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Harold Macmillan and the Geography of Power at No. 10

The Cabinet Room at No. 10 Downing Street is dominated by the Cabinet table with its green covering - above it is a chandelier
The Cabinet Room at No. 10 Downing Street, courtesy of 10 Downing Street's new page on Google Arts and Culture


Researcher in Residence: Progress Report III

My name is Jack Brown and I am the first ‘Researcher in Residence’ at No. 10 Downing Street, based at the Policy Institute at King’s, King’s College London. As part of my role this year, I am investigating the ‘Geography of Power’ at the centre of British Government, and the important two-way relationship between No. 10 as a building and those that work and live within it. This blog series focuses on the rebuilding of No. 10 during Harold Macmillan’s premiership.

This is the third in a series of four blog posts on the topic. The first blog provides the historical background to the rebuilding, with the second focusing on the associated ‘geography of power’ decisions and the reconsidering of No. 10’s layout. This blog investigates Harold Macmillan’s ideas for No. 10 and its surrounding buildings – some successful, some thwarted – and how they influenced the process. The fourth part will outline the difficult rebuilding works that followed, and the final decisions that impacted upon the building. This series is part of the research for an upcoming book on the ‘Geography of Power at No. 10 Downing Street’, to be published in 2017.

The Prime Minister and No. 10’s Rebuilding

Before making the decision to renovate Nos. 10, 11 and 12 Downing Street, Harold Macmillan established the Crawford Committee, an independent body tasked with investigating their condition. In doing so, Macmillan reverted to what he called the ‘politician’s natural instinct (…) passing the buck’.[i] Seeking external advice was considered crucial to deciding whether to undertake costly works on the Prime Minister and Chancellor’s residences.[ii]

The Prime Minister claimed to have been disappointed when the Committee subsequently reported back that a major structural overhaul of the buildings was indeed required during his premiership.[iii] An independent architect was appointed, and the Committee’s recommendations, alongside those of the Ministry of Works, were to be implemented between 1960-63. During these works, the Prime Minister’s living and working quarters were relocated to Admiralty House, a grand building located just a short distance along Whitehall.

Harold Macmillan: Prime Minister 1957-63

Despite the independent nature of the Crawford Committee’s advice, however, Harold Macmillan was unable to resist attempting to influence the redesigning of the buildings that housed the centre of British Government. By virtue of inheriting No. 10 at the point that its renovation became unavoidable, Macmillan had the opportunity to make a significant and lasting impact upon Downing Street. In some of these interventions, he was successful. Others were opposed by the civil service, or by architect Raymond Erith. In each case, they reveal a great deal about the evolution of No. 10, and how the future operation of British Government was physically shaped in this period.

The Cabinet Office Finds a New Home

The rebuilding of the Downing Street houses during Harold Macmillan’s premiership presented not only an opportunity to rethink the geography of power within No. 10 Downing Street, but also the configuration of those buildings immediately around it. The Old Treasury buildings, situated adjacent to No. 10, between the Downing Street houses and Whitehall, had been severely damaged by bombing during the Second World War. The Treasury had been forced to abandon the building in 1940, relocating to the nearby Government Offices Great George Street buildings, (GOGGS), which remain its main home today.[iv]

The Crawford Committee had recommended that the reconstruction of the Old Treasury should be carried out concurrently with the required works on the Downing Street houses. Spying an opportunity, Macmillan proposed that the Cabinet Office should move into the Old Treasury building once it was renovated, locating it closer to No. 10, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Room itself. In doing so, the Cabinet Office – and the Cabinet Secretary - gained a significant promotion in Whitehall’s ‘geography of power’. In 1963, an internal doorway would connect the two buildings directly, further strengthening the links between No. 10 and the Cabinet Office.[v]

Macmillan informed his Chancellor of the Exchequer Derick Heathcoat-Amory that he had ‘made bold’ his plan to move the Cabinet Office on 7th July 1958. The Prime Minister indicated that this was to be undertaken on a temporary basis, as the Old Treasury buildings would not be large enough for the Treasury to re-occupy unless adjacent buildings were also taken over, which would not be possible for several years.[vi] The Chancellor’s response indicated no objections, but stated that he hoped that the Treasury would eventually return to the building.[vii] However, as No. 10 Appointments Secretary David Stephens had noted when looking over an earlier draft of Macmillan’s note to the Treasury, ‘The Treasury may hope this but I don’t think the Prime Minister hopes anything of the kind.’[viii]

