The colleges and halls: Downing

Pages 487-490

A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1959.

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Downing College. Barry of eight pieces azure and vert agriffin or and a border azure with eight roses argent. [Granted 1801]


The Downing family was apparently of East Anglian origin: in 1561 a George Downing of Beccles in Suffolk by will directed that his sons should go to the University of Cambridge. (fn. 1) His son George, of Queens' College, taught for many years at Ipswich Grammar School and in 1608 (fn. 2) became its master: this George's son, Emmanuel, of Trinity Hall, a leading Puritan and emigrant to Massachusetts Bay Colony, brother-inlaw of its first governor, John Winthrop, had a son, George, who in 1642 became the second graduate of Harvard College, and, after his return to England, by the summer of 1646, had a notoriously successful career under both Cromwell and Charles II, (fn. 3) received a knighthood and a baronetcy, and came to be reputed the richest man in England. To his estate at Dunwich (Suff.) he added one at Gamlingay, near Cambridge, most of which was owned by the College until 1945; Downing Street in London gets its name from his ownership of property there. (fn. 4)

He died in 1684. His son George, 2nd baronet, was of no note; the 3rd baronet, also George (1685– 1749) was brought up by his mother's people, and married in 1700 at the age of fifteen years his cousin, Mary Forester. This youthful family marriage was unconsummated, and the bridegroom went to the Continent very soon after the ceremony, and, on the ground that his wish that his wife should not go to Court had been overruled by the decision of her family, sought on his return, to repudiate the alliance. After ten years of dispute both parties asked for a divorce: but it was refused in 1715 by the House of Lords, thanks to the episcopal vote. (fn. 5) On 20 December 1717 Sir George Downing devised his property to four cousins in succession, and their issue; failing this, it was to be used for founding a college in Cambridge. Lady Downing died in 1734, Sir George in 1749; his cousin and heir Sir Jacob Garrard Downing, 4th and last baronet, who had survived all other possible devisees, died in 1764, leaving no children. But litigation followed between the University and Lady Downing, who was now married again. In 1769 the University won its case, but she held the estates, which she devised in 1772 to her nephew Captain J. J. Whittington; and in 1776 these two destroyed the mansion at Gamlingay and did their utmost, it seems, to frustrate the intention of Sir George's will and to make the inheritance, if it should ever be entered into, worth as little as possible. After the lady's death in 1778 the dispute dragged on until 1800, when the Great Seal was affixed to the charter of the College. Even then Captain Whittington delayed his surrender, and the foundation stone was not laid until 18 May 1807. (fn. 6)


During this long period of waiting several sites had been proposed for the College and sets of plans had been prepared. The sites included Parker's Piece, Doll's Close (now New Square), and Pembroke Leys, which was finally chosen. This originally extended to Downing Street; but the northern part, consisting of some 8 acres, the so-called 'Downing Site', was sold to the University in 1896–1902, and is now occupied by museums and laboratories. The present site is the southern part of the original one, and is of slightly greater acreage than the portion sold: it is bounded on the east by Regent Street and on the west by Tennis Court Road, and to the south is limited by the gardens of the houses of Lensfield Road, named after John Lens, the senior of the three fellows appointed by the charter, of which the College is the ground landlord.


The founder endowed the College with his estates in Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, and Suffolk; the advowsons of East Hatley and Tadlow, and the manors of Shardelows in Cowlinge and Tunbridge in Bottisham, all in Cambridgeshire, were included. This magnificent endowment was very greatly reduced by the costs of litigation and by the neglect of the agricultural property during the dispute; and in 1802 the rents from the estates brought in about £6,000 a year. In 1810 the Dunwich estate was sold to redeem the land tax on the rest.

