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College Estates Records, 1548-[1921]

Reference Code: GBR/0269/DCAR/1/1

Scope and Contents

Records of the administration of the estate of Sir George Downing and his heirs, later devised to Downing College; and of their administration by Downing College.

A major series: the records, traditional and unusual of the estates and manors owned, accumulated and sold by the Downings and later by Downing College, mainly outside of the College site (although originally touted site at Dolls Close is included) and not including property later bequeathed to, or acquired by the College in, for example, London, Thetford and Yorkshire. [It mainly encompasses the land left to the College by Sir George Downing and his relatives, but also includes land acquired by the College to augment parts of the estate - eg. land and premises purchased of Kings College, in Tadlow]. Also included in this group are papers relating to the foundation of Downing College and the legal battle with descendants of George Downing to gain possession of the estate and estate revenues. See DCAR/1/2 - 5 for records relating to other College property.


  • Creation: 1548-[1921]


Conditions Governing Access

Records are generally open, although some closure periods may apply for more recent records.

Biographical / Historical

When Sir George Downing died in 1684 he was reputed to be the largest landowner in the county of Cambridgeshire. The nucleus of his estate was a number of farms around East Hatley in the south west corner of Cambridgeshire. He later acquired property at Gamlingay, Tadlow, Croydon, and Clapton / Clopton, and also at Wrestlingworth in Bedfordshire. The estate and title passed to his eldest son, the second Sir George, and then to his grandson, also named George. This third Sir George Downing, the founder of Downing College, inherited the estate in 1711. It was then about 7000 acres in extent. In 1709/10 he had bought up a mass of land in Dunwich, Suffolk, and in addition, owned property in Cambridge, Bottisham and Swaffham [Little Swaffham, Swaffham Bulbeck and Swaffham Prior] in Cambridgeshire, and Cowlinge in Suffolk. In 1713-14 he built a country house at Gamlingay Park at a cost of £9000, and made it the family seat. However, in later years, he neglected the estates and reportedly lost £1500 a year by failing to find tenants for vacant farms. In 1744 he was the victim of a vicious attack at Tower Farm in Tadlow, by a 'villainous fellow [who] alleged he thought he did no harm by killing a person who paid nobody, and was so ill a landlord and paymaster with so great an estate'. [Cole, cit. HW Pettit Stevens 'College Histories - Downing' 1899, p.30] In fact Sir George did not die until 1749, when the estates were bequeathed to his cousin, Sir Jacob Garrard Downing in accordance with his Will made in 1717. The Will also named various other heirs and their issue in succession. As a remoter contingency, it provided that if all the heirs died without issue, then the property was to be used to found a new college at Cambridge, to be known as Downings College. This became reality in 1764 when Sir Jacob died childless and none of the other legatees were alive or had children. However, Sir Jacob's will left all the estates to his widow, Lady Margaret Downing, and it was with this lady and her heirs, that the University of Cambridge and the heirs at law of Sir George Downing waged a legal battle for over 40 years. This prolonged litigation considerably diminished the value of the estates, which deteriorated seriously, and the decline in its revenues made it impossible, once the law suit was won, to immediately provide the buildings and teaching staff for a new college. It had been assumed that it would be possible to raise sufficient capital on the security of the estate revenues, but arrears of rent amounted to about £100,000 of which only £10,000 was recovered, and rents brought in only about £6000 per year from 1802. Moreover, the College was responsible for paying over £850 in tithes each year. As a consequence, the charter for Downing College may have finally been granted in 1800, but the first buildings were not ready until after 1807 and it was not until 1821 that the first three undergraduates appeared. Much of the land on the estate was heavy, undrained clay. In 1802 the governing body had the estate valued by John Dugmore and raised the rents so as to increase revenue from £4200 to £6000. In 1814, a survey of 27 farms and seven dairies on the Cambridgeshire estate [the Suffolk estate had been sold in 1810 in order to redeem land tax] was made by William Custance. He drew attention to the 'very inferior quality of the buildings'. He warned the Governing Body that failure to allocate adequate funds for improvements would make it impossible to attract 'respectable occupiers' in future. But, since the College was restricted in its expenditure by clauses in its charter, and since it had to pay about half of its revenues into a Building Fund, there were only very limited resources available for improvements on the estate. When peace was restored in 1815 the price of farm products fell rapidly and a new Corn Law failed to stabilise wheat prices which halved between 1817 and 1822. Farmers pleaded for reductions in rent and laid off farm labourers. The Downing estate, badly managed in the past and starved of capital, was hit hard by the post-war depression. The governing body reduced some farm rents and the task of infusing new life was entrusted to Lambert Hotchkin, employed by Chancery as Receiver of the estates from 1822. He was appointed Land Steward by the College in 1828 and held the position until 1860. The College also stimulated the opening up of the estate when it invested £1000 in 1826 in the new turnpike road which ran through from Wimpole on the old North Road to Tadlow, Wrestlingworth and Potton. On the Downing estate there were however, few signs of recovery despite the efforts of Hotchkin and generally improved prospects for farmers. In 1850 the income derived was only £3810. Poor wages and periods of unemployment led to rural incendiarism and to some farm workers emigrating; several families left Tadlow in 1836 and Croydon in 1834. However from the 1850s farming in England began once again to prosper and while Downing's farms did not immediately share in the agricultural boom, by 1861 the situation had improved and rents were being paid in full. In 1865 Dr John Perkins was appointed Bursar, the College Fellowship official that managed the estates, and he continued as such for 36 years. Although he spent about £9000 on improvements in his first 10 years he increased the net income from about £5000 to £6000 by 1870. A further agricultural depression seems to have hit the Downing estates rather later than other farming regions. Pleas for reductions in rents were rare in the 1870s but made with increasing frequency after 1880. In that year the Governing Body declared it was facing 'serious embarrassments produced by agricultural distress'. During the 1880s several farms lost their tenants and could not be let again - between 1880 and 1896 over 3000 acres were untenanted at one time or another. As the net income declined to almost vanishing point (£700 in 1894) the College took drastic steps; in 1893 deciding to abandon untenanted farms over the next four years and reduce expenditure on repairs and improvements to a bare minimum. It also sold two acres of its land in Cambridge, bordering Downing Street in 1895, and two further farms in 1903, in an effort to raise external revenue. By 1914 there was confidence that the financial crisis which had threatened the existence of the College in the 1890s, as well as the livelihood of its tenant farmers, had been overcome. In 1917 representatives of the local War Agricultural Committee inspected the Downing estates and reported that Parker's Farm, Long Lane and Hatley Wilds were not being cultivated efficiently. The Bursar, Arthur Amos, lost no time in selling Hatley Wilds and most of Long Lane. The war also gave an impetus to plans to improve the estate. In 1919 the College leased 15 acres of waste land at Gamlingay to three brothers rent free for five years, provided they cleared the fields and brought them under cultivation. And seven acres were leased to ex servicemen who planned to establish market gardens. Unfortunately, the brief wartime boom in farming soon gave way to a new depression, leading once again to substantial reductions in rent. Throughout the 1930s reductions were made every six months, and by 1935 Downing's 'external revenue' was the second lowest of all Cambridge colleges. The Second World War, during which John Hammond was Estates Bursar, proved to be the last phase in the history of the Downing estates. Hammond, a Fellow of the College and an agricultural scientist, managed the 4600 acres of Downing agricultural land between 1941 and 1945 while Bursar James Grantham was away on active service. During his brief tenure of office he greatly improved the farms. The sandy soil of Gamlingay and heavy clays of East Hatley, Tadlow and Croydon had always been expensive to work. Depressed conditions in the last quarter of the 19th century and between the two world wars had seen arable land turned into grass or even left to revert to nature. Nearly three quarters of the estate was poor grassland in 1939. With subsidies from the Ministry of Agriculture and additional wartime labour (prisoners of war, Women's Land Army, students) Hammond embarked on a crash programme of land reclamation and improvements. By 1943 over four-fifths of the estate were under arable cultivation. As the war finished the future of the estates came under discussion. Agricultural land was a notoriously uncertain investment and the end of the war would be the time to sell. The farms were in an excellent condition and the chances of securing a good price were high. The death of Mrs Graystone in 1944 had a decisive influence. She was the widow of Sidney Graystone, whose bequest to the College was the largest it had received since that of the Founder. If the value of the Graystone property - £100,000 - was added to the proceeds of the sale of the estates, there would at last be the resources to complete the north wing of the College. After initial hesitations the College instructed J Carter Jonas & Sons to sell by auction the main part of the estate in west Cambridgeshire. Tenants were able to buy the farms they rented if they made an offer at least matching the reserve price fixed by an independent Valuer. The sale took place on 15 September 1945 and the rest of Gamlingay Park was sold a year later. In March 1947 the Bursar reported that the sale had been completed except for some allotments in Croydon. These were sold in 1950. Now only two farms in east Cambridgeshire remained. The first, Tunbridge Hall Farm in Bottisham, was also sold in 1950. The second, Downing College Farm in Swaffham Bulbeck, was sold in 1957. The entire sale realised over £100,000. [Based on 'The College Estates; by W. Otto Henderson in 'Aspects of Downing History' Ed. Stanley French 1982; see this article for more detail and information on the College's management of the estate villages, schools and churches]


