The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw 10 Downing Street transformed from a humble terraced house into a grand residence with modern facilities – a home and office fit for the most powerful politician in the country.
What the butler saw
When Benjamin Disraeli went to live at Number 10 in 1877, the house was in poor shape. The living quarters had not been used for 30 years.
Disraeli persuaded the state to pay for renovation to the entrance halls and public rooms, though he paid himself for the private rooms to be refurbished. His own first-floor bedroom and dressing room were improved, and a ‘bath with hot and cold water in the First Lord’s Dressing Room’ was put in for £150.3s.6d..
When Gladstone moved into the house for the first time in 1880, he insisted on redecorating after Disraeli’s occupancy, spending £1,555.5s.0d., an enormous sum for the time, on furniture. In 1894, during his last occupancy as prime minister, electric lighting was fitted and the first telephones were installed around the same time.
Gladstone was renowned for eccentric behaviour during his occupation of Number 10. Famous for his interest in converting prostitutes, Gladstone would bring young women back to Downing Street to talk to them. Members of the Cabinet would sometimes pass women in the hallway as the butler was showing them out.
The most famous front door in the world
He preferred to work in the larger Cabinet Room in the Foreign Office and live in Arlington Street, offering Number 10 to his nephew, Arthur Balfour (1902-05), who also later became prime minister. Balfour was the first inhabitant of Number 10 to bring a motor car to Downing Street.
From Balfour onwards, Number 10 became the residence and office for all British prime ministers. It became the focus for protest, petition and gatherings at times of national crisis. Pictures of people coming and going in front of the black front door went around the world.
One of the most famous photographs was captured in January 1908, during Asquith’s premiership. Suffragettes won national attention for their campaign for women’s votes by chaining themselves to the railings outside Number 10. Policemen with hacksaws had to be called to remove them.
Six years later, with the outbreak of the First World War, the Cabinet Room at Number 10 was the nerve-centre of Britain’s war effort. Under Prime Minister David Lloyd George, the number of staff at Number 10 expanded and offices spilled out into the garden to cope with the war.
When armistice was finally declared on 11 November 1918, crowds thronged Downing Street chanting ‘LG’. Lloyd George made an appearance at one of the first-floor windows to acknowledge them.
Barricades and book shelves
Even when the war was over, security remained essential. As the movement for Irish independence became increasingly violent, three-metre-high wooden barricades were erected for the first time at the end of the street, preventing protestors attacking the prime minister.
The barriers were taken down in 1922 with the creation of the Irish Free State, but returned in 1989 in the form of high metal gates.
Missing a proper library containing more than Hansard reports, MacDonald started the Prime Minister’s Library, which was housed originally in the Cabinet Room. The custom began of the prime minister and other ministers donating books to the library; it continues today.
Central heating was installed in 1937 and work began on converting the labyrinth of rooms in the attic, which had formerly been used by servants, into a flat for the prime minister.