The endowments of the College have since been increased by the creation of the Schreiner (1894), Buchanan (1927), Pilley (1929), Savile (1930), Saunders (1930), Saint (1945), Richmond (1947), and Harris (1954) scholarship funds, and the Graham Robertson research fellowship fund (1950): the Pilley and Savile scholarships are among the various gifts made by Frederick George Pilley (d. 1936) to his College. Additions to the endowments have been made also by the bequests of Sidney Wynn Graystone (d. 1924), Octavius Glasier Collins (d. 1934), and Ada Margaret Harris (d. 1954). The first-named left to the College, subject to a life interest which terminated in 1943, his residuary estate, to be used for new buildings, including a new chapel, a library, and rooms for undergraduates, and for the endowment of Graystone scholarships, established in 1945: his gifts of books and pictures are referred to below. Dr. Collins bequeathed, subject to a life interest which terminated in 1948, funds for the endowment of a fellowship in Greek: and Miss Harris's will not only provided for the scholarships in memory of her brother, David Lewis Harris (d. 1929), a former fellow, but also increased the College's endowments for general purposes.

Constitution and Statutes.

In 1767–8 the foundation of the College appeared to be imminent. It will readily be understood that much interest was shown in the form its constitution should take. No college had been founded in Cambridge since the end of the 16th century, and but one in Oxford since 1624. Numbers had dropped greatly in the University since the 17th century, and there seemed to be little need for a new college. There were, nevertheless, fresh needs and much desired reforms which might find a place in the statutes of the nascent College. (fn. 7) Thus, Charles Gray, of Colchester, suggested in 1767–8 to his friend and kinsman Thomas Falconer a plan for a college of plain living and piety, a training house for pastors for the 'North Americans', a bold anticipation of Ruskin's notions to 'unite the Spade with the Cassock', which Falconer deplored for a college in Cambridge or Oxford, but would approve elsewhere. (fn. 8) Again, in the Gentleman's Magazine of July 1768, 'A plain Honest Man' adumbrated a scheme for a college to consist of a head, three readers (to be elected by the University) in law, medicine, and divinity, and, in place of fellows, bachelors, to be chosen from all the other colleges, who would be enabled to pursue, for a limited number of years, what would now be called postgraduate or research studies, especially those connected with the three professions, the Church, the law, and medicine.

As it turned out, the long legal disputes delayed the foundation for over 30 years; but when the charter was granted on 22 September 1800, and followed by statutes on 23 July 1805, there were interesting reflections of the notions which the writer to the Gentleman's Magazine had expressed, and a bold reforming spirit was shown. The charter was granted on the application of the heirs-at-law of the founder, on a plan approved by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and the Masters of St. John's and Clare Colleges; (fn. 9) the College was to be for students in law, physic, and other useful arts and learning: the foundation was to consist of a Master; two professors, of the laws of England and of medicine; sixteen fellows, of whom two were to be in holy orders, designed to exercise residential and tutorial functions, and the rest laymen; and scholars of such number as should later be determined. What was new in these provisions has been noted by D. A. Winstanley: (fn. 10) the lay fellowships could be held only for twelve years, and during this period only as subject to the attainment of professional qualifications in law and medicine; the rules for election to fellowships and scholarships were, in regard to local and geographical preferences, improved: although it was surprising that a perfectly clean cut was not made, by wholly abolishing all restrictions of this kind on these elections, whether they should operate against or for a particular locality; other subjects than mathematics were included in the examinations for scholarships; no one was to be an elector to fellowships or scholarships who had not taken part in the examination of the candidates: a rising against partial and uninformed elections had come to a head in 1786 in a protest made by ten fellows of Trinity, which had drawn from the Lord Chancellor, a censure of the abuse: 'the statutes of Downing' wrote Winstanley 'echoed their triumph', and the powers granted for modifying the statutes, conformably with the charter, were unusually wide.

There is a tradition that the younger Pitt was responsible for framing the new College's regulations, particularly in emphasizing the use of fellowships for encouraging young lawyers and medical men: (fn. 11) but the late Professor C. S. Kenny cautiously noted that this was merely a matter of belief; (fn. 12) a caution surely justified by the close resemblance between the charter and statutes and the suggestions put forward in the Gentleman's Magazine of 1768. Probably the regulations were naturally developed, it may well be under Pitt's guidance, out of ideas which had been ripening during the past 50 years.

