Number 10 Downing Street

The official site of the British Prime Minister's Office

Origins and Early Inhabitants

The area around Downing Street was home to ancient Roman, Anglo-Saxon and Norman settlements, and was already a prestigious centre of government 1000 years ago.

The Romans first came to Britain under the command of Julius Caesar in 55 BC. 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. A charter granted by the Mercian King Offa in the year 785 refers to “the terrible place called Thorney Island”. It took royal patronage to give the area prestige. King Canute (reigned 1017–35) built a palace in the area, and Edward the Confessor (reigned 1042–66) and William the Conqueror (reigned 1066–87) maintained a royal presence there. 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 William’s orders.

Whitehall from St James’s Park – Hendrick Danckerts c.1675

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 1500s, it had fallen into disuse.

Henry VIII (reigned 1509–47) developed Westminster’s importance further by building an extravagant royal residence there.

Whitehall Palace was created when Henry VIII confiscated York House from Cardinal Wolsey in 1530 and extended the complex. 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 1698. 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 1581 by Queen Elizabeth I (reigned 1558–1603). He was one of the Queen’s favourites and was a Member of Parliament for Thetford as well as a Justice of the Peace for Westminster. His claim to fame was the arrest of Guy Fawkes for his role in the Gunpowder plot of 1605. He was knighted in 1604 by Elizabeth’s successor King James I (reigned 1603–1625), 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 seventeenth century was a period of political upheaval and Mrs Hampden’s family was right in the middle of it. Her son, John Hampden, was one of the Members of Parliament who opposed King Charles I (reigned 1625–1649), and Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector, was Mrs Hampden’s nephew.

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 1649 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 1649–1685) was restored to the English throne in 1660.

The Parliamentary Commissioners, who took over Crown lands during the time of the Commonwealth, described the house in 1650:

“built part of Bricke and part with Tymber and Flemish qalle and covered with Tyle, consistinge of a Large and spacious hall, wainscoted round, well lighted, and Paved with brick Pavements, two parls wherof one is Wainscoted round from the seelinge to ye floor, one Buttery, one seller, one Large kitchen well paved with stone and well fitted and Joynted and well fitted with dresser boards…

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. And in the second story 4 garretts….”

A cosy, rather than a grand house.