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Living above the shop: Margaret Thatcher at Downing Street

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Margaret Thatcher moved into Number 10 in June 1979 shortly after winning her first general election. She was not greatly impressed by the untidy flat and dullish official rooms, and when she left Downing Street eleven and a half years later, the house was much enhanced.

These photos show the mark Lady Thatcher made on Downing Street.

On arrival, she described the Cabinet Ante Room as resembling ‘a down-at-heel Pall Mall club, with heavy and worn leather furniture’, while the rooms upstairs had a ‘furnished house to let’ feel about them.

A formidable premier

Intense interest surrounded Britain’s first ever woman Prime Minister: female monarchs had been not uncommon in British history, and a queen had been on the throne for over a quarter of a century. The idea of a woman presiding over Number 10, however, was something entirely new. How would she cope with power, with all the men around her? How would her husband, Denis, manage his role?

Margaret Thatcher proved to be a formidable premier. No Prime Minister since had been the subject of so many anecdotes, many complimentary. One such story, undoubtedly apocryphal, had Mrs Thatcher taking her Cabinet out to dinner. The waiter asked her for their order: ‘Beef,’ she replied. ‘And the vegetables, madam?’ enquired the waiter. ‘Oh, they will have beef too.’ It is to her credit that she rather enjoyed such caricatures.

The nation admired her for her tenacity and courage, exemplified by her role in the Falklands War of 1982, the defeat of the striking miners and militant trade unionism in 1984/85, and the personal courage and strength of will she displayed after the bombing of the Grand Hotel, Brighton, in 1984. Her close relationship with President Reagan of the USA and Mikhail Gorbachov of the USSR, and her participation in the ending of the Cold War, gave her an international standing of a kind no British premier had enjoyed since Churchill.

Home from home

Her hard work, and ability to survive on just a few hours’ sleep, were legendary. Rising at 6am or earlier, she would begin by listening to BBC Radio 4, while working on papers in the flat, having her hair done, eating breakfast and getting ready for the day.

One reason why Caroline Stephens, her Diary Secretary in the Private Office, was so valued by officials was that she would be their envoy, communicating with her in the second-floor flat while she was in the bath or dressing.

‘Crawfire’ (Cynthia Crawford) was her personal assistant throughout her time at Number 10, as invaluable to her in clothes and other personal matters as Churchill’s valets had been to him forty years before.

Meetings began in the first-floor study at 9am, with her Principal Private Secretary talking over the day ahead. A light lunch was often taken in the flat while she was working; if it was a Prime Minister’s Questions day she would have aides helping her prepare. She liked to make her own meals (a quick salad or poached egg on Bovril toast, for example).

Afternoons were spent working in the Prime Minister’s room in the Commons. The late evening was spent in the sitting room of the second-floor flat at Number 10, where she was often joined by close aides; kicking off her high heels, she would put her feet up and drink a glass or two of whisky.

At 10 or 11pm she would go into the kitchen to prepare a meal: eggs and cheese were the staple ingredients, or pre-prepared dishes from the deep freeze; her ingenuity was greatly enhanced by the arrival on the scene in the mid-1980s of the ‘microwave’.

According to her daughter Carol, ‘One MP was so horrified to find his chain of thought constantly interrupted by the Prime Minister bobbing up and down to check on the simmering frozen peas that he read the riot act to her.’

She kept her head clear for her boxes, which would always be completed before she turned in for the night at 1am or later.

Contemporary art

Mrs Thatcher left her mark on Number 10. Her most enduring contribution was to bring in the architect Quinlan Terry to make the three Drawing Rooms look more stately. She was guided in her quest by Carla Powell, the formidable wife of her formidable Foreign Office Private Secretary, Charles Powell.

Mrs Thatcher brought contemporary British art to Number 10, including the Henry Moore Alcove on the main passageway between the Hall and the Cabinet Ante Room. Find out more about Downing Street art.

The first-floor study was redecorated to her taste. She chose a light grey paper for the walls and cream-coloured damask for the furniture. She was intensely proud of her study: on one occasion a guest spilled coffee over the settee and carpet. Typically, Mrs Thatcher spent twenty minutes herself trying to remove any trace of a stain.

She called her domestic life ‘living over the shop’, recalling her early years living above her father’s grocer’s shop in Grantham, Lincolnshire.

The large corner room overlooking Horse Guards Parade and St James’s Park was converted from a bedroom into the main sitting room, and she decorated it with two settees covered in a floral pattern of red and blue on a cream background. The cushions, curtains and window seats all matched. In a recessed wall cupboard she arranged part of her large collection of Derby and Staffordshire china.

As she said of the flat, ‘it quickly became my refuge from the rest of the world’.

Take a virtual tour of 10 Downing Street.

Abridged from ‘10 Downing Street, The Illustrated History’ by Anthony Seldon, (Harper Collins, 1999).

Copyright . This article was produced as part of the No10 Guest Historian series, coordinated by History & Policy.

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