Skip to main content

Rebuilding No. 10 Downing Street

'General View of Downing Street', with renovation works nearing completion, 16 August 1963 (Credit: The National Archives, WORK 59/13)

Researcher in Residence: Progress Report IV

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. I have been 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 reconstruction of No. 10 during Harold Macmillan’s premiership.

This is the fourth and final entry in a series of blog posts on the topic. The first blog provides the historical background to the rebuilding; the second focuses on the associated ‘geography of power’ decisions and the reconsidering of No. 10’s layout; and the third blog examines how the Prime Minister intervened in the redesigning of No. 10 and its surrounding buildings. This fourth and final part investigates the reconstruction of No. 10 itself, Harold Macmillan’s final attempts to intervene, and offers some concluding thoughts on the series.

This series is part of the research for an upcoming book on the ‘Geography of Power at No. 10 Downing Street’, to be published by Haus Publishing in 2018.

A ‘Rather Sudden’ Decision

In July 1957, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan appointed the independent Crawford Committee to investigate and recommend a course of action for dealing with the deteriorating buildings at Nos. 10, 11 and 12 Downing Street. It reported less than a year later, recommending that the existing structures be substantially rebuilt, with the Prime Minister temporarily rehoused in the interim. The Cabinet endorsed this course of action in May 1958, and the architect Raymond Erith was chosen to oversee this major project. Erith, a self-described ‘progressive classicist’, was to work alongside, but independently of, the Ministry of Works.[i]

The Ministry selected construction firm Mowlem as the contractor for the job, and were pleased to note that Mowlem’s tender was not only the cheapest received, but in fact appeared to be so low in cost as to be ‘evidently loss making’.[ii] The prestige of the job, it seems, was reward enough for Mowlem. As the Minister of Works, Lord John Hope, informed the Prime Minister, the next best tender was expected to cost £10,500 more.[iii] This ultimately seems to have offset the concerns of both Erith and the Prime Minister that the firm lacked experience.[iv]

Raymond Erith dispatched an assistant to performed limited surveys of the Downing Street houses to assess their condition in the winter of 1958/9.[v] Unfortunately, the extent of these surveys was necessarily restricted by the Prime Minister’s reluctance to move out while they were undertaken. The upcoming renovation of the houses was subsequently estimated to cost £464,000, based upon what little was then known about the condition of the buildings. The decision to go ahead was described by the Ministry of Works as a ‘rather sudden’ one, and the Macmillans moved out of Downing Street, and into Admiralty House, in August 1960. Despite the rush, the Prime Minister was eager to return to the iconic No. 10 as soon as possible, and was influential in setting a target of August 1962 for his return.[vi] However, as Macmillan biographer Alistair Horne describes, ‘anyone with Macmillan’s experience of British building methods could have foreseen’ that this ambition was likely to prove optimistic.[vii]

Unpleasant Surprises

It soon became clear that the houses at Downing Street were in a much worse condition than had first been indicated. A team of ex-miners, sent down to reconstruct the houses’ timber foundations, found them shallow and severely water damaged, rotted and crumbling.[viii] The walls of Downing Street’s superstructure were found to consist of rubble with timber, rather than proper brickwork, creating the ideal conditions for dry rot. Many were also suffering from insect damage. Wartime strengthening work on several of No. 10’s floors, performed alongside the construction of an air raid shelter in the basement, had proved inadequate, leaving several rooms unstable.[ix] Many of the diseased walls were also significantly ‘out of true’ (i.e. not properly aligned) and structurally unsound; the BBC’s Christopher Jones recorded that in some cases, ‘apparently solid walls were held up only by the plaster covering them’.[x]

Ultimately, more than half of the existing fabric of the building had to be renewed, with the foundations substantially underpinned, the main brick walls grouted or reconstructed entirely, all roofs and most floors replaced, and modern services installed, alongside the planned structural alterations designed to expand and improve No. 10’s working spaces.[xi] A great deal of wood treatment was required throughout to try and prevent future deterioration; in some cases, repairs on internal doors became so intricate that they ended up costing two or three times the value of a new door.[xii]