The move was symbolically important, but also had a practical impact on the inner workings of central government. The Cabinet Secretary gained significantly greater proximity to the Prime Minister, although access depended upon unlocking the famous green baize door that linked the two buildings, as wonderfully satirised by an episode of Sir Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn’s Yes, Prime Minister entitled ‘The Key’. The Cabinet Office would also continue to provide office space for the overspill of No. 10 staff, although those advisers who found themselves located on, or threatened with location on, the ‘wrong’ side of the green baize door would often lament the difficulties they had in gaining access to the Prime Minister, when compared with those based within No. 10 itself.[ix]

Bringing the Cabinet Office into buildings adjacent to Downing Street was significant. The Prime Minister was also very hostile to suggestions that the Foreign Office should be moved elsewhere, as it was noted that ‘the Prime Minister attaches great importance to the Foreign Secretary being close at hand.’[x] In this period, then, the inter-departmental ‘geography of power’ around Downing Street was set in place for decades to come.

A Place for Sleeping or a Place of Work?

Macmillan’s attempts to influence the internal reconfiguration of No. 10 itself met with less success. An early intervention by the Prime Minister concerned the number of staff to be housed in No. 10. In this case, civil servants at No. 10 gently pushed back against the Prime Minister, and navigated around an idea that would have altered No. 10 significantly.

In mid-1958, shortly after Cabinet had given the revamp of Downing Street the go-ahead, Macmillan suggested that he would like to see as many staff moved out of Downing Street as possible, with the building used primarily for domestic purposes. However, Macmillan’s Principal Private Secretary Freddie Bishop, alongside his Appointments Secretary David Stephens, both of whom had represented No. 10 at a hearing of the Crawford Committee, believed the exact opposite to be desirable.

Bishop and Stephens had advised the Committee that No. 10 was just about adequate for its present purposes. However, its staff had spilt over into five rooms in the Old Treasury building; an arrangement born of necessity rather than design, and one that the Treasury was less than pleased with. The No. 10 staffers cautioned that ‘another Prime Minister might well wish for an increased staff with, possibly, a number of special advisers, in which case the present accommodation would be quite inadequate.’[xi] In their view, it was clearly desirable that as many staff as possible should be accommodated in office space within No. 10 Downing Street itself, and that room for further expansion should also be provided.[xii]

The ‘Garden Rooms’ in the basement at the back of No. 10 that housed the building’s pool of support staff, clerks and typists, were at the centre of this debate. These rooms were poorly lit and cramped with low ceilings. It was widely accepted that they were currently far from ideal for the use of the ‘Garden Room Girls’ who occupied them. Macmillan was inclined to turn the rooms over to confidential filing and move their occupants out of the building entirely. The Prime Minister suggested that only his small Private Office team, presumably including his Political and Personal Private Secretary John Wyndham, an unpaid temporary civil servant who operated closely alongside the Private Office as an adviser to the Prime Minister, should be retained within the No. 10 itself.

By the beginning of July, the Principal Private Secretary and the Appointments Secretary became aware that the Prime Minister’s thinking had ‘diverged’ from theirs. They privately advocated instead for the expansion and improvement of the basement rooms, noting that ‘quite a lot of it could, we believe, be made habitable for office staff and there is none too much space in No. 10 for the staff that we need to have here.’[xiii]

The two were cautious in their attempts to change the Prime Minister’s mind. Waiting until they were asked to draft a minute to the Ministry of Works on his behalf, they collaborated with the Cabinet Secretary in preparing a note that advocated for the expansion of office space at Downing Street rather than its contraction. Stephens stated privately to Bishop that, when the draft note came back from the Cabinet Secretary, it was possible that it would ‘contain things that will, at first, be unpalatable to the Prime Minister. But we must deal with this when it arrives.’[xiv]

A few days later, the Principal Private Secretary wrote directly to the Prime Minister. Stephens informed Macmillan somewhat diplomatically that his draft of the note had diverged from the Prime Minister’s view significantly:

I have been anxious lest we may have departed too far from your conception that No. 10 should be primarily domestic and should in future house the minimum of office staff. But if we have departed too far the reason is that if you have your Private Secretaries grouped around the Cabinet Room, as you clearly must, it is essential that the supporting staff, typists, confidential filers, Parliamentary Questions section, and so forth, should not be too far away.[xv]

Stephens went on to explain that using the basement ‘Garden Rooms’ only for storage would push a great deal of staff out into the further reaches of the Old Treasury building, causing ‘great practical difficulties for office working’. With the Ministry of Works already informed, the Cabinet Secretary on side, and the note already written, the Prime Minister accepted the new line in one handwritten word: ‘Yes’.[xvi] 