c. 1870 item(s) (c. 1870 pieces)

Language of Materials



The arrangement of the records has been necessarily recreated, with an attempt made to reflect what might have been their original order once the College was administering the estates. Arrangement is by record type; for example, Title deeds, Manorial docs

Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

Most of the older documents are conserved

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The full extent of the Downing Family estate papers have not been traced; what remains are 'odds and ends' with the most comprehensive series being that of the Dunwich deeds. It is suggested that the vast majority of the Estates Papers were destroyed by Dame Margaret Downing, meeting the same fate as the mansion at Gamlingay. After Downing College took over the running [and augmentation] of the estates, the different series are more complete.


Further accruals unlikely.

Related Materials

See DCGB/M for governing body minutes giving resolutions re estates; see DCAR/1/2 for College site; DCAR/1/3 for property in Cambridge and Thetford; DCAR/1/4 for property in London [Graystone bequest]; DCAR/1/5 other property outside of London and Cambs. See Beresford, 'The Godfather of Downing Street', p.125 for dates of acquisition of various parts of the estate by the 1st Baronet.


History of Downing College by Stanley French 1978; 'Aspects of Downing History' Vols I & II, 1982 & 1989; 'Maps, Land and Society' A Sarah Bendall 1992; 'Handbook of Dates' ed. CR Cheney; 'Latin for Local History' 2nd Ed. Eileen Gooder 1978; 'The Little Freemen of Dunwich' Ormonde Pickard; 'A Dictionary of English Place Names' AD Mills 1991


Downing Family; Bursary

Repository Details

Part of the Downing College Repository

Downing College Archive
Downing College
Cambridge Cambridgeshire CB2 1DQ United Kingdom
+44 (0)1223 762905