Downing College – Pilgrimage to East Hatley, 1978

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On Friday, 6th January 1978, the Bursar and the Archivist visited East Hatley, West Cambridgeshire, at the invitation of Mr. T. C. Hood of Holbein’s Farm. Mr. Hood’s father bought Holbein’s farm, of which he was the College tenant, when the College’s estates were sold in 1945. East Hatley and nearby Tadlow were livings in the gift of the College until recently. The manor house at East Hatley was the home of the Downings from about 1663 to 1712, when the Founder (Sir George Downing) pulled it down and used the materials to build a new manor at Gamlingay Park.


The country around is gently undulating with lovely open views, broken here and there by small copses and large woods much ravaged by elm disease. (It had been a sad sight as we passed Wimpole Hall on the way out to see that the same fell disease had destroyed the elm avenues which had been for nearly two centuries the glory of the home of the Earl of Hardwicke and latterly of the daughter of Rudyard Kipling.)


Mt Hood had arranged that we should call on several of his farming neighbours. They all gave us a most hearty welcome. The generation of College tenants has at last died out – we met the only survivor, Mr Law, who at 88 still runs two farms (Hill Farm and another), and drives his own car; he became a College tenant in 1923 – but the present generation remember the respect and gratitude which their predecessors had for their landlord. The College was always generous in giving abatement of rent in hard times, which were frequent, and when on good advice it decided to sell it did everything it could to ensure that the tenants who wanted to buy their farms could do so, even to the extent of refusing a better offer.


We had a very enjoyable talk with Mr and Mrs Starr, Mr Starr’s grandfather came from neighbouring Croydon, where the Downings are buried under the floor of the Church, and where in 1961 a memorial tablet was placed by the College. Mrs Starr belongs to the Abbott family, the oldest in East Hatley. It was pleasing to see the latest scion of the Abbott and Starr family, the fourth generation in the village, sitting on his grandfather’s lap by a blazing log fire in a cottage which was probably in use in the Founder’s time, Mrs Starr’s greatgrandfather and Mr Starr’s grandfather were both associated with John Perkins, Downing (College)’s famous hunting Tutor and Bursar. Greatgrandfather Abbott lived in and looked after The Palace, where rooms were kept permanently available for Perkins, and grandfather Starr succeeded him. Mrs Starr said her greatgrandfather was following Dr Perkins on horseback from Longstowe to the village one night. As Perkins entered the village he spurred his horse into a gallop and shouted loudly “Fire, Fire!”

Doors and windows flew opened in alarm, and Perkins slowed down and shouted cheerfully “Yoicks! Fire in every house but mine.” His sister lodged at Manor Farm and was not at all popular whereas Perkins was a great favourite with everyone. He stocked the numerous ponds and pools in the district with fish, and as an enthusiastic member of the Cambridgeshire Hunt of which he was Secretary for many years.


We visited The Palace, now occupied by fairly recent owners, Mr and Mrs Keith. We arrived at a time of tragedy – an ancient family retainer of a gander (male goose) had been killed in mistake for a young goose ripe for the pot. The Palace was the scene of a much greater tragedy – John Perkins shot himself there in front of the French windows on 30th April 1901. it used to be said that a thick patch of clover grew where his blood and brains stained the earth but it was winter so we did not look for this gruesome relic of a great character. His grave and that of his sister are in East Hatley church. It is said he asked to be buried in the part of the churchyard nearest Buff Wood (formerly known as Hatley Wood), so that he could hear the hounds working it when the Hunt came Hatley way. Unfortunately the Church is now an empty ruin. It would cost so much to repair it that a smaller Church has been built elsewhere. The graves are overgrown; it is planned to clear them before long. It is hoped that there will always be members of the College who will keep Dr Perkins’ memory fresh and his grave looked after.


Another great Downing character still remembered in East Hatley is Dr H. W. Pettit Stevens, historian of the College. He was Vicar of Hatley, Croydon and Tadlow from 1888 to 1941. he is remembered, Mr Starr told us, for his devotion to his parishes. He used regularly to walk or to drive his trap from his vicarage at Tadlow along the drift road to East Hatley in order to visit everyone, old and young, sick and well. He invariably put half-a-crown in the collection or every service he conducted – a generous gesture when the value of the living of Tadlow and East Hatley was (in 1916) only ₤152, with residence and nine acres of glebe.


The third Downing man who is well remembered was Dr John Hammond, the pioneer of artificial insemination. Whilst James Grantham (whose memory is still green in the village) was serving in the navy during the last war, John Hammond acted as estates bursar. Naturally he endeavoured to interest the farmers in his experiments – especially in an attempt to get heifers to produce milk without having calves. Mr and Mrs Starr recalled with pleasure rent days when the men were entertained to supper at the Downing Arms in the evening, after the wives had enjoyed tea together in the afternoon. The Bursarial inspections, they said, were always very thorough and tenants who did not cultivate their gardens or neglected their cottages received warning notices. Mrs Starr’s grandmother suggested to the Estates Bursar at her fiftieth rent tea that she had paid rent (only 6/- per week) for so long that she was entitled to live rent free in future, but was told that the College could not afford it.


The three villages, Croydon, Tadlow and East Hatley used to raise a cricket team to play the College; it would be pleasing if that tradition could be revived.


Mr Hood entertained us to a very substantial lunch at the Downing Arms (on Tadlow Road known locally as The Scratching Cat) for which the College obtained the first licence in 1827.


We are very grateful to Mr and Mrs Starr, Mr and Mrs Keith of The Palace, Mr and Mrs Richardson of Manor House Farm, Mr and Mrs Norris of Top Farm, and Mr and Mrs Hood of Holbeins Farm for the interest they showed in the relationship of the College with the village, and for their courtesy and warm hospitality. Especially are we grateful to Mr Hood for arranging the visit. The friendships made that day must be maintained.


S. French, Archivist of Downing College

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