Harold Macmillan and the Cabinet Room

While Downing Street was renovated, the Macmillans were relocated to Admiralty House. It was from this building that Macmillan spoke to President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and it was in one of Admiralty House’s spacious reception rooms that the Cabinet would meet throughout this period. Lord Salisbury and Arthur Balfour had held Cabinet meetings at the Foreign Office at the turn of the century, around a large round table, but Cabinet had generally met at No. 10 ever since, assembling around the Cabinet Room’s long, rectangular table.[xvii]

The Cabinet Room in 1927, showing rectangular Cabinet table and No. 10 'library'.

Harold Macmillan made several alterations to the Cabinet Room, including bringing in a small table behind the room’s pillars and next to the door to the Private Secretaries’ room, from which his Private Secretaries would observe Cabinet meetings. As Macmillan biographer Alistair Horne describes, the Prime Minister ‘believed in the principle that his intimate staff should be kept fully “in the picture” of all that was going on’. Macmillan, Horne notes, used his Private Secretaries ’as his eyes and ears, and sometimes called them his “major-generals”.’[xviii]

Another of Macmillan’s lasting alterations to the Cabinet Room at No. 10 appears to have originated at Admiralty House. The Prime Minister recalled initially finding the room there ‘intolerably big’ compared to the Cabinet Room at Downing Street, and ‘tried to overcome this by having a new top made for the table in the shape of a lozenge.’ This alteration allowed those at the ends of the table to better participate in discussion, as well as allowing the Prime Minister to look the entire Cabinet in the eye.[xix] This unusual shape has been maintained ever since, although Macmillan’s description of the table top as ‘lozenge’ shaped failed to catch on; the Prime Minister’s colleagues felt it more closely resembled a coffin.[xx]

The Prime Minister had initially been very sceptical as to the capabilities of Admiralty House as a temporary home and office while the Downing Street renovation was undertaken.[xxi] However, he would soon warm to the place, and particularly to its spacious stand-in Cabinet Room. In September 1961, No. 10 Appointments Secretary David Stephens recorded that the Prime Minister had become quite taken by this ‘fine open room’ as a venue for Cabinet meetings. No. 10’s Cabinet Room, the Prime Minister had indicated, would now ‘give him some feelings of claustrophobia’ by comparison. Adding that he ‘had never liked the pillars’ in the original Cabinet Room, Macmillan sought advice as to whether they could be removed; a self-described ‘somewhat radical suggestion.’[xxii]

Architect Raymond Erith’s response to this suggestion conceded that the columns did not appear to be necessary to support the roof. They did not bear any substantial weight, and seemed instead to have been erected by architect Sir Robert Taylor in 1783 for aesthetic, rather than practical reasons. However, Erith was strongly attached to them, claiming that if they were removed, the Cabinet Room ‘will look a bit too much like the lounge of a Trust House.’[xxiii] The first Labour Prime Minister Ramsey McDonald had established the tradition of Cabinet ministers donating books to No.10, which were held in the Cabinet Room, decades earlier.[xxiv] Erith now proposed to instead remove the bookcases on the sides of the room, in order to make it more spacious without removing the pillars.[xxv]

Macmillan accepted this argument shortly afterwards, telling his Appointments Secretary on 6th October 1961 that, ‘I expect the Architect is right.’[xxvi] However, just three days later, the Prime Minister wrote directly to Erith to tell him he had had ‘second thoughts’. Macmillan claimed that ‘distinguished visitors’ found themselves ‘much impeded’ by the pillars when visiting – ‘and so do I.’ This was in part due to the presence, between and behind the pillars, of the aforementioned table that Macmillan had introduced to accommodate his Private Secretaries.[xxvii]

Macmillan was also acutely aware that, in his own words, ‘Modern Cabinets seem to get larger and larger.’ The Prime Minister had just announced a Cabinet of twenty-one members; ‘This might easily become twenty-two.’[xxviii] The large and comfortable room at Admiralty House may have been a catalyst for the original thought, but Macmillan was concerned that future Cabinets could continue to expand in size, (a prediction that would prove to be accurate), and that the room at No. 10 would not accommodate such expansion.[xxix]

Erith ultimately won this argument, and the Cabinet Room’s pillars were retained. Once again, the future expansion of operations at No. 10 had been considered, and once again it was provided for only in a strictly limited capacity. Just as office space on the upper floors of No. 10 was improved, expanded and pushed out into No. 11 slightly, the Cabinet Room was enlarged only by the removal of the historic library. Conservation was seen as key, and alteration was limited, ultimately restraining future expansion as much as it accommodated it.


