A seat of power
Downing Street is known the world over as home to the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom: ‘Number 10’ has been the official ministerial residence for almost 300 years. Less famously, the Chancellor of the Exchequer lives just next door at Number 11; other senior members of the Cabinet, like the Chief Whip, frequently reside there in Number 9 or Number 12.
Downing Street was built in the 1680s and named after its Anglo-Irish creator Sir George Downing, 1st Baronet, who had amassed a substantial fortune as a soldier and spy for Oliver Cromwell and later King Charles II. He purchased the land near St. James’s Park which once held the Hampden Mansion, a townhouse and a cottage, which he tore down in order to build a set of townhouses for esteemed British noblemen – or ‘persons of good quality’.
In later years the houses served not only as official residences but also as the offices of certain branches of government such as the Treasury Office, the War Office, the Privy Council Office and the Colonial Office. Number 10 has always been home to the First Lord of the Treasury, which since 1735 has been a role fulfilled by the Prime Minister (though before 1787 it was actually Number 5).
A ‘vast, awkward house’
The modest front edifice of this Georgian building - unchanged since the 18th century - belies an interior of around one hundred rooms. A portrait of Sir George Downing hangs inside the door of Number 10, though the Baronet probably never actually lived on the street at all, spending his remaining years in Cambridge. The building’s longest-standing resident, William Pitt the Younger, fondly called it ‘my vast, awkward house.’
As the residence of the Prime Minister it serves an important political function, and the beautiful state rooms have received some of the most important figures in world history as guests - though its status as a seat of power has also attracted protestors. In recent years it has been adopted as the official Twitter handle of David Cameron’s office, @Number10gov.
Interestingly, the door to Number 10 cannot be opened from the outside, so there is always someone waiting indoors to open it, as well as at least one policeman posted outside the door at all times. The distinctive white lettering of Number 10 has featured in many films, including Love Actually, where Hugh Grant’s down-to-earth Prime Minister dances his way through its halls and finds love (actually!).
Today, Downing Street is gated and there are armed security guards standing by; yet you will always see tourists peering through the iron bars at this famous London cul-de-sac. A visit provides a thrilling glimpse at the heart of the English Government - and, of course, at one of of the most famous doors in the world.