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The hall with the chequered floor immediately behind the front door lets on to a warren of rooms and staircases. The house in Downing Street was joined to a more spacious and elegant building behind it in the early 18th century.
Number 10 has also spread itself out to the left of the front door, and has taken over much of 12 Downing Street, which is accessed by a corridor that runs through 11 Downing Street — the official residence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The area around Downing Street was home to ancient Roman, Anglo-Saxon and Norman settlements, and was already a prestigious centre of government 1, years ago. Making their capital at Londinium downriver, the Romans chose Thorney Island — a marshy piece of land lying between two branches of the river Tyburn that flowed from Hampstead Heath to the Thames — as the site for their early settlement.
These Roman settlements, and those of the Anglo-Saxons and Normans who supplanted them, were not very successful. The area was prone to plague and its inhabitants were very poor. It took royal patronage to give the area prestige. King Canute reigned to built a palace in the area, and Edward the Confessor reigned to and William the Conqueror reigned to maintained a royal presence there.
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The position of Westminster as the area became known as the centre of government and the church was solidified following the construction of the great abbey nearby, on Edward's orders. The earliest building known to have stood on the site of Downing Street was the Axe brewery owned by the Abbey of Abingdon in the Middle Ages. By the early s, it had fallen into disuse.
Henry VIII reigned to developed Westminster's importance further by building an extravagant royal residence there. Today's Downing Street is located on the edge of the Palace site. The huge residence included tennis courts, a tiltyard for jousting, a bowling green, and a cockpit for bird fights. Stretching from St James's Park to the Thames, it was the official residence of Tudor and Stuart monarchs until it was destroyed by fire in It made the surrounding real estate some of the most important and valuable in London — and the natural home of power.
The first domestic house known to have been built on the site of Number 10 was a large building leased to Sir Thomas Knyvet in by Queen Elizabeth I reigned to He was one of the Queen's favourites and was an MP for Thetford as well as a justice of the peace for Westminster.
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His claim to fame was the arrest of Guy Fawkes for his role in the gunpowder plot of He was knighted in by Elizabeth's successor, King James I reigned to , and the house was extended. After the death of Sir Knyvet and his wife, the house passed to their niece, Elizabeth Hampden, who continued to live there for the next 40 years. The middle of the 17th century was a period of political upheaval and Mrs Hampden's family was right in the middle of it. Hampden House, as it was then known, gave Mrs Hampden a prime view of the tumultuous events during the Civil War and the Commonwealth and the early years of the Restoration.
The execution of Charles I in took place on a scaffold in front of Banqueting House in Whitehall, within earshot of the house.
Mrs Hampden was still living there when King Charles II reigned in Scotland from to was restored to the English throne in The Parliamentary Commissioners, who took over Crown lands during the time of the Commonwealth, described the house in And above stayres in the first story one large and spacious dyneinge Roome, Wainscoted round from the seelinge to the floore, well flored, Lighted and seeled, and fitted with a faire Chimney with a foote pace of paynted Tyle in the same. Also 6 more Roomes and 3 Closetts in the same flore all well lighted and seeled. George Downing gave his name to the most famous street in the world.
It is unfortunate that he was such an unpleasant man. Able as a diplomat and a government administrator, he was miserly and at times brutal. However, George Downing was responsible for the street, its name and the building we know today.
A former diplomat at The Hague serving the Commonwealth, he changed allegiance with finesse. He traded enough secrets to gain a royal pardon in March and, by the Restoration in May , to be rewarded with a knighthood. Interested in power and money, he saw an opportunity to make his fortune in property. He had already gained the Crown interest in the land around Hampden House, but could not take possession as it was under lease to Knyvet's descendants.
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In he secured the leases to the property and employed Sir Christopher Wren to design the houses. Between and , existing properties were pulled down and in their place a cul-de-sac of 15 to 20 terraced houses was built along the north side of the new street, Downing Street. In order to maximise profit, the houses were cheaply built, with poor foundations for the boggy ground. A rather important neighbour complained, however. The new houses were built directly behind a large and impressive house overlooking Horse Guards.
Its occupier, the Countess of Lichfield, daughter of Charles II, was less than pleased with the emergence of the unwelcome terrace behind.
She complained to her father, who wrote back with advice:. I think that it is a very reasonable thing that other houses should not look into your house without your permission, and this note will be sufficient for Mr Surveyor to build up your wall as high as you please. The original numbering of the Downing Street houses was completely different from what we see today. The sequence of numbers was haphazard, and the houses tended to be known by the name or title of their occupants.
The current Number 10 started out life as Number 5, and was not renumbered until The Downing Street house had several distinguished residents. The Countess of Yarmouth lived at Number 10 between and , and was followed by Lord Lansdowne from to and the Earl of Grantham from to The last private resident of Downing's terrace was one Mr Chicken. Little is known about him except that he moved out in the early s. Walpole refused the property as a personal gift. Instead, he asked the king to make it available as an official residence to him and to future First Lords of the Treasury — starting the tradition that continues today.
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The brass letterbox on the black front door is still engraved with this title. Walpole took up residence on 22 September , once the townhouse on Downing Street and the house overlooking Horse Guards had been joined together and completely refurbished. Walpole employed architect William Kent — who had already worked on Walpole's Norfolk home, Houghton Hall — to undertake the work.
Kent carried out extensive work on the 2 houses, connecting them on 2 storeys. The main entrance now faced onto Downing Street rather than towards Horse Guards, and the Downing Street building became a passageway to the main house. At the back of the house, where the Walpoles lived, Kent created grand new rooms suitable for receiving important guests, and built an unusual, 3-sided staircase.
It is still one of the most impressive features of the building. Walpole used the ground floor for business, taking the largest room, on the north-west side of the house, as his study. This is now the Cabinet Room. Upstairs on the first floor, the Walpoles lived in the rooms facing onto Horse Guards Parade. Lady Walpole used today's White Drawing Room as her sitting room, and the present day Terracotta Room served as their dining room. The Walpoles were soon entertaining important guests in their smart house, including George II's wife Queen Caroline, politicians, writers and soldiers.
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Number 10 became — as it continues to be today — a place for politics and entertainment. His successors saw the house as a perk of the job, and Prime Ministers Henry Pelham to and the Duke of Newcastle to preferred to live in their own residences. He was very fond of the house and often entertained there.
Visitors included the writer Samuel Johnson and Thomas Hansard, founder of the parliamentary reporting system that is still in use today. One guest, Clive of India, was so popular that furniture was made for him, which is still present today in the first floor anteroom and Terracotta Room.
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During one memorable dinner party held by Lord North on 7 June , civil unrest broke out in the street outside when angry Protestants unhappy with North's policy towards Roman Catholics rioted all over London, in what became known as the Gordon Riots. The Grenadier Guards held off a large mob, a situation that might have ended with bloodshed had North not gone outside to warn the protestors of the dangers of being shot, following which the crowd dispersed.
North's dinner guests climbed to the top of the house to view the fires burning all over London. Major improvements were made to the house during North's time, including the addition of many distinctive features: the black and white chequerboard floor in the entrance hall, the lamp above the front door and the famous lion's head door knocker. Following the loss of the American colonies, North resigned and was followed by the Duke of Portland, who was Prime Minister for only 9 months in At the turn of the 19th century, Downing Street had fallen on hard times.
Although Number 10 continued to serve as the Prime Minister's office, it was not favoured as a home.