been the official residence of the Prime Minister although many early Prime Ministers did not live there, preferring to remain in their own grander townhouses and letting Number 10 to relatives or junior ministers.
Extensive alterations have over the years been made, including incorporating a further two properties at the back, internally improvements to the property have been made by such eminent architects as William Kent and Sir John Soane.
By the middle of the 20th century, however, Number 10 was falling apart again. The deterioration had been obvious for some time; the number of people allowed in the upper floors was limited for fear the bearing walls would collapse; the staircase had sunk several inches; some steps were buckled and the balustrade was out of alignment; an investigation ordered by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in 1958 concluded that there was widespread dry rot; the interior wood in the Cabinet Room’s double columns was like sawdust; baseboards, doors, sills and other woodwork were riddled and weakened with disease.
After reconstruction had begun, miners dug down into the foundations and found that the huge wooden beams supporting the house had decayed. Incredibly, there was some discussion of tearing down the building and constructing an entirely new residence. But the Prime Minister’s home had become an icon of British architecture, instead, it was decided that Number 10 (and Numbers 11 and 12) would be rebuilt using as much of the original materials as possible.
Some unless Number 10 trivia:
- During expensive alterations in the late 1950s remains of Roman Pottery and a Saxon wooden hut were found in the foundations.
- The zero of the number ’10’ is set at a slight angle as a nod to the original number which had a badly-fixed zero.
- After the IRA mortar attack in 1991, the original black oak door was replaced by a blast-proof steel one. Regularly removed for refurbishment and replaced with a replica, it is so heavy that it takes eight men to lift it.
- The brass letterbox still bears the legend “First Lord of the Treasury”.
- The original door was put on display in the Churchill Museum at the Cabinet War Rooms.
- Number 10 has been the official home of the Prime Minister since 1735 when Sir Robert Walpole first took residence.
- It has been home to over 50 Prime Ministers
- Downing Street stands on the site of a former brewery
- Number 10 was originally Number 5
- The last private resident of Number 10 was a Mr Chicken
- The Cabinet usually meets once a week in 10 Downing Street, normally on a Thursday morning, in the Cabinet room
- The door has no lock
- Its postcode is SW1A 2AA
A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 11th June 2010