Tag Archives: buildings of london

Some useless information about 10 Downing Street

10 Downing Street

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

Bloomsbury Blues

When I first started working, driving a cab in London, dotted around the Capital were a number of small independent garages, many providing facilities for cabbies to empty their bladders as well as fill up their cabs.

[O]NE POPULAR SUCH GARAGE with the most basic of washroom facilities was once to be found in Waverton Street, Mayfair occupying a site worth probably many millions more than the fuel they were selling.

The oldest garage in London, which until recently was located in Store Street, a short anxious drive from Oxford Street when running low on diesel. The Bloomsbury Village Garage reminiscent of a period that Enid Blyton wrote about closed in June 2008 after being turned down for listing by The Department for Culture Media and Sport.

Duke’s exclusive use

It opened in 1926, probably for the exclusive use of The Duke of Bedford a well-known car enthusiast, who on 1st April 1968 was fined £50 for undertaking on the M1, when the police had recognised his number plate DOB1.

2013-05-13 10.28.12
The petrol station which attracted famous customers’ including Lewis Hamilton and Jamie Oliver was once probably used by Virginia Woolf’s chauffeur has now been redeveloped using most of the original brick and stone incorporating the original kiosk. A mosaic above harks back to the ‘golden age’ of motoring when it was possible to fill your tank and spend a penny in central London.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 28th May 2013

Gold shoulder and James Bond

I have been a member of the National Trust for the best part of 40 years, and over that time I’ve lost count of the number of scones and cups of coffee that I have consumed in their restaurants.

[I] TAKE AN INTEREST in all their properties but for Mrs CabbieBlog if the building is not Palladian in style with grounds landscaped by Capability Brown she’s not very interested.

So it was that I found myself unaccompanied in Bohemian Hampstead visiting 2 Willow Road.

Willow Road2 Willow Road

In the 1930s, Hampstead became a magnet for progressive artists and writers. A colony developed in lower parts of Hampstead Village, in part due to the relatively cheap property prices. Despite most being left-wing rival fractions emerged between the Surrealists and the Abstractionists.

As life became increasingly uncomfortable in Europe this creative milieu was joined by many Jews, left-wingers, progressive artists and intellectuals all of whom the Nazi’s disapproved.

James Bond’s nemesis

Architect Ernõ Goldfinger arrived with his wife and son from Paris in 1934 and acquired a piece of land in Willow Road, occupied by four small cottages, where he intended to build a home for his family. Eventually, he persuaded the council to give permission to demolish the cottages and construct a modernist home flanked by smaller properties that were to be sold to finance the construction. The project was completed a short time before the outbreak of the Second World War.

Ernõ Goldfinger was later to become synonymous with designing Brutalist London tower blocks. The three below have all been given Grade II listing.

Metro Central

Alexander Fleming House at the Elephant and Castle renamed Metro Central.

Balfron Tower Balfron Tower near the northern entrance to the Blackwall Tunnel.

Trellick Tower-1 Trellick Tower in north Kensington with flats selling for £375,000.

Although many residents of his soulless post-war developments might have cause to dislike the man; or a disgruntled employee, some of which could not tolerate his flamboyant bullying nature – he had been known for sacking his assistant if they were inappropriately jocular; or even the odd miffed client who was frog-marched out of his office after disagreeing with his proposals; of all people it was Ian Fleming the author of James Bond who clashed with him after writing his latest block-buster novel.

You can bet Fleming never lived in a high-rise flat designed Goldfinger nor was he an employee. The encounter was to be more prosaic.

In the 1950s, Ian Fleming’s regular golfing partner was a businessman called John Blackwell. One day, at the St George’s Golf Club in Sandwich, Blackwell mentioned that his cousin’s husband was the architect Ernö Goldfinger. Fleming liked the name ‘Goldfinger’ and thought he might be able to use it: he was always on the look-out for new or unusual names and had given several of his previous characters the names of real people and in fact in the final text of Goldfinger he used John Blackwell’s name (he was related to the Cross & Blackwell family) for a minor character.

