Winston Churchill ‘shocked’ by Downing Street restoration plan

Caroline Davies
Photograph: Cecil Beaton/IWM via Getty Images

Prime ministers from Winston Churchill to Harold Macmillan raised concerns at the length of time and rising costs of refurbishing Downing Street, which overran budget and time estimates due to labour disputes, documents show.

A survey under Churchill in 1954 discovered dry rot and beetle damage, with risk of Nos 10, 11 and 12 Downing Street partially collapsing. Urgent underpinning and restoration was required for the buildings, built in the 1680s.

Churchill wrote: “I am shocked that the Ministry of Works contemplates two or three years. The Ark did not take so long.” On his signed typed note, he scribbled: “Antediluvian”, newly released documents at the National Archives show.

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Surveys found the buildings worse than feared. The cabinet room, according to one memo, would have collapsed years before “had it not been shored up from below during the war to provide a bomb shelter in the basement”. The reconstruction eventually began in 1960, with the then prime minister, Macmillan, decamping to nearby Admiralty House until completion in 1963.

Costs soared as work was disrupted by strikes and work-to-rules over unpaid tea breaks. An incentive bonus was introduced to get rapid completion. On the increased costs, Macmillan wrote: “This is very bad,” adding: “Shows what is wrong with this country.”

The total bill, for building and for furnishings and decorating, was estimated at £2.5m in late 1962. “This is a terrible story, but makes it all the more necessary that the architects furnishings and decorating extravagances shd be curbed,” wrote Macmillan.

He decreed the decoration should be plain and unpretentious to offset costs during a time of austerity, to the dismay of the architect.

Clumsy cleaners were blamed for the loss or breakage of valuable porcelain loaned to No 10 by the Victoria and Albert Museum. One was a 17th-century Chinese porcelain jar, then worth £500 and loaned in 1946 at the beginning of Clement Attlee’s premiership. An investigation found “the cover of the jar was broken, presumably by a charwoman, who threw away the pieces”.

A 1953 search for a Chinese vase, worth £200 and missing for a year, proved fruitless. “Do you think that by any chance it could have been used for flowers and then put away in the pantry or somewhere?” inquired the V&A director, Leigh Ashton. An investigation concluded it had been broken by “a heavyhanded cleaner”.

The Ministry of Works, responsible for furnishing No 10’s state rooms, was often criticised for having “deplorable” taste and buying furniture piecemeal. Its acquisitions, according to a 1946 memo by Attlee’s private secretary, included a settee and six chairs, which “have ugly backs” so had to be situated so their backs were not visible.

The ministry was criticised again when three pictures, on loan from the National Gallery, were unexpectedly returned after being removed from the walls of the foreign secretary’s official rooms at 1 Carlton Gardens in 1948 without his knowledge. The Foreign Office reported that the “very important reception room, where foreign visitors are constantly being entertained, is completely ruined by the bareness of the walls”.