As early as April 1961, it had become clear that the original anticipated completion date for the Downing Street houses had already become unachievable. A letter from Mowlem to architect Raymond Erith struck a pessimistic tone:

We have felt rather concerned during the last few months about the many problems arising on the work at Nos. 10 and 11 Downing Street. We think you will agree that as the pulling down has proceeded, it has been found that far more complete restoration work will be necessary than may have been envisaged before work started, owing to the state of the existing buildings.[xiii]

The letter also cited the high quality of the services, decorations and details demanded by the building – and by Erith himself – as an additional cause for delay. Noting that Downing Street was the home and office of the British Prime Minister, and not simply ‘a very plain office type of building’, the contractors expected that more time would be required to complete it.[xiv] Unfortunately, further delays were just around the corner.

The Importance of Tea Breaks

It is perhaps appropriate that work on such an historic British building was disrupted by a dispute over cups of tea. Tools were downed at Downing Street on 2nd October 1961, alongside a number of sites across London, in response to a new Working Rule, which saw weekly working hours reduced, but with the caveat that tea breaks would no longer be paid. The strike began unofficially, but was declared official on 4th October by the Amalgamated Union of Painters and Decorators. Most affiliated unions followed next day. The Minister of Works now considered the target for completion of August 1962 as increasingly unlikely, noting that a fortnight’s ideal weather had been lost. A suggested compromise – bringing tea out to the men without a formal break in what was described as a ‘free tea’ solution – was rejected.[xv]

By November 1961, it was reported that the Downing Street programme was three months behind, although much of this delay was attributed to the unexpectedly high level of refurbishment work required, rather than the strikes.[xvi] A revised estimate predicted that works on Downing Street would cost £100,000 more than first envisaged. One year later, this figure rose once more, to £300,000. Whilst structural problems with the buildings were continuing to drive up costs, a series of strikes over the preceding 12 months, including a plumbers’ strike from May-August 1962 that had shut down the site completely, were now taking their toll.[xvii]

By May 1962, Erith was becoming increasingly panicked by events at Downing Street. The architect wrote to the Ministry of Works to inform them that:

As you know I have for some time been worried about the state of affairs at Downing Street. So far as I can see the plumbers’ strike is no nearer to a settlement than it ever was. The labour force is out of balance, the men appear to be doing next to nothing, and the contractor seems to be helpless.

The architect stated that it was not his business, or his decision to make, but urged the government to intervene and make a substantial change in the existing arrangements: ‘money is so obviously being wasted.’[xviii]

Erith was also critical of the contractors themselves: ‘I think everyone is far too ready to see Mowlem’s difficulties and cannot help feeling that what is really wanted is a good kick in the pants all round.’[xix] The architect claimed that the contractors had somehow managed to infect almost everyone else on the site with a defeatist attitude’ that made delays inevitable, and also complained about ‘red tape’ from the Ministry of Works holding up decisions.[xx] For their part, the contractors found it difficult to work with Erith, citing his fixation on detail and tendency to change his mind at the last minute.[xxi]

The anticipated deadline for completion was extended further, and set at August 1963 for Downing Street and October of the same year for William Kent’s Treasury building. A bonus system was brought in to incentivise rapid completion of the works, with the Ministry of Works noting with some concern that Parliament had show ‘considerable interest’ in the lack of progress on Downing Street.[xxii]

The Grand Staircase at No.10 Downing Street, complete with portraits of past Prime Ministers, 6 August 1960 (Credit: The National Archives, WORK 59/13)
There are cracks in the wall adjoining the staircase.
Damage to the staircase prior to renovation, 6 August 1960 (Credit: The National Archives, WORK 59/13)

Macmillan’s Caution

One further factor also complicated the works on Downing Street. Harold Macmillan had been acutely aware of public perceptions from the start of the process, with the appointment of the Crawford Committee designed as a counter to accusations that the Prime Minister was spending public money on improving Downing Street at his own volition. This concern continued throughout the process. As a member of Erith’s office staff told historian Anthony Seldon: ‘The principal point Macmillan impressed on Erith was that the rebuilding should not look expensive.’[xxiii] However, Erith’s vision for No. 10 did not sit easily alongside this advice.

