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10 Downing Street

10 Downing Street (commonly known as Number 10), is the most famous London street address. It is the official residence of the First Lord of the Treasury, who since the beginning of the twentieth century has always been the British Prime Minister. It is sometimes described as the 'house that isn't', in so far as almost everything people presume about it is wrong.

George II of Great Britain
presented 10 Downing Street to Sir Robert Walpole
as an official residence

History of 10 Downing Street

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington
Prime Minister
refused to live in Number 10 because it was too small

Number 10 has been the residence of the First Lord ever since it was given to Sir Robert Walpole (who was also the first 'prime minister of Great Britain'*) by King George II on behalf of the nation and the Crown. Walpole accepted the gift on the condition that the house was a gift to the incumbent First Lord of the Treasury rather than to him personally, so that ownership passes to each incoming First Lord, who with rare exceptions is also Prime Minister.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, 10 Downing Street was generally seen as a small, unimpressive mediocre, building that was far below the quality and standard possessed by leader peers. Hence a number of prominent prime ministers, notably the Duke of Wellington, chose to live in their rather more spacious and grand personal London residences, giving Number 10 over to be used by some more junior official. When he became prime minister in the early 1920s, Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour Prime Minister, faced a different problem. In an era when ministers of the Crown received only minimal pay and in effect had to subsidize themselves through their own private wealth, MacDonald, lacking the wealth of former 'grandee' prime ministers, found himself moving into an almost unfurnished house, surrounded by household staff he could not afford - some of whom, despite their low wages, earned more than he did.

During his last period in office, in 1881, William Gladstone claimed residence in numbers 10, 11 and 12 for himself and his family. This was less of a problem than it might have been had he not been both Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister at the time.

By the 1940s, economic and social changes led to major change in the use of 10 Downing Street. Instead of being a large residence run by servants, it became a working office, with the Prime Minister and his office relegated to a small 'flat' created specially among the old servants' rooms in the roof-space. The cramped nature of that 'flat' and its location above what is now a busy office-complex, has led some prime ministers to 'secretly' live elsewhere, though both they (through being photographed entering the front door) and the media conspire, often for security considerations, to keep the fact hidden.

After the 1997 General Election in which Labour took power, a swap was carried out by the present incumbents of the two titles, Tony Blair being a married man with three children still living at home, whilst his counterpart, Gordon Brown, was unmarried at the time of taking up his post. Although Number 10 continued to be the prime minister's official residence and contain the prime ministerial offices, Blair and his family actually moved into the more spacious Number 11, while Brown lived in the more meagre apartments of Number 10.

In reality, two and a half centuries of use as government residences has led to so much interlinking between the houses that it can be hard to know where one ends and the other one begins.


A police officer traditionally stands outside the black front door of Number 10 - a door which can only be opened from the inside. Gates were installed at either end of Downing Street during the Premiership of Margaret Thatcher to protect against possible terrorist attack. However on 7th February 1991, the Provisional IRA launched a mortar through the roof of a white van parked in Whitehall. The mortar exploded in the back garden of 10 Downing Street, blowing in all the windows of the cabinet room, whilst then Prime Minster John Major was leading a session of the Cabinet. While the building underwent repair, Major was moved to Admiralty House nearby, which is generally used as a sort of 'alternative 10 Downing Street' when for whatever reason (from security and rebuilding work to simply rewiring and repainting) the Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury has to move elsewhere.