Whatever the origins, and however good the intentions of the constitution, the Court of Chancery failed to cut the College's coat according to the cloth left over after the costs of litigation had been taken out of it; it approved a magnificent building scheme which could only slowly, if ever, be carried out, and provided very little money for endowment. Hence the number of fellows was reduced by the statutes of 1860 and again modified by those of 1882: and the story of Downing's constitution during the last 100 years has been one of assimilation to those of other colleges, a process much aided by the revision of the statutes of all the colleges as the result of the commissions on the University appointed during that period. The final trace of the original peculiarities of the foundation disappeared in 1942, when the last of the Downing professors who was on the foundation retired from office, and the Downing Professorship of the Laws of England was, in accordance with the recommendations of the statutory Commission, made a University chair: that of medicine had already been placed by the University in abeyance. In 1955 the foundation consisted of a Master, eighteen fellows, and 38 scholars: and there were two Pilley scholars, one Savile scholar, and three Alan Buchanan students.


George III urged that the College should not be a Gothic building. William Wilkins's designs were finally adopted, (fn. 13) and the foundation stone was laid on 18 May 1807. The Master's Lodge and East Lodge, with living-rooms between, were built by, it seems, February 1812, and during the next decade the hall, kitchen, and combination room, the West Lodge, and essentially the whole of the West Range. The East Range was not wholly built, and Wilkins's ambitious plans for a chapel and a library, fronted by a colonnade, on the south side of the Quadrangle, had to be abandoned. In 1875, however, Edward Barry finished the East Range, and added to it and to the West Range their northern pediments and pilasters. After the sale of the 'Downing Site' to the University, the College buildings had to be reorientated, and in 1930–2 the wing buildings on the north were built to the designs of Sir Herbert Baker; for the College emboldened by S. W. Graystone's benefaction, appealed for funds and undertook this portion of Baker's plan. Ketton stone was again used, and enough was reserved to complete the scheme. On 3 October 1932 the Lord Chancellor, as Visitor, formally opened these wings and also the Kenny Gates, on Tennis Court Road, given in memory of Courtney Stanhope Kenny (1847–1930), Downing Professor of Law, by his daughters, the Misses Agnes and Muriel Kenny. In 1936 a junior combination room, with sets above, was added to the East Range; and various minor additions and alterations have been made. For the 150th anniversary (1950) a fresh building fund was opened, and the finishing of the north side of the quadrangle to the designs of Mr. A. T. Scott was completed in 1953. The new buildings include, besides living-rooms, a new chapel in the centre, approached through a sixcolumned Ionic portico, to replace the simple 'upper room' in which the College had worshipped since its foundation. The first stone of the chapel was laid on 18 May 1951, 144 years after the foundation stone of the College: the chapel was dedicated and the new buildings opened on 29 June 1953.


In 1813, by the will of John Bowtell of Cambridge, bookbinder and antiquary, the College received for its library his manuscripts and books. Among the manuscripts were ten volumes of accounts of the Borough of Cambridge, for years between 1510 and 1787, and other items of Borough and University history. Among these were Bowtell's own notes and memoranda. The printed works include a notable collection of newsletters and pamphlets put out during the Civil War. (fn. 14) The College has added other tracts of the 17th century, especially some that bear on the affairs of Britain and the Netherlands; for example, the manuscript diary, or letter-book, of George Downing, later 1st baronet, kept during his residency at The Hague, in 1658; (fn. 15) and printed pamphlets written by or about him. By will, proved in 1924, Sidney Wynn Graystone gave the College his library: this includes books on the history of painting and of the theatre, and on topography. In 1951 the College received, in pursuance of the wish of Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond, Master 1936–46, his valuable collection of works on naval and maritime history.

Historical Sketch.