A letter to a Ministry official from the final stages of the project in December 1962 reveals the depths of Erith’s anguish over the Prime Minister’s insistence that as plain and unpretentious decoration as possible be used to finish Downing Street’s interiors:

I ought to have written to you sooner but after I saw you I felt too despondent to say anything (…) For the last 4 ½ years most of my time and thought has been spent on Downing Street. Now, when the time has come for the final effort needed to set the whole thing off I am told in effect that the house is to be virtually undecorated (…) The only way to justify what we have done is by making the place look as if it was worth keeping (…) At the end of this job I want people to say, “My word, this house is something, of course they were right to keep it”.[xxiv]

Continued and expensive delays to construction at Downing Street also led the Ministry of Works to insist on economies being made in the finishing of the house wherever possible. Erith stated with regret that he now feared that the press would greet the reconstructed Downing Street with disappointment and criticism: ‘Is this all we get for £900,000?’[xxv]

In addition, Erith complained that both Harold and Lady Dorothy Macmillan seemed not to trust his judgement. The architect appeared on the verge of resigning over the finishing of No. 10, and particularly the historic Cabinet Room, which the Macmillans were insisting on decorating as plainly as possible:

The P.M. thinks what I shall do will look extravagant, and probably both he and Lady Dorothy think that anything but cream or pastel shades might look out of place or ridiculous in some way or other. (…) If the Prime Minister and Lady Dorothy have no confidence in me I hope they will find someone else who could do the job properly and who they trust.[xxvi]

Erith asked the Ministry of Works to convey his displeasure to the Prime Minister, ‘without being so tactful that he does not know what it is about’.[xxvii] Ministry officials replied, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the present Prime Minister was ultimately in charge of the works, and that his ‘personal tastes’ had to be accepted.[xxviii]

Despite his own personal feelings on the matter, Erith was obliged to carry out the Prime Minister’s wishes. As a biography of the architect notes, he was ‘heartbroken’.[xxix] Erith was a classicist, seeking to accurately restore the historic buildings to their former glory. He appears to have regarded the public sector’s ‘economy campaign’ as philistine, confiding to a friend that: ‘They are talking about using good modern furniture. I asked if bad modern would not be cheaper still. They said, quite seriously, no they didn’t think so. I despair.’[xxx]

Not Quite Finished…

The Prime Minister moved back into Downing Street in September 1963, more than a year later than had been first anticipated. As Alistair Horne surmises, ‘Despite the greater space and finer rooms of Admiralty House, he was glad to be back; the “atmosphere of its historic past” doubtless made it all the harder to contemplate leaving, and he thought the architect and builders had “certainly done a good job” at No. 10’.[xxxi] The Old Treasury, now home to the Cabinet Office, would be ready for occupation the following year.

The Downing Street part of the contracted works, estimated at £400,000 when the initial decision was taken to rebuild, and £464,000 following a limited survey in the winter of 1958/9, had ended up costing £1.15 million. Strikes were blamed for an estimated £208,000 of the Downing Street expenditure.[xxxii] The unexpectedly poor condition of the houses, and the high quality of the work that Erith demanded, accounted for the remainder. Unfortunately, however, expenditure on the reconstruction of No. 10 Downing Street was not yet complete.

In 1964, dry rot was discovered in the State Dining Room, in the second floor toilet, and under the Cabinet Room patio. The following year, it was found in the State Drawing Room (otherwise known as the Pillared Room).[xxxiii] Prime Minister Harold Wilson initially tried to keep the problem quiet, coming so soon after what had been branded a full overhaul of No. 10 between 1959-63.[xxxiv] Wilson ordered a full investigation to be performed, before news of the issue became public.

