Sunday, 8 May 2011
The name, Downing Street, is synonymous with one house in that street, which sits at number 10. No other country in the world can boast of such a world-renowned name, and certainly no other country can boast of such a world-renowned leader, as Sir Winston Churchill, who took office there on May 10th, 1940 and remained there, all through WW II as British Prime Minister, until 1945, when he surprisingly lost the General Election. He did however return as Prime Minister again in 1951 until 1955, and remained a Member of Parliament until 1964. But it was as Britain’s wartime leader, that most people remember Winston Churchill.
To get to this point in time we need to go back some months, to September 3rd 1939, when the then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, announced in a radio speech, that the British deadline for the withdrawal of German troops from Poland had expired. He said the British ambassador to Berlin had handed a final note to the German government that morning saying unless it announced plans to withdraw from Poland by 11.00, a state of war would exist between the two countries. Mr Chamberlain continued: "I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received and consequently this country is at war with Germany."
That very same day, Chamberlain appointed Winston Churchill into the government as First Lord of the Admiralty. In May 1940 Neville Chamberlain resigned after pressure from Labour members for a more active prosecution of the war, and Winston Churchill became the new head of the wartime coalition government.
Churchill loved the historical significance of Downing Street, but like the pragmatist he was, he also realised that number 10, and indeed, all the buildings in the street, were not of first class construction, and would certainly not stand up to German aerial bombardment. Downing Street, was built by Sir George Downing, who has been described as an enterprising rogue - a spy, traitor and shady property developer, who saw building houses on prime London land as a means to getting rich quick.
Downing didn’t have any intention of building quality properties, he was in this purely for the money, and so his houses were cheaply built, and lacked proper foundations, which they should have had, considering the boggy ground they were built upon. Downing even cheated on the brickwork, and instead of neat brick façades; they had lines drawn into the mortar to give the appearance of bricks.
There was nothing much that Churchill could be taught about building, as he had most famously built a very large wall at his house, Chartwell in Kent some years earlier, and at one time had held a card in Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers.
“One solitary German bomb” declared Churchill, “could demolish this building, and wipe out the entire British Government within minutes”. He demanded a bombproof bunker, large enough to hold the entire Cabinet, to be built immediately. He was informed that work had already begun the previous year, in adapting some humble storage areas, ten feet below ground, in King Charles Street, which runs adjacent to Downing Street. The site was originally planned to house the central core of government and a unique military information centre. The events of the Munich crisis in the early autumn had speeded up the process.
Churchill’s demand, of immediately, wasn’t possible, as he had made demands, which were not part of the original plans for the site. He was assured however, that the remaining work could be finished within weeks. In the meantime, somewhere else was needed, which could be used until the Cabinet War rooms were finished to his specifications.
Underground railway stations (the Tube) were at this time being considered as temporary air-raid shelters for the populace. When Churchill heard about this, he commented, “If they are good enough to protect the people of London, then surely one can be found to protect me and my cabinet?” A list of disused Underground stations was drawn up and it was found that ‘Down Street’, which was situated between Dover Street (now renamed Green Park) and Hyde Park Corner, had been redundant as a station for some years, and was currently being used as the headquarters of the Railway Executive Committee. Churchill immediately took control of the station, under the Railway Control Order of 1939, and within days it was being used by Churchill's War Cabinet, who nicknamed it, the Burrow.
The Burrow was put to good use during the limited time it was used, and several cabinet meetings, chaired by Churchill, took place there, but as soon as the new Cabinet War Rooms were ready, the entire operation moved to there, which of course was much closer to Downing Street, and the Houses of Parliament.
Churchill’s calling for the new Cabinet War Rooms, had nothing to do with personal fear, it was based entirely upon his need for an operational headquarters, as close as possible to Downing Street and Parliament, where his entire Government would be relatively safe from German bombing raids. In fact, later on, during the Battle of Britain, Churchill would often go up onto the roof of 10 Downing Street, to watch the RAF do battle with their German counterparts, in the skies above him.
When the new Cabinet War Rooms were at last ready, Churchill rushed around the corner from Downing Street, to view them, and to make sure his orders had been carried out to the letter. He was more than pleased at what he saw, with the entire site stretching over an area of three acres, and including, the Cabinet Room, the Map Room, Churchill’s own private room, complete with a bed for overnight stays, should it be necessary, a canteen, a hospital, even a shooting range.