The Prime Minister was also to intervene in the physical appearance of No. 10 Downing Street, as the next blog shall demonstrate. Yet Macmillan’s main attempts to steer the rebuilding of No. 10 towards serious modification were pushed back, firstly by the civil servants who worked there, and then by the architect he had appointed. Whilst the Prime Minister was far from a radical in his approach to the building, exiling a significant proportion of No. 10’s staff to the Cabinet Office, or opening up the Cabinet Room to allow for further expansion, would likely have affected the way that subsequent Prime Ministers operated and Cabinet Government was conducted. Once again, for good or for ill, it was conservation, rather than innovation, that won the day.

Part Three of Four

This series of blogs are part of a wider research project on the postwar ‘Geography of Power’ at No.10 Downing Street, to be published in 2017.

[i] H. Macmillan, Pointing the Way 1959-1961, (London: Macmillan, 1972), p.26

[ii] The total cost of the renovation was initially estimated at £400,000: Committee on the Preservation of Downing Street, Report of the Committee on the Preservation of Downing Street (London: HMSO, June 1958), pp.8-9

[iii] Macmillan, Pointing the Way, p.26

[iv] C. Brown, Whitehall: The Street that Shaped a Nation (London: Simon & Schuster, 2009), ebook

[v] A. Seldon & J. Meakin, The Cabinet Office, 1916-2016: The Birth of Modern Government (London: Biteback, 2016), Chapter Six (Google Books preview)

[vi] Prime Minister to Chancellor of the Exchequer, untitled note, 7/7/58, National Archives (‘TNA’), PREM 11/2355

[vii] Chancellor of the Exchequer to Prime Minister, untitled note, 16/7/58, TNA, PREM 11/2355

[viii] During this period, the Appointments Secretary had responsibility for the running of No. 10 as a building. D. Stephens to F. A. Bishop, ’Downing Street and Kent’s Treasury’, 30/6/58, NA, PREM11/2355

[ix] See, for example: A. Howard (ed.), The Crossman Diaries – selections from the diaries of a Cabinet Minister, 1964-1970, (London: Hamish Hamilton and Jonathon Cape, 1979), p.432, and; Bernard Donoughue, The Heat of the Kitchen, (London: Politicos Publishing, 2003), pp.168-169, and, on economic adviser Thomas Balogh; Ben Pimlott, Harold Wilson, (London: Harper Collins Publishers), p.359.

[x] F. A. Bishop to D. Stephens, ’Downing Street and Kent’s Treasury’, 30/6/58, TNA, PREM 11/2355

[xi] Committee on the Preservation of Downing Street, Minutes of Fifth Meeting, 26/11/57, TNA, WORK 15/579

[xii] F. A. Bishop to D. Stephens, ’Downing Street and Kent’s Treasury’, 30/6/58, TNA, PREM 11/2355

[xiii] D. Stephens to F. A. Bishop, ’Downing Street and Kent’s Treasury’, 1/7/58, TNA, PREM 11/2355

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] D. Stephens to Prime Minister, ‘No. 10 and the Old Treasury’, 5/7/58, TNA, PREM 11/2355

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] C. Jones, No.10 Downing Street: The Story of a House (London: BBC, 1985), p.106

[xviii] A. Horne, Macmillan 1957-1986: Volume II of the Official Biography (London: Macmillan, 1989), p.160

[xix] Macmillan, Pointing the Way, p.26.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Author unknown, ‘Downing Street Reconstruction: Note of a meeting held at No. 10 Downing Street, S.W.1., on Thursday, November 12th, 1959, at 5.00pm’, 12/11/59, ErR/103/4

[xxii] D. Stephens to R. Erith, untitled letter, 27/9/61, RIBA Archives (RIBA), ErR/103/3

[xxiii] R. Erith to D. Stephens, untitled letter, 4/10/61, RIBA, ErR/103/3

[xxiv] Jones, No.10 Downing Street, pp.118-9

[xxv] Erith to Stephens, 4/10/61, RIBA, ErR/103/3

[xxvi] D. Stephens to R. Erith, untitled letter, 6/10/61, RIBA, ErR/103/3

[xxvii] H. Macmillan to R. Erith, untitled letter, 9/10/61, RIBA, ErR/103/3

[xxviii] Ibid.

[xxix] Ibid.


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