Downing Street and its South Cambs connections

Downing Street has connections to the Downing family, who were of South Cambridgeshire. 

Downing Street has connections to the Downing family, who were of South Cambridgeshire. - Credit: PA/Wikimedia Commons

You'd be hard pushed not to see Downing Street on national news broadcasts at the moment - but did you know we have a connection to the creation of the street that's home to the Prime Minister and is the focal point of political power in the UK? 

The South Cambridgeshire village of Croydon and the surrounding area is connected with the historic Downing family. And the Downing name lends itself not only to the world-famous SW1A street but also to Downing College, Cambridge.  

The earliest building thought to have stood at the Downing Street site was Axe Brewery in the middle ages.

File photo dated 26/03/20 of Prime Minister Boris Johnson outside 10 Downing Street, London, joining

Boris Johnson clapped for carers but only gave NHS staff a 1 per cent pay rise - Credit: PA

The first domestic house known to have been built on the site of Number 10 was a large building leased to Sir Thomas Knyvet in 1581 by Queen Elizabeth I. He was an MP for Thetford as well as a justice of the peace for Westminster – who, slightly later, discovered Guy Fawkes in the basement of the Houses of Parliament during the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.  

The Gunpowder Plot also has a place in our rich history  – with Lord Mounteagle believed to have been in his residence at the corner of Sun Hill and London Road when he was alerted to the plot and then had to inform Royston enthusiast King James I's people. The monarch was in London at the time, not his SG8 hunting lodge.  

Sir George Downing, 1st Baronet, had Downing Street built

Sir George Downing, 1st Baronet, had Downing Street had Downing Street built. - Credit: National Library of Wales/Wikimedia Commons

After the death of Sir Knyvet and his wife, the now extended house passed to their niece, Elizabeth Hampden, who continued to live in what was named Hampden House for the next 40 years. 

Sir George Downing, 1st Baronet, was born in 1625 and died in 1684. He was an Anglo-Irish statesman and served both Cromwell and Charles II and as Teller of the Exchequer he is credited with instituting major reforms in public finance. 

In the 1680s, he had 200-metre long Downing Street built at what was then the site of Hampden House – the house was demolished towards the end of Charles II's reign. Downing Street has been the locale of British prime ministers since 1735. 

Sir Anthony Seldon's report on the official Number 10 website, said: "Number 10 has three overlapping functions. It is the official residence of the British Prime Minister: it is their office, and it is also the place where the Prime Minister entertains guests from Her Majesty The Queen to presidents of the United States and other world leaders.

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"The Prime Minister hosts countless receptions and events for a whole range of British and overseas guests, with charitable receptions high up the list."

Downing owned a huge amount of land in Cambridgeshire  - his acres including Croydon, East Hatley, Tadlow and Gamlingay, according to the Hatley village site. The land was acquired in 1676, in addition to his ownership of Clopton - where once stood a lost Medieval village. He was buried At All Saints Church of Croydon-cum-Clopton - in a vault he had made. 

The 1st Baronet's grandson, Sir George Downing, 3rd Baronet was born in 1685. He was a politician for the Conservative Party and later became a Whig - he sat in the House of Commons from 1710 until his death in 1749.

Sir George Downing, 3rd Baronet, founded Downing College, Cambridge.

Sir George Downing, 3rd Baronet, founded Downing College, Cambridge. - Credit: Downing College/ Wikimedia Commons

According to the college's site, Downing used wealth inherited from his grandfather to create a new Cambridge college after the heir to his fortune, his cousin Sir Jacob Downing, died childless. Sir Jacob's widow contested the decision to no avail, then had their Downing mansion demolished in 1776.

The Downing College site states: "Provision for a new Cambridge College was made in the founder’s will in 1717 but, following his death in 1749 and the death of his only surviving heir in 1764, a protracted legal battle with his widow and her heirs meant that the new college was not founded until 1800, the first new Cambridge college in over 200 years."

According to HW Stevens in a report by Romney R. Sedgewick: "Although Downing was very wealthy, he is said, during the last years of his life, to have led ‘a most miserable, covetous, and sordid existence."

Back in the present, Boris Johnson continues as Prime Minister. The current situation he finds himself in has drawn criticism in national headlines, including 'Downing It Street' (The Metro), in relation to parties held at Number 10 - one of which he has confirmed he attended thinking it was a work gathering.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on coronavirus (Covi

Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on coronavirus (Covid-19). Picture date: Tuesday January 4, 2022. - Credit: PA

Many aspects of Mr Johnson's premiership remain uncertain. There's one thing we do know however, the Downing name will continue to be etched in public psyche way beyond his tenure, however long or short it may be.