Number Ten

Well, chums, it’s election time again. Yr Humble Chronicler must confess to being uncertain who to vote for. I have no confidence whatsoever in the major political parties and that nice Mr Saxon isn’t running this time (what happened to that guy, anyway?)

I’ll probably just end up writing an obscene message on the ballot paper. Why don’t we have the “None of the above” option like they do in Australia?

Well, I suppose I might as well write something vaguely politics-related. So let’s talk about Downing Street, shall we?

Westminster has been the home of British politics, one way or another, since the 11th century. The misprint-inviting King Cnut was believed to have been resident here during his reign, long before it was even called Westminster. At that time, it was known as Thorney Island for two very obvious reasons. Firstly, it was thorny, secondly, it was an island. Originally simply a royal residence, the Palace of Westminster was sited where it was simply in order to have access to the river – then by far the quickest way of getting from place to place. Under Henry VIII, who had just acquired some fancy new digs from Cardinal Wolsey at Whitehall, its function became primarily a meeting place for Parliament. In 1834, the much-altered Houses of Parliament were burnt down when a clearout went horribly wrong (we’ve all been there, amirite?). Despite William IV’s suggestion that Parliament move to Buckingham Palace, the new house that he hated, Charles Barry’s new Gothic-style buildings were constructed at Westminster. John Soane’s proposal for a neo-Classical building (which can be seen in his house) was turned down, despite Soane’s work on the old buildings.

So that’s a brief history of Parliament at Westminster. From this, we may conclude that a) tradition was important and b) monarchs saw Parliament as a handy way of filling houses they didn’t want any more.

Sir George Downing in an extremely pimp outfit.

As for Downing Street, that was built in the early 1680s by Sir George Downing, a deeply shifty figure described by Samuel Pepys as a “perfidious rogue” – and not in a good way. He was undoubtedly a capable politician, but he was also something of a turncoat when it suited him – he served under both Cromwell and Charles II, claiming to the latter that he had been undergoing some sort of incredibly long moment of madness. He also made a heinous amount of money in property, although I suppose it would be churlish to hold that against him.

Sir Robert Walpole in an extremely pimp coat.

Number 10 Downing Street, as we know it today, was originally three houses. The house behind Number 10 was owned by the Crown from 1733 and, by coincidence, the Crown also had a lease on Number 10 itself at the time. These, together with the house next door (owned by the delightfully-named Mr Chicken) were given to Sir Robert Walpole by King George II in gratitude for his services. Walpole was not technically the first Prime Minister, as the title didn’t exist as such, but as near as dammit. His actual titles were First Lord of the Treasury, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons. He was offered these titles in 1721, in large part due to the fact that he was one of the few major politicians not to have played some nefarious part in the notorious South Sea Bubble, and held office for 21 years. If you assume him to be the first Prime Minister, that also makes him the longest-serving Prime Minister.

Back to the address. Walpole semi-refused George II’s gift. He said that he would take it on condition that it was a present to the First Lord of the Treasury rather than to him personally. George agreed. The three houses were joined together to form the massive residence that exists today, and they have been the traditional home of the Prime Minister ever since.

In fact, passing time would show the houses in Downing Street to have been rather badly constructed, prone to subsidence. Few of the Prime Ministers (or First Lords, or whatever) actually lived there – in any case, most of them already had much nicer houses of their own. It was only really in the mid-19th century that it became effectively de rigeur for Prime Ministers to actually live there.

The present Number 10 is not, technically, the original building given to Walpole. Further architectural problems were becoming evident throughout the 20th century, and in 1960 the whole lot was pulled down and replicated on site with better foundations using as much original material as possible. Even then, there were extensive problems with dry rot in the “new” building, and work was undertaken to address this in the late ’60s and early ’80s.

One of the oddities of the current building is that, as you can see, it’s built of dark grey bricks. Except it’s not. It is, and always has been, built of yellow Kentish bricks. But what with over a century of pollution, the bricks had been stained quite black with soot. This was discovered during the 19th century rebuild when the bricks were cleaned up. In order to maintain a sense of consistency, the cleaned bricks were painted black. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

Anyway, happy voting tomorrow, as long as you’re not voting for any of the people I hate.

Further viewing

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gdXfML9gUmU – If politics is depressing you, here is a video of an Italian woman singing about potatoes.

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Filed under 18th century, 19th century, 20th Century, Buildings and architecture, Current events, Geography, History, London, Medieval London, Notable Londoners, Politics, Stuart London, Thames, Westminster

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