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10 Downing Street (and Beyond): British Prime Ministers

23/07/2003, By Candice Caster

Reader Rating: 2.9 from 13556 votes


I will never forget my first glimpse of No. 10 Downing Street - and just a glimpse it truly was, as I pressed my face against the security gate and strained to see the famous black-brick building near the end of the street. It was thrilling indeed to see the site of so many world-important pronouncements, where contrasting moments of jubilation or humiliation had been experienced, as Prime Ministers stood at the helm of their nation and attempted, wisely or unwisely, to guide its course through history.

I wanted to learn all I could about these leaders, however significant history has judged them, for they were all interesting in their own right, these people of diverse backgrounds, temperaments and talents who lived at least a small part of their lives at No. 10.

Somerset House

While even the most tenacious of English history scholars would find it a daunting task to fully educate themselves on British Prime Ministers before a trip to London, it is helpful to know something about those who played such an important part in shaping Britain as we know it today. Traces, remembrances and memorials of these figures are everywhere in London, places they have lived, prayed or played out their political games, and we may stumble across them in our ramblings or even wish to actively seek them out.

The house at No. 10 Downing Street was offered by King George I as a personal gift to Sir Robert Walpole, the Kingís ďprime minister,Ē who turned it down but lived there in his capacity as First Lord of the Treasury (which title the Prime Minister retains today) and thus it has become the official residence for all who have followed.

The Guildhall

Walpole wielded more power than any government minister before or after (aided by the fact that the King spoke no English). He was a rather raw, coarse individual, but excelled in matters of taste culturally, amassing a huge collection of artistic works, one of Britainís largest and most extraordinary.

It had been the hope that a national gallery could be created from the vast compilation of paintings, but after Walpoleís death, his rogue grandson, in what was seen as an act of treachery, sold the collection to Catherine the Great of Russia, and to this date it remains in the possession of Russia. However, while in London recently, we had the opportunity to view the Walpole Collection when 34 paintings from a total of 204 returned to England for the first time, on loan from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

St. Clement Danes

We spent a most enjoyable afternoon at Somerset House, home to the Hermitage Rooms which display a series of rotating exhibits sent over from Russia, the rooms themselves exquisite and in the Imperial Russian design. It was a pleasure to see masterpieces by Van Dyck, Rembrandt and Rubens, among others, some of which once hung in No. 10.

William Pitt the Younger was, at age 24, the youngest Prime Minister, and spent nearly 19 years in that role. He is credited with shifting control toward the House of Commons and strengthening the office of Prime Minister. Extravagant in his personal life with a penchant for entertaining (and excessive imbibing of port), he ran up enormous debts.

At the beginning of the 19th century, he tried to build an international coalition against Napoleon, but was unsuccessful, and Napoleonís victory at Austerlitz distressed him tremendously and led to his death. We saw an imposing monument of him in Guildhall in the City of London, and in St. Stephenís Hall during our tour of the Houses of Parliament. He is buried in Westminster Abbey, honored with a monument above the west door, which we have seen on our many visits to the Abbey.

Lincoln's Inn

William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli, contemporaries but rivals, and famous for their fiery debates, were literary Prime Ministers, both authors and consumers of great literature. Gladstone served four terms as Prime Minister; there is a grand statue of him in front of St. Clement Danes, the official Royal Air Force church, which we have stopped to enjoy while wandering down the Strand. One of his homes, marked by a Blue Plaque, can be found at 10 St. James Square; at this address he published some of his more important works on the scriptures and Homeric literature.

Disraeli, described by his ardent admirer Queen Victoria as ďfull of poetry, romance and chivalryĒ, was married in Mayfair at St. Georgeís, Hanover Square, famous for its fashionable weddings. (In fact, Gladstoneís name appears in this churchís guest registry from Herbert Asquithís wedding, at which five Prime Ministers were in attendance.) Disraeli studied law at Lincolnís Inn (as did Margaret Thatcher, the nationís only female Prime Minister). He died at 19 Curzon Street, the lease of which was paid for by the proceeds from his last novel and is memorialized by a statue in Parliament Square and in Statesmenís Aisle in Westminster Abbey.

Margaret MacDonald

Ramsay MacDonald was Britainís first Labour Prime Minister (1924); he was a pacifist and opposed to Britainís involvement in the first World War, resigning as Leader of the Party, but regaining the post several years after the War. One of his dwelling places is noted with a Blue Plaque at 9 Howitt Road. But a most poignant statue is the one built to commemorate his wife Margaret, social reformer and suffragette, for her charity work with the young. We came across this stirring memorial recently in the leafy square of Lincolnís Inn Fields; it portrays an angelic figure hovering around nine cherubic children. Margaret died before her husband became Prime Minister, and their daughter Isabel served as hostess for her father at No. 10.

Winston Churchill is a name the world knows, as stalwart wartime leader and great orator. We can still find him all over London; he is seated, in bronze, in the Great Hall of the Guildhall, and stands valiantly in Parliament Square, not far from St. Margaretís Church, church of the House of Commons, where he married his beloved Clementine in 1908. He huddles on a bench with Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Old Bond Street. We saw his statue in the Memberís Lobby of the House of Commons beside what is known as the Churchill Arch, the archway into the Chamber rebuilt after World War II with stones damaged during the bombing, all craggy and cracked, a deliberate reminder of the destruction and subsequent triumph.

Sir Winston Churchill

The Cabinet War Rooms are filled with Churchillís presence for it was here that he heroically led the war effort from the home front. It was an unforgettable visit for us, and an atmospheric one, as we had a look at the Cabinet Room and the Map Room, while overhead a radio broadcast echoed with Churchillís stentorian tones, the whine of an air raid siren in the background. And to take in the full range of his life, a tourist needs to visit Hyde Park Gate (where he died, at No. 28), Westminster Hall (where he lay in state) and St. Paulís Cathedral (where his funeral - a State funeral at that, most unusual for a commoner - was held).

They led lives that most of us cannot even imagine, walking with Kings and dining with Queens, the Prime Ministers of Britain who dominated the political scene as authority moved from the monarch to the House of Commons. Almost without exception, they were people of remarkable ambition and notable achievement.

It was at No. 10 Downing Street that they celebrated their victories and suffered their defeats. But all over London we can follow their path to power as they pursued it and exerted it - these fascinating Prime Ministers who cast long and tall shadows over the Land of Hope and Glory.

Candice Caster

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Re: 10 Downing Street (and Beyond): British Prime Ministers

By Jan Maxwell 04/08/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 12976 votes)

I know very well the feeling of straining to see #10. When I visited in 1979, I, too, stood behind the security gate across the street. However, I was extremely fortunate, for when I asked the guard if he'd mind posing for an American, he laughed and asked, "Would you like to come in closer for a better shot?" Suddenly, I was a mere eight feet from the front door of #10. At that moment, I could feel the invisible daggers in my back from the eyes of all the other people behind the gate. After I snapped the picture, the guard smiled and winked at me as he resumed his frozen pose in front of the famous door. That wink and the pride I felt at that privilege will forever be in my memory.

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