Another room, which could be almost overlooked, if visited today, was the Transatlantic Telephone Room, which was used by Churchill to keep in touch with Washington. This room was, and still is, probably the smallest room in the whole complex, used originally as a broom cupboard, but converted on specific orders from Churchill himself, in order that nobody else could be present there when he was using the Transatlantic line to Washington. As a further precaution, to make sure his telephone conversations were kept absolutely top secret, Churchill had a complicated telephone system, installed, which had a scrambler device, codenamed Sigsaly, which was so large, that it had to be housed in the basement of the Selfridges store in Oxford Street. Sigsaly was developed by the American Bell Telephone Laboratories, to partially encipher telephone conversations from Churchill’s Telephone Room, and transmit them by cable from the 'hot-line' to the Selfridges site where it was then enciphered and sent by radio waves to the President in Washington, thus ensuring Churchill to talk to Roosevelt in complete privacy.
In 1984 the Cabinet War Rooms was designated as a historic site and opened to the general public. It has been kept, as near as possible, to how it was left at the end of WWII, even including such touches as one of Churchill’s cigar butts, left in an ashtray on his desk, and the Map Room, which ceased to be operational on 16th August 1945, the day after VJ Day, and was left almost exactly as we see it today, every book, map, chart, pin and notice occupying the same position now that they occupied then.
Not every part of the Cabinet War Rooms however, is open to the general public. It is alleged that there are underground tunnels leading from 10 Downing Street to the Thames, and from Buckingham Palace to the Thames, as well as a tunnel leading from the BBC Radio centre to Admiralty Arch. All these tunnels are supposedly inter-linked, and all link directly to the Cabinet War rooms. These tunnels were allegedly built in Victorian times and extended during WWI and further extended again in WWII.
For security reasons we will probably never know the truth about these alleged tunnels; do they really exist, or are they just wildly exaggerated stories, made up by the press and other writers over the years? The Buckingham Palace Tunnel for instance, could be the tunnel, which supposedly runs along the Mall to the underground citadel called Q-Whitehall, which is rumoured to stretch as far north as Holborn. Supporters of this theory, point to the huge extractor fan which can be seen outside the gent’s toilets in the ICA, which the ICA deny as being anything to do with them. There is also the “top-secret fortress” on the corner of the Mall and Horse Guards Road, which is said to be an entrance to Q-Whitehall, although there are supposed to be others scattered around London. The Q-Whitehall complex is also alleged to connect to 10 Downing Street via the nuclear bombproof bunker, which was built under the Ministry of Defence building at a cost over £110 million in the early 1990s.
Much of the affairs of Government, are kept for security reasons, as closely guarded secrets, and as such, we will probably never know the true facts regarding the alleged tunnels connecting Downing Street, with all these other locations. We do know however, the historical facts regarding the building of Downing Street, which has already been briefly dealt with here. That it was built by Sir George Downing, a shady property developer, who built it as a means to getting rich quick.
But how many know that Downing once worked for Oliver Cromwell, as his Chief of Intelligence, and part of his inner circle? But when Cromwell died in 1658, Downing immediately changed sides, and offered his services to King Charles II. When the diarist, Samuel Pepys heard of his U-Turn, he described Downing as “a perfidious rogue”.
After the Restoration, King Charles II rewarded Downing with honours and money, but it seems this wasn’t enough for him, and so he set about making his fortune elsewhere. With the type of contacts he had, he was soon tipped off about a piece of land around Hampden House, which was originally called Knyvett House, after Lord Thomas Knyvett, the Keeper of Whitehall Palace, who was famous for capturing Guy Fawkes in 1605 and foiling his plot to assassinate James I. The previous year, Knyvett had moved into a house next door, approximately where Number 10 Downing Street is today.
From this time, members of the royal family and the government usually lived in Hampden House. Princess Elizabeth lived there from 1604 until 1613 when she married Frederick V, Elector Palatine, and moved to Hanover. She was the grandmother of George the Elector of Hanover, who became King of England in 1714, and the great-grandmother of King George II.
Downing registered an interest in the land in 1654, but had to wait until 1682 before he finally secured the leases to the property, which allowed to him to start building there. He immediately set about pulling down what was left of existing properties, and building a cul-de-sac consisting of approximately 15 to 20 terraced houses along the northern side of Downing Street.