A clash of egos

Ian Fleming had also been an objector to Ernõ Goldfinger’s proposal to build 2 Willow Road and probably delighted in creating Auric Goldfinger a 5ft imperious megalomaniac. When Ernõ Goldfinger’s business associate Jacob Blacker was asked for his opinion on the similarity between the fictional Goldfinger and his partner, he could only find one substantial difference “You’ve called Ernõ and he’s called Auric”.

Goldfinger threatened to sue, Fleming in a clash of egos was livid. He asked Cape, the publishers to insert an erratum slip in the first edition changing the character’s name to ‘Goldprick’. Lucky for Shirley Bassey – who sang the title song in the film – Cape demurred.

Common sense prevailed and Cape agreed to call the villain Auric Goldfinger throughout the book and insert the standard disclaimer at the front stating that all characters were fictional. They also paid all Ernõ Goldfinger’s legal costs.

Phoning 007

However, Ian Fleming was to have the last laugh. When the film was released starring Sean Connery wags would ring 2 Willow Road singing the title song or worst would intone in a Scottish accent: “Goldfinger? Thish ish Dobble Oh Sheven”.

Main picture: Ernõ Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower, London W10. “I built skyscrapers for people to live in there and now they messed them up — disgusting.” Photo by See Wah, used under Creative Commons licence).

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 26th November 2013

Site Unseen: Syd’s Coffee Stall

Every month CabbieBlog hopes to show you a little gem of a building that you might have passed without noticing, in the past, they have ranged from a modernist car park; a penguin pool; to a Hanoverian gatehouse.

[N]OWHERE IN LONDON in the last 100 years has seen change so much as Shoreditch, this was once an area of poverty, social deprivation and prostitutes standing on street corners, no different from Jack-The-Ripper’s time. Today it is dubbed the Silicon Triangle with food and beverages sold to the hipsters at astronomical prices.

On the corner of Calvert Avenue and Shoreditch High Street is a survivor of those far off times, with a bill of fare at more modest prices.

It was 22nd March 1919, exactly 100 years ago, when Sydney Edward Tothill spent his modest invalidity pension, awarded to him due to his being gassed in the trenches in World War I, on a tea stall.

Top quality tea stall

For a costly £117, Syd purchased a bespoke top quality mahogany tea stall, about the size of a horse-drawn carriage, with fine etched glass and brass fittings. The workmanship of the build is evident in that 100 years later that same stall, unprotected from the elements, still offers tea and bacon sandwiches.

Evidence of its longevity can be found under Syd’s Stall, in the 1960’s Calvert Avenue was resurfaced with the literal ‘groundbreaking’ material tarmacadam. By then the churn of fresh water had been replaced with mains water, similarly the coal brazier had given way to a gas connection and electricity was supplied via the nearby lampost. It was decided to leave the stall in-situ and tarmac around, placing kerbstones on the stall’s boundary. Look underneath and the Victorian cobbles are still visible.

Royal visit

Prince Edward, no stranger to the ladies, stopped by one night for a cuppa. During World War II a bomb detonated in Calvert Avenue, shrapnel injuring Syd’s wife May, but the stall was saved by a couple of buses parked nearby.

Syd’s granddaughter, Jane Tothill, has been running the stall for the past 33 years, but the area is changing. Many of the local shops have gone, given way to the ubiquitous bars, restricted parking and even bus routes diverted have reduced the footfall. Hillary Caterers the outside catering enterprise started by Jane’s father, named after the first man to ascent Everest, is only remembered by a sign on the roof of the tea stall.

It is doubtful whether Syd’s Stall will last for another 100 years, but should it go, as a major contributor to life in the 20th century the Museum of London should display the vehicle complete with all the newspaper cuttings which adorn the walls.

