From Chicken House to Palace: 10 Downing Street in the 18th century

In February 1742, Sir Robert Walpole, newly ennobled as earl of Orford quit 10 Downing Street for the last time. It was expected that his successor, the earl of Wilmington, would replace him there, but in the event it was the chancellor of the exchequer who took up residence instead. As part of our posts marking the 300th anniversary of Walpole becoming Prime Minister, Dr Robin Eagles, Editor of the Lords 1715-90 project, examines the early history of Number 10 and its fortunes after Walpole left office.

10, Downing Street is now one of the most iconic buildings in the country. As the official residence of the Prime Minister it is widely recognizable, even though it appears on the face of it a rather modest terraced townhouse, located in a rather cramped street squeezed in between Whitehall and Horse Guards. Of course, the location is its key benefit, placing the occupant within easy access of the government buildings around them, just a few strides down Whitehall from Parliament, and a pleasant walk across the park to St James’s Palace.

Wale, Samuel; A View of the West Front Horse Guards, with the Treasury and Downing Street Beyond; National Army Museum;

In spite of this, for much of the 18th century, even though Number 10 (actually Number 5 for much of its early existence) remained the official residence of the First Lord of the Treasury, it was by no means always occupied by the Prime Minister. Many of the premiers possessed their own substantial townhouses in more pleasing locations and in better condition and were content to leave it to the chancellor of the exchequer, or indeed occasionally entirely unrelated tenants.

The building had originally been offered to Sir Robert Walpole by George II nearly a decade after Walpole had emerged as effective premier, and Walpole was said to have accepted on the understanding that the building would continue to be occupied thereafter by the First Lord of the Treasury. On 22 September 1735 Walpole took possession formally, though, in fact, he seems to have acquired the place rather in advance of this, featuring on the rate books from 1732. It was in January of that year that Baron Bothmer, the former owner of the principal building, had died, thereby enabling the king to offer the house to Walpole as an official residence appropriate to his by now well-established position as ‘Prime Minister’ (not that Walpole himself ever liked the term, or would admit to it). But it is not always appreciated that what we think of now as Number 10 in fact comprises a number of buildings cobbled together. Between 1732, when Walpole’s name first appeared on the rate books, and 1735 when he took formal possession, a considerable amount of work was undertaken in the street with neighbouring properties acquired and amalgamated into the residence. It is also worth noting that the grand Bothmer House, the core of the building, was thought of less as a house on Downing Street, and more one that faced onto St James’s Park.

If Downing Street was in an enviable strategic location, the state of the buildings acquired by Walpole were rather less so. In 1730, Bothmer had complained of ‘the ruinous condition of the premises’ and sought financial assistance to renovate his crumbling abode. Bothmer’s death offered an opportunity to undertake a significant refurbishment, with the works supervised by William Kent. In the meantime other neighbouring buildings were mopped up and by 1735 the rather humbler lodgings fronting onto Downing Street itself occupied by a Mr Chicken had been incorporated into the project after Chicken was persuaded to relocate. The extent of the changes carried out is hinted at in a letter from Walpole’s son, Horace, in which he referred to the newly amalgamated residence as ‘the palace in Downing-street’.

Just a month before Walpole officially took possession of his new townhouse, one newspaper reported that works were still ongoing in the street to make it more suitable for its new purpose:

The Right Hon. Sir Robert Walpole has purchas’d several houses in Downing Street, Westminster in order to their being pull’d down to make the way more commodious for coaches to come to his levee at his house adjoining to the Treasury in St James’s-park. [Grub Street Journal, 7 Aug. 1735]

After three years of extensive renovations, Walpole finally moved into Number 10 on 22 September 1735 and the following day held his first levee there. Three days after moving in, the Walpoles were honoured with a visit from the queen, accompanied by the duke of Cumberland and princesses Amelia and Caroline, who joined Lady Walpole for breakfast. Their visit also took in the new Treasury building, which is an important reminder that it was not just the Prime Minister’s residence that was the focus of the recent building works and that there was a concerted effort to develop a number of government buildings in the area around the same time.

In spite of its increasing identification with government buildings, though, throughout the 18th century Downing Street remained a varied location. Unsurprisingly, a number of parliamentarians and government functionaries lodged there, enjoying many of the same benefits as the Prime Minister. In March 1731 the papers reported the death of Robert Corker, MP for Bossiney, who had lodged in the street, and in September of the same year the papers reported the arrival in town of the archbishop of York, who was also a resident of Downing Street. In the 1760s James Boswell lodged there in the house of Mr Terrie, chamber keeper to the office for trade and plantations and commented of the area:

The street was a genteel street, within a few steps of the Parade; near the House of Commons, and very healthful…

In spite of all the effort that had been put into the development of 10 Downing Street, on Walpole’s fall in 1742 it ceased to be the Prime Minister’s residence. The speed with which the family was ejected still rankled a few years on, and in 1745 Walpole’s son, Horace, complained to a friend how:

Four years ago I was mightily at my ease in Downing-street, and then the good woman, Sandys [Chancellor of the Exchequer, Samuel Sandys], took my lodgings over my head, and was in such a hurry to junket her neighbours, that I had scarce time allowed me to wrap my old china in a little hay…

After the death of Walpole’s successor, Wilmington, in 1743, other Prime Ministers followed suit by offering the premises to their chancellors, using the building as offices, or occasionally renting it out totenants with no particular connection to the government. It was not until Lord North became Prime Minister in the 1770s that the place once again became the premier’s formal residence, by which time the house was again in a poor state of repair. In the 1780s major alterations were carried out, altering substantially the interiors that Walpole would have known.

Although after Lord North it was increasingly common for Downing Street to be used by the Prime Minister, it remained a rather unloved residence for much of the 19th century, with some premiers tending to use it for official events rather than as a home for themselves and their families. It was not until Benjamin Disraeli became Prime Minister that this changed, and from then on that the place became, as Walpole had intended, a functioning official residence for the First Lord of the Treasury.


Further Reading:

Boswell’s London Journal
Survey of London, vol. xiv
Letters of Horace Wapole, earl of Orford, (4 vols, 1842)

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