Previously on the History of Parliament blog we looked into the history of No.10 Downing Street, the famous residence of the Prime Minister since the mid-18th century. But who called the other houses of this well-known street home? Dr Robin Eagles, editor of our House of Lords 1715-1790 project, investigates…
In 1742 Sir Robert Walpole left 10 Downing Street for the last time. His tenure there had been relatively short, the residence, cobbled together out of several houses, having only been his official base as Prime Minister since 1735. While the intention was that it would continue to serve future premiers, Walpole’s successor, Spencer Compton, earl of Wilmington, had no need of the house, enjoying a much smarter address in St James’s. Number 10 was thus taken over by the chancellor of the exchequer, Samuel Sandys and well into the next century prime ministers often eschewed Number 10 in favour of other houses.
Walpole’s departure did not mean an end to the Walpole family’s links to Downing Street. In 1738, not long after Walpole had moved into Number 10, his brother, Horatio Walpole, acquired several other houses in the street and some of these properties remained in family hands for much of the rest of the century.
In spite of the presence of the Prime Minister at Number 10 and of both Numbers 11 and 12 ultimately being employed as government offices, Downing Street was not an entirely fashionable address. Many of the houses – Number 10 included – had been built fairly shoddily when the street was developed by Sir George Downing in the late 17th century on land occupied by the former grand town residence, Hampden House. Technically, Sir Christopher Wren had been involved in the design, but in reality much of the work was quickly and cheaply done. Even the neat brick frontage was ‘fake’: the elevations comprising a mixture of bricks and rubble overpainted with neat lines of mortar to make it look like high quality brickwork.
Despite this, given the location, a number of MPs and others associated with Westminster did live in Downing Street alongside the Prime Minister and or the Chancellor. Samuel Martin, later notorious for his duel with John Wilkes, had an official residence there as secretary to the Treasury. He clearly thought it rather poky because when his father attempted to offload one of his younger sons on him, Martin protested that the place was ‘too small’ to accommodate him. William Wilberforce was another well-known MP to live there for at least a time.
However, many of the houses, or parts of them, were home to people unconnected with government or Parliament. One of the better-known temporary inhabitants of the street was James Boswell, who found lodgings in the house of Mr Terrie, chamber keeper to the office of trade and plantations. Boswell took an apartment ‘up two pair of stairs’ with the use of ‘a handsome parlour all the forenoon’ in return for 40 guineas a year. Dinner with the family at a shilling a time was also part of the deal. Boswell described the street at the time as ‘genteel’ and ‘very healthful’. A few years before Boswell was there, the novelist Tobias Smollett, who was also a surgeon, set up a practice in the street.
Of course, many of those living in the now demolished sections of old Downing Street were rather less well known than such literary figures. One way in which one can discover information about some of the lesser-known Downing Street addresses is through insurance records. They chart a story of frequent change of hands and of multiple occupancy of some of the properties. They also indicate people of varying social status. In 1791, Number 5 was occupied by Ann Somers, a spinster; by 1801 the house’s insurance was made out to another occupier, Mary Howard. Number 7 seems to have passed through several hands. In 1791, insurance was taken out by Mercy Abbott, in 1799 by Edward Raven, in 1802 by Charles Beaumont and in 1818 by Hannah Simpson. Mary Sparrow, a widow, had insurance covering Numbers 22 and 25 in 1816, so presumably let lodgings in at least one of those.
Perhaps the most flamboyant of all the residents of Downing Street in the period was ‘His Excellency Count Zenobio’, who had an insurance policy at Number 2 in 1791 (the same year as another policy was taken out for the same address by James Fowler). In 1794 Zenobio, a Venetian aristocrat, was ejected from the country for his radical activities. He later staged a return in 1807 during the Talents ministry probably thanks to his contacts among some of the old Foxite Whigs, and by the time of his death in 1818 he was living in Duke Street, Westminster.
If much of the housing stock in the 1730s was described as ‘very old and in bad repair’ by the early 19th century the impression is that parts of Downing Street were very shabby indeed. By the 1820s plans were afoot to redevelop the site once again and in 1825 Numbers 1 to 8 were demolished to make way for a new building designed by John Soane to house the Board of Trade and the Privy Council offices. Soane’s building was then itself remodelled under 20 years later by Charles Barry, architect of the present Palace of Westminster. The house Boswell had lodged in was one of those to disappear.
The owners of the houses scheduled for demolition were compensated fairly generously: the owner of Number 4 receiving £1,250 3s. 2d. for his trouble. The greatest sum went to the pub owners, Whitbreads, owners of the Axe and Gate, an inn that had stood at the corner of Downing Street and Whitehall for generations. Indeed, parts of what became Downing Street had originally been occupied by a brewery belonging to the Abbey of Abingdon. In return for the loss of the pub, Whitbreads received over £2,000.
The remaining buildings of Downing Street, then, mask a story of a very different sort of place to the centre of power: a street of ill-built lodging houses nestling beside finer London residences, with a venerable pub on the corner.
For insurance records, see collection at London Metropolitan Archives
J.R. Dinwiddy, Radicalism and Reform in Britain, 1780-1850 (1992)
Boswell’s London Journal, 1762-1763, ed. Frederick A. Pottle
Survey of London XIV (St Margaret, Westminster)
Follow the research of our House of Lords 1715-1790 project on the ‘Georgian Lords‘ page.