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Facts About the History of 10 Downing Street

The Prime Minister of England resides there, but that’s only one of the facts about the history of 10 Downing Street, the most famous addresses in Britain. The building itself goes back centuries and it’s the amalgamation of three separate structures melded into one to serve the needs of the British Isles’ most important politician.

Facts About the History of 10 Downing Street

The Name of the Street

The history of Downing Street itself goes back to the 17th century to Sir George Downing. He had been a colleague and spy who worked for Oliver Cromwell, a member of Parliament and the Lord Protector of England, who assumed power after the British Civil War and the execution of then-King Charles, I.

Naturally, all this politicking, murder, and behind-the-scenes double-dealing left a sour taste in the mouths of many citizens after Cromwell’s death in 1658. Downing had made a good living plying his spy trade at Cromwell’s behest, but the death of his patron meant an end to the money Downing had made as well.

Suddenly, money became an issue with Downing, but he was smart enough to know that although Cromwell might no longer be among the living, the enemies of Cromwell and of the soon-to-be restored monarch, Charles II, still abounded in Britain.

Spy for Sale

Downing knew the information he had procured for Cromwell could just as easily be sold to Charles II, who would be the new king (and who was the son of Charles 1, the king executed years earlier.)

Charles II was loathe to do business with a man who had been an enemy of his father, but he saw the importance of the spy info Downing held, so Downing was hired. Never wanting to be a poor man again, Downing this time put his spy income to good use: he used it to buy property on which to construct buildings, which brings us back to the facts about the history of 10 Downing Street.

Three Houses in One

The actual address of 10 Downing Street now is comprised of three separate structures, united long after their original construction to form one building (this happened in the mid-18th century). The first is a mansion, the second a cottage, and the third, a townhouse, which is the actual building Downing himself built when he purchased the property. The townhouse was built sometime around 1682.

Downing had actually purchased a lease on land adjacent to the Downing Street mansion in 1654. He had intended to construct townhouses to be leased to members of Parliament and “other people of quality,” thereby taking advantage of the site’s nearness to Parliament. Downing thought members of that chamber would be natural tenants for his townhouses.

It took, however, almost 30 years for Downing to build his townhouse empire at the site. That’s because there was a competing claim to the land lease he had purchased, and it took three decades for the claim to be settled, clearing the way for the townhouse construction. Downing didn’t give up in all those years. That’s obvious from the facts about the history of 10 Downing Street, which came to be named after the spy-turned-landlord.

Facts About the History of 10 Downing Street

As time went on, Downing received permission to build around the original lease site he purchased. Near St. James Park, he constructed a cul-de-sac of houses, stables, and other structures to serve well-to-do clients, many of whom were Parliamentarians and other people of importance.

The number of townhouses he built varied; as did the street numbers they were given.

Downing himself never lived in any of the Downing Street townhouses he built. A portrait of the spy and landlord, though, hangs today in the place of honor at 10 Downing Street, the British Prime Minister’s dwelling.

Over the centuries, the Downing Street townhouses saw their fortunes change and shift, much like the soft soil they were built on caused the need for continual and expensive repairs. In the 20th century, though, almost every British Prime Minister has called the ramshackle buildings home, including Winston Churchill. Ten Downing Street holds a firm hand on the heart of Brits and will continue to do so.