Houses at that time were not numbered in sequence, as they are today. They tended to be known by the name or title of their occupants, and those that were numbered, were done so quite haphazardly. The current Number 10 started out life as Number 5, and was not renumbered until 1779. The present Number 10 is actually made up of two houses joined together, with Downing’s cheap terrace house stuck on the front, on the Downing Street side, as we know it today, and a much grander building, adjoining it on the back, and overlooking Horse Guards Parade.
The grand house on Horse Guards Parade was built around 1677, as the home of the Countess of Litchfield, daughter of Charles II. The Countess was very proud of her house, and not at all happy when the cheap row of terrace houses were built so close to her property. Her father, King Charles, advised her to have a high wall built around her property in order to preserve her privacy. Her surveyor, who just happened to be Sir Christopher Wren, set about the task immediately, and that terrible row of cheap houses (Downing Street) were obliterated from her site.
When the Countess of Lichfield eventually left the house, it passed to Lord Overkirk, who was William III’s Master of the Horse, and when he died it passed yet again to Count Bothmor, and renamed Bothmor House. The last private resident of Downing Street, was Mr. Chicken. Nothing much is known about him except that he moved out in the early 1730’s. In the 1730s Number 10 began to be linked to the office of prime minister. It was a period of great change. Rule by a powerful monarch had given way only a few decades earlier to a different style of government led by Parliament and party politics. It became important to house the chief ministers in buildings grand enough for their status.
King George II took possession of both the house on Downing Street, and the house overlooking Horse Guards, and in 1732 offered them as a gift to Sir Robert Walpole, who held the title First Lord of the Treasury and effectively served as the first prime minister. Walpole however, accepted them on the condition that they were a gift to the office of First Lord of the Treasury rather than to him personally.
In 1766 it was found that parts of the house were in desperate need of repair. It was decided to take down the front adjoining the street as well as the eastern wall, which flanked the wall of the hall. In 1781 further extensive works were carried out and in June 1781, the Board of Works called attention to the dangerous state of the old part of the house inhabited by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It was during these extensive works that the fronts of number 10 and its adjoining buildings were rebuilt with bricks, as we see them today.
Downing Street today is a cul-de-sac, which runs from Whitehall to St James's Park and consists of a row of buildings numbered as 10, 11 and 12. Number 10 Downing Street is arguably the most well known address in the world, and is the official residence of the prime minister of the United Kingdom. Number 11 is the residence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and number 12, the office of the government whips. Number 10 however, is not just the family home of the Prime Minister, it is also a workplace for the many civil servants who support the Prime Minister. There is also a large staff, which includes the secretaries of the basement Garden Room, a busy press office, switchboard clerks, a unit to handle correspondence, as well as security, cleaners, and kitchen staff. The Prime Minister has his own office where he works, meets colleagues, receives important guests, and gives interviews. Regular Cabinet meetings are held in the Cabinet Room at number 10 every Thursday while Parliament is in session, and this has been going on since 1856. As number 10 was built as a private house, with another house adjoining it, the offices are spread across many rooms on different floors.
Official functions, meetings, receptions, lunches and dinners are held at number 10 almost every week. The State Dining Room holds up to 65 guests seated around a huge D-Ended mahogany dining table. For small events, such as lunch, the small dining room seats a maximum of 12 guests.
It isn't just important heads of state and official dignitaries who visit number 10; functions are also held on a regular basis for people from all walks of life and all areas of the UK, including notable achievers, public service employees and charity workers. Receptions tend to be informal gatherings, where drinks and canapés are served, as guests are encouraged to meet and talk to the Prime Minister and other hosts, and wander through the historic staterooms enjoying the art and historic objects on display.
Prior to 1989, the general public used to be able to walk into Downing Street, and pose, as many tourists did, outside the famous black door of number 10 to have their photograph taken. But in 1989, following a bombing campaign by the IRA, cast iron security gates were installed at the entrance to Downing Street on the orders of Margaret Thatcher. It is unlikely the gates will be removed in the foreseeable future, as Britain's security services still perceive there to be a threat from overseas militant/terrorist organisations, as well as other less hostile pressure groups.
There are many strange things about Downing Street, some of great significance, and others to a much lesser degree, but one curious little piece of trivia that is not widely known, is that the front door of number 10 has no keyhole and can only be opened from the inside. For the sake of the country, let us hope that there will always be someone at home to answer that famous door.
Posted by Peter Thurgood at Sunday, May 08, 2011