History and Tour

Downing’s Street

Downing Street was built as a result of one man’s scheming.

Sir George Downing was an enterprising rogue - a spy, traitor and shady property developer - who saw building houses on prime London land as a means to get rich quick.

‘A perfidious rogue’

Sir George Downing, builder of Downing StreetBrought up in New England, Downing was one of the earliest graduates of Harvard University. He came back to England during the Civil War, and by 1650 he was Cromwell’s Scoutmaster General or intelligence chief. At the heart of Cromwell’s inner circle, he enjoyed a position of great power.

In 1657 Downing was appointed British Ambassador to The Hague, where he worked against the exiled royal family. But when Cromwell died in 1658, his son Richard, who turned out to be an incompetent leader, replaced him.

Downing realised that the fortunes of the Commonwealth were about to take a turn for the worse, and set about ensuring his position under a new regime.

His method was to betray his former allies completely. He presented himself to Charles II and offered his services to the Crown. Diarist Samuel Pepys described him “a perfidious rogue”.

Luckily for Downing, the King recognised the value of the information he could provide. Downing did spend two months in the Tower after an ill-fated return to Holland, but went on to accumulate honours and rewards after the Restoration.

Downing the developer

Downing set about making his fortune. Getting hold of the land around Hampden House was one of his main aims. He saw early on that it was ripe for development, given its location near Westminster, and set about gaining the right to build there.

In 1654 Downing acquired the Crown interest in the land, but he could not take possession as it was under lease to Knyvet’s descendents. It was not until 1682, nearly 30 years later, that Downing finally secured the leases to the property.

He quickly set about the project, pulling down existing properties. In their place sprang up a cul-de-sac of 15 or 20 terraced houses along the northern side of Downing Street.

Designed for a quick turnover, Downing’s houses were cheaply built, with poor foundations for the boggy ground. Instead of neat brick façades, they had mortar lines drawn on to look like even-spaced bricks.

The original numbering of the houses was completely different to today’s. The number sequence 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 1779.

‘The House-at-the-Back’

The Countess of Lichfield, daughter of Charles II. Picture: National Portrait GalleryDowning’s house is only half the story. The present Number 10 is made up of two houses joined together: Downing’s cheap terrace house at the front, and a much grander building, overlooking Horse Guards Parade.

The house on Horse Guards was built around 1677. It became the home of the Countess of Lichfield, daughter of Charles II. As befitted her station, it was much more impressive than the terrace behind.

The Countess was very annoyed at the new houses being built so close. 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 surveyor in question was Sir Christopher Wren, the architect responsible for St. Paul’s Cathedral and some of Britain’s greatest buildings.

After the Lichfields left in 1690, the house passed to Lord Overkirk - William III’s Master of the Horse. Then in 1720, after the deaths of Lord Overkirk and his wife, ‘Overkirk House’ was renamed ‘Bothmar House’ after its new resident, Count Bothmar.

Count Bothmor died in 1732. 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 1730’s.

At that point, the terrace on Downing Street and the house on Horse Guards began their association with the office of prime minister.

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