Downing College, Cambridge

Colleges of the University of Cambridge
Downing College
Founder Sir George Downing
Established 1800
Master Geoffrey Grimmett
Undergraduates 403
Graduates 252
Sister college Lincoln College, Oxford
Location Regent Street, Cambridge (map)
Quaerere Verum
(Latin, "Seek the truth")
College website
JCR website
MCR website
Boat Club website

Downing College is a constituent college of the University of Cambridge, and currently has around 650 students. Founded in 1800, it was the only college to be added to Cambridge University between 1596 and 1869, and is often described as the oldest of the new colleges and the newest of the old. [1]

The current Master of the college is Geoffrey Grimmett, Professor of Mathematical Statistics at the University.


Upon the death of Sir George Downing, 3rd Baronet in 1749, the wealth left by his grandfather, Sir George Downing, who served both Cromwell and Charles II and built 10 Downing Street (a door formerly from Number 10 is in use in the college), was applied by his will. Under this will, as he had no direct issue (he was legally separated from his wife), the family fortune was left to his cousin, Sir Jacob Downing, and if he died without heir, to three cousins in succession. If they all died without issue, the estates were to be used to found a college at Cambridge called Downing.

Sir Jacob died in 1764, and as the other named heirs had also died, the college should have come into existence then, but Sir Jacob's widow, Margaret, refused to give up the estates and the various relatives who were Sir George's legal heirs had to take costly and prolonged action in the Court of Chancery to compel her to do so. She died in 1778 but her second husband and the son of her sister continued to resist the heirs-at-law's action until 1800 when the Court decided in favour of Sir George's will and George III granted Downing a Royal Charter, marking the official foundation of the college.


The Maitland Robinson Library by Quinlan Terry, completed in 1992.[2]

The architect William Wilkins was commissioned by the trustees of the Downing estate, who included the Master of Clare College and St John's College and the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, to design the plan for the college. Wilkins, a disciple of the neo-classical architectural style, designed the first wholly campus-based college plan in the world based on a magnificent entrance on Downing Street reaching back to form the largest court in Cambridge, extending to Lensfield Road. But this was not to be.

The estate was much reduced by the suit in Chancery, and the grand plans failed. Much of the north side of what was then the Pembroke Leys was sold to the University and is now home to scientific buildings ("The Downing Site"). In fact, only limited East and West ranges were initially built, with the plans for a library and chapel on the south face of the college shelved.

Downing College Chapel, built in 1951

The third side of the square was only completed in 1951 with the building of the college chapel. Where the fourth side would have been is now a large paddock (known simply as "The Paddock"), with many trees. Though not fully enclosed, the court formed before the Downing College is perhaps largest in Cambridge or Oxford (a title contested with Trinity College's Great Court). An urban legend amongst Cambridge students claims that Trinity pays an undisclosed sum to the college annually with the condition that it will never build the fourth side of the square, so that Trinity may maintain the distinction of having the largest enclosed court of all colleges of Cambridge.

The most recent building additions are the Howard Lodge accommodation, the Howard Building, and most recent of all the Howard Theatre which opened in 2010. These were sponsored by the Howard family and are located behind the main court around their own small garden. These facilities are used for conference and businesses gatherings outside of the student term.[3]

Student life

Downing students remain prominent in the University world; in the past few years Cambridge Union Presidents, Blues captains, Law and Economic Society Presidents and more have hailed from the college. It is also a politically active college, with politically active members and alumni occupying different parts of the British political spectrum, from the far left to the extreme right (Nick Griffin, the leader of BNP, went to Downing). In this sense, it is quite different from other colleges, as the student body of many of the politically active colleges tend to incline toward one party or another. Downing has a particular reputation for medicine and law,[4] and a secret society is rumoured to exist in respect of the latter.[5]

The Griffin has been the undergraduate student magazine for over 100 years.[6]

Downing College boathouse on the River Cam, it was rebuilt in 2000. Here a trailer of rowing boats is shown outside the building.


The college fields teams in a range of sports including, men's football, men's and women's rugby, tennis and Ultimate Frisbee.

Downing College Boat Club is successful too, with the Women's first boat gaining Lents Headship of the river in the 1994 Lent Bumps, and more recently the Mays Headship in the 2014 and 2015 May Bumps. The men's first boat has held the headship several times in the 1980s and 1990s (for example in 1994 to 1996) while gaining the Mays headship in 1996 and the Lents Headship in 2014, on each occasion recognising the tradition of "burning the boat" (using an old wooden 8 oared boat), while the rowers of the winning boat jump the flames. They both currently hold positions at or near the top in both University bumps races [Lents and Mays].

People associated with Downing

The college is renowned for its strong legal and medical tradition, the former subject being built up by Clive Parry, his pupil and successor John Hopkins (now an emeritus fellow) and the ex-Senior Tutor Graham Virgo. Legal notables who have been honorary fellows of the college include the late Sir John Smith, the pre-eminent criminal lawyer of his generation; Lord Collins of Mapesbury, the first solicitor to be appointed to the Court of Appeal and House of Lords; and Sir Robert Jennings, former President of the International Court of Justice.

Notable alumni


The Downing College Alumni Association was founded in 1922 by the then Master of Downing and eminent botanist Sir Albert Charles Seward. The main objects of the association are:

(a) To keep Members of Downing in touch with one another and the College.

(b) To facilitate united action in any matter concerning the welfare of the College and its Members.

(c) To publish and circulate an annual Newsletter.

(d) To hold an annual dinner.[11]

The Association sells a range of merchandise, with profits going towards the Alumni Student Fund.


  1. "Downing College". University of Cambridge. Retrieved 2010-09-02.
  2. "Quinlan Francis Terry Architects". Retrieved 13 September 2014.
  3. "Downing College Conferences & Functions, Cambridge". Retrieved 2014-05-15.
  4. "Previous Campaigns – the Hopkins Parry Fellowship".
  5. "Downing College, Cambridge".
  6. FaceJolt. "The Griffin". Retrieved 13 September 2014.
  7. Bowler, Peter J., ed. (2004). "Lankester, Sir (Edwin) Ray (1847–1929)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.
  8. "Rubel Phillips Obituary: View Rubel Phillips's Obituary by Clarion Ledger". Retrieved 2011-12-19.
  9. "Amol Rajan". Retrieved 13 September 2014.
  10. Josh Halliday "Amol Rajan appointed as Independent editor",, 17 June 2013
  11. Downing College Alumni Association Missing or empty |title= (help)


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