Dr. Johnson’s magnum opus

Samuel Johnson

[T]HAT MOST QUINTESSENTIAL of Londoners Dr. Samuel Johnson has become the capital’s favourite adopted son. He is the most quoted person in the English language after Shakespeare and with his famous verdict on the City “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford”, has virtually guaranteed him iconic status.

CABBIE (n.) (colloq). Erudite Fellow much given to express anti-Whig opinion who upon exchange of monies will, by Hansom carriage, convey a Person within London’s northern environs.

Born in Lichfield, Staffordshire in 1709 and educated at Pembroke College, Oxford leaving without a degree due to ill health, Johnson came to London in 1737 and scraped a living as a journalist. By all accounts to remain in Johnson’s company would have required a strong stomach even for those days. He was grossly overweight who “had no passion for clean linen” and “showed no enthusiasm for bathing”, his wig didn’t even fit properly, and was usually singed on one side from holding a candle too near on account of his poor eyesight.

MINI-CAB  (n.) A Sedan with oriental provenance of indeterminate age used to convey the Inebriated by its Driver whose paucity of English is matched only by his geographical knowledge.

Johnson’s wife Elizabeth “Tetty” Porter was no better, who in the opinion of his friend Robert Levett, was “always drunk and reading romances in her bed where she killed herself by taking opium”.

In 1746 Johnson was commissioned by a syndicate of booksellers to write the first comprehensive Dictionary of the English Language. He rented at £30 per annum 17 Gough Square and with the help of his six amanuenses compiled the Dictionary in the garret. It was published in 1755. The painter, Sir Joshua Reynolds, on a visit to view the great man at work noted that “besides his books, all covered with dust, there was an old crazy deal table and a still worse and older elbow chair having only three legs”, which Johnson managed to sit upon without support.

KNOWLEDGE, THE  (n.) An accumulation of local information which doth give one granted the illusion of superior powers and wisdom.

For here in 1755 Johnson despatched a messenger with the last proofs of the dictionary to Andrew Millar, the bookseller, in the Strand. When he returned Johnson asked what Millar had said. “Sir,” answered the messenger, “Thank God I have done with him.”

Johnson fell on hard times and left the house the following year, he was arrested for debt in 1758 and was bailed out by his friend Samuel Richardson. He went on to live in a number of lodgings dying in 1784, leaving a body of work as an essayist, journalist, satirist, novelist and as the leading literary critic of his time. He laid down standard for the use of English comparative literature and founded the Literary Club, but his Dictionary of the English Language was not (as is often claimed) the first English dictionary, but it was certainly the most important one published up to that date. It went through numerous editions, and was not superseded until the publication in 1928 of the Oxford English Dictionary.

MUSEUM  (n.) A repository of historic memorabilia much frequented by Children carrying pencils and clipboards, each bearing a bored countenance.

dr johnson house


Little is known of 17 Gough Square after Johnson’s departure until Thomas Carlyle visited it in 1832, who noted its dilapidated condition and described the tiny garden as little larger than a bed quilt.

In 1910 the newspaper baron and Liberal Member of Parliament Cecil Harmsworth purchased the property for a reputed £3,500 and restored the house at his own expense to its original condition, opening it to the public in 1912 and at the same time a cottage was built as the Curator’s residence. The City of London suffered extensive damage during the Second World War and Dr. Johnson’s House was nearly destroyed on three occasions during the bombing of 1940-41.

This elegant late 17th century house is the only original house in Gough Square, and the only remaining house of those many in which Johnson lived in London. The timber used in its construction is American white and yellow pine which was bought back as ballast in ships trading with the colonies. The House (open to the public) is now run by the Dr Johnson’s House Trust and the present Lord Harmsworth is the Chairman of the Board of Governors.

BLOG  (n.) Electronick diary unto which earnest fools do commit their innermost thoughts, safe in the knowledge that no man shall ever read them.


A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 26th November 2010