History and Tour

First PM Moves In

In the 1730s Number 10 began to be linked to the office of prime minister.

It was a period of great change. Rule by a powerful monarch had given way only a few decades earlier to a different style of government led by Parliament and party politics. It became important to house the chief ministers in buildings grand enough for their status.

First Lord of the Treasury

Doorplate at Number 10 Downing Street. Picture: Mark FiennesKing George II presented both the house on Downing Street, and the house overlooking Horse Guards, to Sir Robert Walpole, who held the title First Lord of the Treasury and effectively served as the first prime minister.

Walpole refused the property in Downing Street as a personal gift. Instead he asked the King to make it available to him, and future First Lords of the Treasury, in their official capacity.

To this day prime ministers occupy Number 10 in the role of First Lord of the Treasury. The brass letter box on the black front door is still engraved with this title.

Walpole took up residence in 1735, but only after having the two houses - the one on Downing Street and the one overlooking Horse Guards - joined together and completely refurbished to match his status.

Changing rooms

Staircase at Number 10 Downing Street. Picture: Mark FiennesWalpole employed famous architect William Kent to take on the project. Kent was a Palladian architect who created grand, classical designs inspired by Roman buildings, a style of architecture popular in the eighteenth century.

Walpole had already employed Kent to improve Houghton House, his home in Norfolk. While working on Walpole’s commission, Kent also designed another larger building just along the road. This was the new Treasury building, part of which is home to the Cabinet Office today.

Kent carried out extensive work on the two houses in Downing Street. He connected them up on two storeys, so that the main entrance faced onto Downing Street rather than towards Horse Guards.

He made little alteration to the Downing Street building, which now became a passageway from the rear of the house to the street outside.

Robert Walpole addressing his ministers, by Joseph GoupyAt the back of the house, where the Walpoles lived, Kent created grand new rooms suitable for receiving important guests, and built an unusual, three-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. It 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 the Walpoles’ dining room.

High society

The Garden of No 10 Downing Street, c1740. Picture: Museum of LondonThe Walpoles were soon entertaining important guests in their smart house, from Queen Caroline, the wife of George II, to politicians, writers and soldiers.

There was more than a hint of scandal too. Estranged from his wife, Walpole openly entertained his mistress Maria Skerett in the house, followed by a string of other lady friends after his wife’s death.

Walpole resigned in February 1742 and left Downing Street that summer. It was some years before the next First Lord moved in.

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