Raymond Erith ultimately accepted blame for the oversight, but claimed that the only way of avoiding the possibility of dry rot ‘would have been to raze the building to the ground and start afresh’. It was possible that the dry rot had been ‘activated’ by a leak from an pipe accidentally burst by Mowlem during restorative works on the house; regardless, the problem was attributed to a ‘technical, rather than a political’ error, which had occurred against a background of spiralling costs, and was seen as understandable if inconvenient for the Prime Minister to explain to the public.[xxxv] Wilson finally accepted the need for repairs to be undertaken in 1966, although the serious disruption caused by this work led to its being terminated before the Ministry of Works felt that it was fully complete.[xxxvi]

By 1969, discolouration was found on the walls in the White Drawing Room, making it almost certain that dry rot was also present there. Whilst No. 10’s occupants were reported to be in a state of denial regarding the extent of the problem, the Ministry of Works regarded this ‘wishful thinking’, with potentially serious consequences: ‘the most alarming aspect is the (admittedly slight) possibility of collapse; the concrete ceilings are held up only by low grade brickwork, powdering mortar and rotting timber.’[xxxvii] Prime Minister Edward Heath eventually had to accept that even more disruptive work was required and unavoidable, and work was finally complete by 1973, ten years after Raymond Erith’s initial revamp of Downing Street had come to its end.[xxxviii]

Amazing, the stuff you find in cupboards: Steel Helmets, left over from the Second World War, in No. 10's broom cupboard, 6 August 1960 (Credit: The National Archives, WORK 59/13)

Was It All Worth It?

Not all agreed that restoring No. 10 Downing Street had been the correct choice. In a note to Prime Minister Harold Wilson explaining the need for 1966’s dry rot works at Downing Street, the Minister of Public Building and Works analysed the building’s recent reconstruction, in an attempt to glean some lessons from the No. 10 experience. Considering that the original estimate for No. 10’s reconstruction under Harold Macmillan had more than doubled, without including the additional dry rot treatment that was later required under Wilson and Heath, he concluded that:

If this first estimate had been realistic, the course followed was prudent, but for the final cost, we could probably have rebuilt the house completely. (…) My conclusion is that all that has gone here is a risk inherent where selection between one part and another has to be made in the rehabilitation of an old building.[xxxix]

Noting how intrusive the post-1963 works to repair dry rot had been to the operation of No. 10, Appointments Secretary John Hewitt was reported to have said in 1971 that ‘the terms of reference of the Crawford Committee were misconceived and that No 10 should have been pulled down. He still believed that this would be the best policy if the PM was going to be upset every two or three years [by further remedial works].’[xl]

However, it seems appropriate to return here to the words of the Crawford Committee, who had first concluded that Downing Street must be preserved and renovated. Having investigated the option of rebuilding, or simply moving the Prime Minister elsewhere, the Committee concluded that: ‘The houses, and especially No. 10, have many historical associations and we should deplore their demolition.’[xli] Whilst it was possible (but equally far from certain) that an entirely new building could have been constructed for a similar or even lower cost, the decision had been taken that the hundreds of years of history contained within the short row of terraced houses in Downing Street was worth preserving.

Concluding Thoughts

Prior to Erith’s rebuilding, No. 10 Downing Street was in an intolerable state, and had become an unsuitable base for the modern premiership. The extent to which it had become unfit for purpose was illustrated during US President Dwight Eisenhower’s famous televised ‘fireside chat’ at No. 10 with Harold Macmillan, in the runup to the 1959 general election. The President of the United States, visiting for an unprecedented and historic live television broadcast with the Prime Minister, was said to have been concerned that the floor could give way under the weight of the television cameramen and their equipment.[xlii]

Such was the historic importance and charm of the building that successive Prime Ministers had stalled or avoided the substantial rebuilding that Harold Macmillan finally sanctioned, which saw him uprooted and housed in temporary accommodation for almost half of his premiership. However, these works meant that the Downing Street houses were made more robust than they had been for over 200 years, with the historic first-floor State Rooms and Cabinet suite of rooms preserved for posterity and the building’s capacity for both living and working vastly improved.