The first undergraduate was admitted in 1820, a pensioner from Ipswich. For some years there were more pensioners than fellowcommoners, but presently the latter predominated. Their history has still to be written; it is clear that many were men of riper years, drawn to the College by the terms of its foundation. Such were the Hon. Thomas Robert Keppel, the original of 'Mr. Midshipman Easy', who graduated as senior optime and took holy orders, and Frederick North, 5th Earl of Guilford, the philhellene who founded the Ionian University in Corfu. The College stood for liberty: Richard Dawes, tutor 1822–36, later Dean of Hereford, led the movement for freeing dissenters from academic disabilities; and C. M. Doughty was drawn to the College because it found room for geology, at that time his chief love, but the subject of acute religious and academic controversy. Winstanley notes (fn. 16) that from 1868 scholarships were given for natural sciences and medicine, and, from 1874, for moral science: and that in 1867 the fellowship of T. W. Danby, mainly for his work in the Natural Science Tripos, was 'greeted as an unprecedented event', an example followed by Trinity in the year after.

Much of this development cannot be separated from the reforms of the University commissions of 1850 and 1877; the tutorship of John Perkins, 1862– 87, was marked by great progress, especially in the range and successful outcome of studies and in the Union Society, for which the College found eight presidents. J. H. Widdicombe, tutor 1911–31, identified himself as closely with the College, though hampered by the First World War; and the senior tutorship of H. C. Whalley-Tooker, 1931–47, though it saw buildings, numbers, and reputation expand, was likewise marred by war. Sir Albert Seward, Master 1915–36, contributed notably to academic progress; Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond, Master 1936–46, exercised a memorably wide and gracious influence. The name of F. B. Smith, bursar 1924–34, will be inseparably connected with the schemes for building which were initiated and partly carried out in his time: and, of the Downing Professors, Frederic William Maitland, Professor of the Laws of England, 1888–1906, left the deep impress of his historical genius.


Among the portraits of Masters may be mentioned those of Francis Annesley, 1800–12; William Frere; Thomas Worsley by George Richmond; Sir Albert Seward by James Gunn; and Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond by Henry Lamb, and another by W. G. de Glehn. The portraits of F. W. Maitland and C. S. Kenny are also of historical interest.

S. W. Graystone bequeathed to the College his collection of paintings, engravings, and prints. The paintings include examples of the English and Flemish schools, notably pictures attributed to Peeter Neeffs the elder, Willem Van de Velde the younger, and Wouwerman.

By the gift of Philip Henry Loyd, Bishop of St. Albans, the College has a striking contemporary portrait of Lady Downing, widow of the 4th and last baronet, whose opposition to the founder's will delayed the realization of its intentions: and there are portraits also of the founder and Lady Downing (Miss Forester), and, deposited on loan by Harvard College, of Sir George Downing, 1st baronet, a copy of the contemporary portrait now in Harvard College.


Much of the College's plate belongs to the reigns of George III and George IV. The following pieces are dated earlier than 1760: London marks, Cup, 1701, with cover, 1727 (?); Mugs, given by F. G. Pilley, 1713 by Matthew Lofthouse, 1747 by F. White, 1754 by B. Cartwright; Castors, 3, 1727, in cruet-stand, 1824; cruet-stand 1752; castors, 3, in above stand, 1735. Edinburgh mark, Soup-tureen, 1757. Flemish, Rosewater-dish and ewer, silver-gilt; Utrecht, 17 cent. (?). Unmarked, sauce-boat, given by H. R. Meyrick Jones, earlier than 21 Nov. 1741, which date is engraved on the base.


In 1800, soon after the issue of the charter, the Master, Dr. Annesley, undertook to get a design for a seal; meanwhile, for 1801, the use of a temporary one was authorized. Designs for arms were obtained from the Heralds' College, in 1801 the grant of arms was made, and in 1802 it was ordered that a seal should be prepared. The seal now in use, a replica of its predecessor, bears the arms and motto of the College: in the margin sigill. coll. downing. cantabrig.: in the exergue funda/mdccc. The earlier of these two seals is probably the original seal of the College, apart from whatever temporary one was used in 1801–2.

