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Downing Street was originally built by a well-known rogue from the civil war era. George Downing was a confident of Oliver Cromwell and rose to become his intelligence chief. When Cromwell died in 1658, Downing realised that his cushy lifestyle was coming to a end, and went cap in hand to Charles II for another job.
Charles II was naturally reluctant to employ an enemy of his father – but needed his insider’s knowledge of Parliament. So Downing quickly rose up the ranks and gained a lot wealth.
Downing decided that the quickest way to build up his bank balance even further was to develop the land around Whitehall Palace and sell it on. So he built a simple street of terraced houses stretching all the way back to St. James’s Park.
The first Prime Minister to live at Number 10 was Sir Robert Walpole in 1735. His official title was ‘First Lord of the Treasury’, but he is generally regarded as the country’s first PM.
The King offered him the entire house as a gift, but Walpole insisted that it would only be used for official government business. In order to make it larger he had it knocked through to the house at the back, which overlooked Horse Guards Parade. All of the most important rooms, like the Cabinet Room and White Drawing Room, are now housed inside this section.
The following two prime ministers decided to remain in their old homes, and it wasn’t until 1763 that the next one moved in.
Lord North was the next Prime Minister to make some improvements, and added the famous lamp and lions-head knocker on the No.10 door. He also built the checkerboard floor in the hallway that you can sometimes glimpse on the news.
The next PM to take up residence was the country’s youngest-ever leader: William Pitt. The 24-year-old was also the longest-ever resident of Downing Street, living there between 1783-1801 and 1804-06.
No.11 Downing Street became the official residence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1828, when the surrounding area began to fill up with gin-joints and seedy brothels. Crime was so rife, in fact, that two prime ministers were shot at by an assassins.
Robert Peel was lucky and escaped with his life (but his secretary wasn’t so lucky), whilst Spencer Perceval became the first and only British Prime Minister to be murdered whilst still in office.
For the next half-century few Prime Ministers felt obliged to live at Downing Street, and it wasn’t until Benjamin Disraeli took up office in 1877 that the next one moved in. He persuaded the State to pay for some major renovations, and turned it into a house fit for a king. Gladstone then carried on his good work, installing some electric lighting and telephones.
The next PM chose to live somewhere else, but when Balfour moved in it finally became synonymous with the job. Every Prime Minister since Balfour has lived inside Downing Street.
Long gone are the days when the public could freely walk up and down Downing Street. It seems hard to believe now, but people could once crowd down the road and query their leaders as they came out of the door. There are some famous photos of the Suffragettes, for example, chaining themselves to the Downing Street railings.
That all changed in 1989, when the IRA started bombing London. Margaret Thatcher decided to beef up the security and installed the big black iron gate at the end of the street. The closest view you can get these days is over the shoulder of a burly copper.
This review originally appeared in his London blog
I’ve probably peered through the Downing Street gates a million billion times in my life, but I’ve never once seen the PM coming out. Not once. I’m starting to think that she doesn’t actually live there. But even if she did pop her head out of the door the chances of you actually seeing her are pretty slim because, not only do you have to peer through the big black iron gate over the shoulders of a big burly cop pointing a machine gun at your feet, but you are simultaneously being wedged in by ten thousand tourists snapping away at the postman, thinking he’s the Queen.
Today I got a bit lucky because a delivery guy came by with a trolley full of parcels, and the policeman had to open the gate for a few moments so he could come out and shake them. That gave me the clearest view of the door than I’ve ever had before, but Theresa stubbonly decided to stay inside. We probably could have rushed the gate pretty easily and overpowered the police (maybe taking a bullet or two) but by the time I’d gee’d up the tourists to give it a go, the moment had passed. I guess the Japanese Kamakazi spirit died in World War II.
Did you know that you can see the back-end of Downing Street as well? All you have to do is walk round the opposite end to St. James’s Park, and it’s the next street past Horse Guards Parade. Unfortunately the view is even worse that way, but at least you don’t have any tourists getting in the way.
> Read Craig’s latest review of Downing Street “I would make a brilliant Prime Minister. The first thing I would do is knock down every building that has gone up since the war, and then I’d open up the Port of London again and bring back the trams. Unfortunately I’ve left it a bit too late to start a political career, because if you want to become a politician these days then you need to slave away as an MP’s office boy for five years… continued.”
> Read Craig’s review of Whitehall “The first and most important thing that you need to know about Whitehall is that there are no coffee shops down there. It’s full of government offices and civil service departments. Personally I think we should knock a few of those down and build some Starbucks instead, which are far more useful. Because if you want to start your day off with a coffee then you need to do it in Trafalgar Square instead – there’s a Caffe Nero on the corner, or you can pop into the National Gallery or St. Martin’s church… continued.”
> Read Craig’s review of Parliament Square “Parliament Square has changed a lot over the last few years. When Ken Livingstone was in charge he was happy for it to descend into a messy cub camp of bleeding hearts and long-haired liberals, who’d come along with their homemade banners and placards about whatever war was their flavour of the month. Who is the bad guy today, they’d say. Israel? Yeah… Woo hoo! Let’s have a shout about them. Or George Bush? Yeah, we hate George Bush and Tony Blair and Maggie Thatcher the milk snatcher! Arrest them all for war crimes! And they’d shout down their loudhailers and smash their pots and pans about on the pavement and it was just stupid… continued.”
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Whilst you’re in the vicinity of Downing Street and Whitehall you might like to visit these other political attractions. Parliament Square is just down the road, where you can see Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. And the Churchill War Rooms are just around the corner, where Winston Churchill plotted the war in his underground bunker.
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