Downing Street was now a much more effective home and office for the British Prime Minister. To start with, the houses were no longer a fire risk, and for the first time in many years, it was no longer necessary to employ an industrial fireman fulltime to watch over the building.[xliii] With the building’s foundations strengthened, the same was true of the permanent on-site carpenter, who had previously been retained to constantly adjust No. 10’s windows and doors as they moved in and out of true.[xliv] Modern services were installed, and some degree of sense was made of the building’s mishmash of hundreds of years of architectural adjustments. No. 10 was expanded, with the Chancellor pushed out towards No. 12 Downing Street, which was rebuilt to its former height in red brick (Nos. 10 and 11 had their brickwork painted black, to mimic the sooty appearance they had before renovation). Additional office space was opened up on the upper floors, and the building’s capacity was expanded as well as improved in quality.

By retaining the bulk of Downing Street’s historic buildings, a sense of No. 10’s past was preserved, which still has a powerful impact upon those who work within it today. Harold Wilson, who was Prime Minister for almost eight years over two separate terms, pondered the significance of the building’s history in a 1975 interview with the BBC World Service: ‘I think that unless you have a sense of history, and of tradition, and of the people who have been there, you can’t apply yourself to the problems of the present.’[xlv] Margaret Thatcher, No. 10’s longest twentieth-century resident, keenly felt 250 years of great historical moments resonating throughout the building:

All Prime Ministers are intensely aware that, as tenants and stewards of No.10 Downing Street, they have in their charge one of the most precious jewels in the nation's heritage. It is a heritage which every Prime Minister guards with care and affection (…) the feeling of Britain’s historic greatness which pervades every nook and cranny of this complicated and meandering old building.[xlvi]

Whilst still ‘complicated and meandering’ today, despite numerous further adaptations, No. 10 Downing Street remains a house full of history, intrigue and power. It is also one of the most famous houses, with one of the most famous front doors, in the world. Its history is fascinating and significant. Long may it be preserved.


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 2018 by Haus Publishing.

This project has been made possible by the generous support of the Strand Group; the Policy Institute at King’s, King’s College London; Hewlett Packard Enterprise; King’s College London’s Widening Participation Department; the Brilliant Club and No. 10 Downing Street. Special thanks are owed to Jan Gökçen for research assistance.


[i] L. Archer (ed.), Raymond Erith: Progressive Classicist 1904-1973 (Salisbury: Sir John Soane’s Museum, 2004), pp.14-7

[ii] Ministry of Works, ‘Post War History of Work at Nos. 10, 11 and 12 Downing Street’, attached to: P. F. Hicks to PS/Secretary, ‘No 10 Downing Street’, 16/7/70, National Archives, WORK 12/580

[iii] J. Hope to Prime Minister, ‘Downing Street Contract’, 5/4/60, Erith Archives, ErR/100/1

[iv] D. Stephens to R. Erith, ‘Downing Street Reconstruction’, 28/3/60, Erith Archives, ErR/100/1, and; Prime Minister to Minister of Works, ‘Downing Street Contract’, 2/4/60, Erith Archives, ErR/100/1, and; R. Erith to D. Stephens, ‘Downing Street Reconstruction’ 7/4/60, Erith Archives, ErR/100/1

[v] Ministry of Works, ‘Post War History of Work at Nos. 10, 11 and 12 Downing Street’

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] A. Horne, Macmillan 1957-1986: Volume II of the Official Biography (London: Macmillan, 1989), p.266