An alternative design, it is recorded under date 1802, had been presented to the Master by John Flaxman; this depicts, left to right, two women in classical dress, joining hands, named in the field medicina and lex; in their left hands, respectively, a staff of Aesculapius and a sealed scroll inscribed mag charta; between them, above, enclosed in a triangle, a dove, irradiating light, named similarly theologia. Flaxman's design was given gratuitously, and it was recommended by the Master that 'if the College should have occasion to employ a sculptor, Mr. Flaxman should be applied to'. An engraving of his design was made and printed by order of the College, and, curiously enough, was bound up with the printed copy of the charter and statutes which was issued in 1805. (fn. 17) There is no reason to believe that a seal was ever made to this design.

Masters of Downing College

Francis Annesley: 22 Sept. 1800.

William Frere: 8 May 1812.

Thomas Worsley: 23 June 1836.

William Lloyd Birkbeck: 1 Mar. 1885.

Alex Hill: 16 June 1888.

Frederick Howard Marsh: 24 Oct. 1907.

Sir Albert Charles Seward: 2 Aug. 1915.

Admiral Sir Herbert William Richmond: 1 Nov. 1936.

Sir Lionel Ernest Howard Whitby: 22 May 1947.

William Keith Chambers Guthrie: 28 Apr. 1957. (fn. 18)


  • 1. J. Beresford, Godfather of Downing Street, 18.
  • 2. For date of his appointment as Master of Ipswich School, see I. E. Gray and W. E. Potter, Ipswich School.
  • 3. J. Beresford, Godfather of Downing Street, passim. The most familiar contemporary judgements are expressed in the diaries of Pepys and Evelyn.
  • 4. C. E. Pascoe, No. 10, Downing Street.
  • 5. H. W. P. Stevens, Downing Coll. 19–28. For Miss Forester (Lady Downing) as a maid of honour, see Swift's Journal to Stella, nos. 27, 30, 31.
  • 6. Stevens, Downing Coll., ch. 2.
  • 7. W. L. Cuttle, Supplt. to the News Letter of the Downing Coll. Assoc. (1950), 38.
  • 8. Ex inf. Mr. I. E. Gray, who refers to Hist. MSS. Com. 14th Rep. App. ix. 1. Falconer's letters are in the Essex Record Office.
  • 9. These persons had been nominated for the purpose by the will of the founder: the Masters of St. John's and Clare because of family connexions with those colleges.
  • 10. Winstanley, Early Vict. Camb., ch. 1.
  • 11. Stevens, Downing Coll., pp. i, 65.
  • 12. Marginal note in his copy of Stevens, Downing Coll. (now in possession of W. L. Cuttle).
  • 13. Thomas Hope, Observations on the plans . . . for Downing Coll. (1804); Gavin Walkley, in Jnl. R. Inst. Brit. Archit., xlv (1938), nos. 19, 20; and unpublished paper, 'William Wilkins, R.A.' (1939, copies in the libraries of the R.I.B.A. and Downing Coll.). Mr. Walkley traces the substitution of Wilkins's designs for Wyatt's. Wyatt's drawings, now in possession of the R.I.B.A., and identified by Mr. Walkley, are reproduced in the Jnl.
  • 14. Some account of the manuscripts is in Hist. MSS. Com., 3rd Rep. 320–7; see also A. B. Gray in C.A.S. Comm. xi. 346–75, and A. I. Doyle in Trans. C.B.S. i. 29– 36, 130–8; and H. W. P. Stevens, Downing Coll. 233–41.
  • 15. Preliminary studies by P. Shallard, The Griffin, xxxv, no. 56, reprinted as Downing Muniments, iii (1938) and Supplt. to the News Letter, reprinted as Downing Muniments, v (1950).
  • 16. Winstanley, Later Vict. Camb. 191.
  • 17. Reproduced in H. W. P. Stevens, Downing Coll., p. 276, and described as 'the College seal'.
  • 18. Admitted in Cambridge, Massachusetts, by a ViceChancellor's deputy appointed for the purpose.