The college was founded in 1800 under the will of Sir George Downing, 3rd Baronet with 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). He died in 1749, and as he had no direct issue (he was legally separated from his wife), the family fortune was left to his cousin, Sir Jacob Downing, 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.
The Founder died in 1749 and Sir Jacob in 1764. 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.
The architect William Wilkins was tasked 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 quadrangle 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.
The third side of the square was only completed in the 1950s 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).
The college is renowned for its strong Legal and Medical tradition, the former subject being built up by the late Professor Clive Parry, his pupil and successor John Hopkins (now an emeritus fellow) and the current Director of Studies in Law and 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, the first solicitor to be appointed to the Court of Appeal, Sir Lawrence Collins and Sir Robert Jennings, former President of the International Court of Justice.
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.
The college is also strong in the sports field, with its men's rugby team resident in the upper echelons of Division 1. The newly re-established women's rugby team won cuppers in 2007. The boat club is successful too, with the Women's first boat gaining Headship of the river in the 2004 Lent Bumps and retaining it in 2005.
|Michael Atherton||1968||England cricket player|
|Martin Baker||1967||Master of Music, Westminster Cathedral|
|Richard Barbrook||Lecturer at University of Westminster|
|Quentin Blake||1932||Author and illustrator|
|John Blofeld||1913||1987||Taoist and Buddhist author|
|Antony Roy Clark||1956||Educationalist|
|Geoffrey Cox||1960||British politician|
|Hari Singh Gour||1870||1949||Lawyer and Jurist|
|Nick Griffin||1959||British politician|
|Andy Hamilton||1954||Comedian, director|
|Hildebrand Wolfe Hervey||1887||1970||Marine biologist|
|David Holbrook||1923||Poet, author, critic|
|Jan Hruska||1975||Co-founder of Sophos|
|John R. F. Jeffreys||1941||Mathematician, WWII codebreaker at Bletchley park|
|Gareth John Jones||Barrister, politician, writer|
|Stan Kelly-Bootle||1929||Pioneer computer scientist|
|F. R. Leavis||1895||1978||Famous for his practical criticism, compared to New Critics|
|David Lister||1930||Origami historian|
|Wilfrid Mellers||1914||Music critic and composer|
|Michael Neubert||1933||British politician|
|Trevor Nunn||1940||Theatre and film director|
|Iain Overton||1973||Documentary maker|
|Justin Pollard||1968||Historian, writer|
|Brian Redhead||1929||1994||Author, journalist, broadcaster|
|Annie Vernon||1982||World rowing champion|
|William Philip Schreiner||1857||1919||Prime Minister of the Cape Colony during the South African War|
|Michael Winner||1935||Film director and producer, restaurant critic|
|Jim Wallace||1954||Former Deputy First Minister of the Scottish Executive|