No 10 Downing Street

Downing Street was built at the end of Charles II’s reign by Sir George Downing, after whom it takes its name. It is suggested that Sir Christopher Wren was involved in the design, but the terrace was cheaply built as a speculative development; at this time (the early 1680s) Wren was occupied with designing the (never built) King’s House in Winchester, and it seems that Wren’s input to the architectural appearance of Downing Street was small.

George Downing was born in Dublin in 1623 and educated in the American Colonies. This was a bold move for the first part of the 17th century. He was among the first nine students to graduate from Harvard College in 1642. He then went to the West Indies as a preacher, but abandoned that career for government positions in England. He became established during Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate, but moved easily into the new political realities of the Restoration period. He retained an interest in America and was responsible for the English assuming control of New Amsterdam from the Dutch. He was at the time Ambassador to The Hague. The city was renamed New York after Charles II’s brother James, Duke of York. Downing was opposed to the Dutch as the main commercial rival of England; this was the time of the Anglo-Dutch wars. By the end of his life he had amassed a great fortune, and was regarded as exceptionally mean. In 1663 he had become Sir George Downing, having been raised to the baronetage, and his grandson the 3rd baronet (who was not so close with his money) founded Downing College in Cambridge. Downing having spent his early adult life in America, there are Downing Streets there too, in Manhattan and Massachusetts, named after him.

The construction of Downing Street preceded the evolution of the post of Prime Minister. I have to mention East Anglia in this context, and Sir Robert Walpole was the son of a Norfolk country gentleman who was educated at Eton and King’s College Cambridge. After a successful business career he went into public life as a Whig politician. He was the first person to be regarded as Premier Ministre, a French phrase initially used as a term of contempt by political rivals. His official title was First Lord of the Treasury, and so it remains today. It was King George II who provided the house in Downing Street, now known as No. 10, as his official residence. This was in 1732, half way through his period of office. Since then it has remained the official home of the Prime Minister. There have been 75 Prime Ministers since Walpole, although the scope and nature of the position have changed over the 300 years since its inception, not least being the appearance of women among its holders. Only one Prime Minister, Spencer Percival, has been assassinated and that was over 200 years ago.

Downing Street used to be just another public street in Whitehall, and it was popular among tourists to have their picture taken outside the door of No. 10. I remember going into Downing Street to see the seat of Government with a group of school friends on a visit to the capital. This was during Harold Wilson’s time as PM, and there were already mutterings among the security community about public access to so important a cul de sac. Harold Wilson however would have no restrictions placed on the public who wished to visit the street. It is a sad refection on the changed nature of the country that it would be unthinkable today to allow anybody, without impeccable credentials, into Downing Street; let alone a bunch of giggling schoolboys.

JOSEPH MASON

 joemasonspage@gmail.com

THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF ENGLAND

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