[viii] C. Jones, No.10 Downing Street: The Story of a House (London: BBC, 1985), p.154

[ix] R. J. Minney, No.10 Downing Street: A House in History (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1963), p.429-30

[x] Jones, No.10 Downing Street, p.154

[xi] Archer, Raymond Erith, p.55

[xii] Jones, No.10 Downing Street, p.154

[xiii] John Mowlem and Co. Ltd. to R. Erith, ‘Nos. 10, 11 and 12 Downing Street, S.E.1’, 24/4/61, Erith Archives, ErR/103/2

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] A. S. Lee to R. Erith, Untitled Letter, 12/10/61, Erith Archives, ErR/101/4

[xvi] Author unknown, ‘Report on Downing Street’ 28/11/61, Erith Archives, ErR/103/2

[xvii] Ministry of Works, ‘Post War History of Work at Nos. 10, 11 and 12 Downing Street’

[xviii] R. Erith to M. Bennitt, untitled letter, 1/5/62, Erith Archives, ErR/100/1

[xix] R. Erith to M. Bennitt, 22/5/62, Erith Archives, ErR/100/1

[xx] R. Erith to K. Newis, untitled letter, 19/4/63, NA, CM23/177, and; R. Erith to F. R. Rothwell, untitled letter, 31/5/61, NA, CM23/175

[xxi] G. R. Lock to J. E. Jones, ‘Downing Street and Treasury Reconstruction’, 4/4/63, NA, CM 23/177

[xxii] Ministry of Works, ‘Post War History of Work at Nos. 10, 11 and 12 Downing Street’

[xxiii] A. Seldon, 10 Downing Street: An Illustrated History (London: HarperCollins, 1990), p.34

[xxiv] R. Erith to M. W. Bennitt, untitled letter, 4/12/62, Erith Archives, ErR/103/3

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] Ibid.

[xxviii] M. W. Bennitt to R. Erith, untitled letter, 27/12/62, Erith Archives, ErR/103/3

[xxix] Archer, Raymond Erith, p.57

[xxx] R. Erith to D. Hicks, Untitled Letter, 4/4/63, Erith Archives, ErR/103/2

[xxxi] Horne, Macmillan, p.535

[xxxii] Ministry of Works, ‘Post War History of Work at Nos. 10, 11 and 12 Downing Street’

[xxxiii] R. Erith to D. Hicks, Untitled Letter, 4/4/63

[xxxiv] R. G. Jones to K. Newis, Confidential Note, 17/9/65, NA, WORK 12/580

[xxxv] Charles Pannell to Prime Minister, ‘State Drawing Room’, 24/11/65, NA, WORK 12/580

[xxxvi] R. Kemp to J. Stevens, ‘Nos 10, 11 and 12 Downing Street’, 28/6/73, NA, WORK 12/580

[xxxvii] Ministry of Works, ‘Post War History of Work at Nos. 10, 11 and 12 Downing Street’

[xxxviii] R. Kemp to J. Stevens, ‘Nos 10, 11 and 12 Downing Street’, 28/6/73

[xxxix] Charles Pannell to Prime Minister, ‘State Drawing Room’, 24/11/65

[xl] P. F. Hicks, ‘Note of Meeting held at No 10 Downing Street on 26 January at 11am’, 4/2/71, NA, WORK 12/580

[xli] Committee on the Preservation of Downing Street, Report of the Committee on the Preservation of Downing Street (London: HMSO, June 1958), p.7

[xlii] Horne, Macmillan, p.657

[xliii] D. Andrews to Senior Fire Surveyor, ‘10/12 Downing Street’, 10/7/63, NA, CM23/177

[xliv] Seldon, 10 Downing Street, p.29

[xlv] H. Wilson, The Governance of Britain (London: Book Club Associates, 1976), p.106

[xlvi] M. Thatcher, in Jones, No.10 Downing Street, foreword


Keep tabs on the past.Sign up for our email alerts.

Sharing and comments

Share this page