History and Tour

Death and Decay

In the nineteenth century, Downing Street fell on hard times.

Number 10 continued to serve as the prime minister’s office, but it fell badly out of favour as a home following a series of unfortunate events.

Death by assassin’s hand

Spencer Perceval was assassinated in the lobby of Parliament in 1812The early nineteenth century saw one of the most shocking events in the house’s history. Lord Grenville’s successor, Spencer Perceval, came to Number 10 in a carriage and left in a coffin.

A high-flying lawyer, politician and family man, he arrived at Number 10 in 1807 as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and became prime minister two years later. His twelve young children - some born while he was prime minister - filled every spare room of the house.

It made the events of 11 May 1812 especially tragic. Entering the lobby of the House of Commons in the late afternoon, Perceval was shot in the chest by a former convict with a grudge. His body was taken back to Number 10, where it lay for five days before the funeral.

Murder by mistake

Downing Street in 1827, from a watercolour by C BucklerAfter Perceval, the next prime minister to occupy Number 10 was Viscount Goderich (1827-28). He employed the brilliant, quirky architect John Soane to make the house more suitable for its high-profile role. Soane created the wood-panelled State Dining Room and the Small Dining Room for elegant entertaining.

By the 1820s Downing Street emerged as the centre of the Government, with Number 11 becoming the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s official residence in 1828.

But the area around the street was becoming more and more seedy, with brothels and gin parlours multiplying. Things got so bad that by 1839 there were even plans to demolish Number 10 and the other buildings on the north side of Downing Street to make way for a remodelled Whitehall.

Security also became an issue. In 1842 Edward Drummond, the secretary of Prime Minister Robert Peel, was murdered in Whitehall on his way back to his home in Downing Street by a half-crazed assassin who mistook him for Peel.

Decline of Downing Street

Gilbert Scott's grand Foreign Office buildingFor 50 years, few prime ministers chose to live in Downing Street, preferring their own townhouses instead. Lord Wellington (1828-30) moved in only while his own lavish home - Apsley House - was being refurbished.

Later leaders such as Lord Melbourne (1834 and 1835-1841) and Viscount Palmerston (1855-58 and 1859-65) used Number 10 only as an office and for Cabinet meetings.

The prestige of Downing Street was reduced even further by the building of the magnificent new Foreign Office building at the end of the 1860s. George Gilbert Scott’s creation, with a huge open court and elaborate state rooms, dwarfed Number 10 opposite. It even had its own Cabinet Room in which the Cabinet sometimes met, rather than at Number 10.

By the time Benjamin Disraeli became prime minister for the first time, the house was in poor shape. Having moved his office into the house in 1868 by necessity, Disraeli described it as “dingy and decaying”. It was time for modernisation.

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