By Ishbel Beatty

Original Vanity Fair print of Mr John Perkins by 'Hay' - dated 30th October 1886 and captioned 'Downing'

Original Vanity Fair print of Mr John Perkins by ‘Hay’ – dated 30th October 1886 and captioned ‘Downing’

John Perkins (left) lies in East Hatley churchyard, near enough to Buff Wood, as he asked, to hear the Cambridgeshire hounds working through it.

But he was more than a keen huntsman, a bushy-bearded figure of ready wit and congenial presence.

He was a Doctor of Law, a tutor at Downing College for 26 years, Bursar for 28 and manager of the estates belonging to the college around East Hatley up to his death in 1901.

As the landlord’s representative, he was popular with the tenants, whose rents he collected at The Downing Arms.*

The college had built a house in the village in the 1860s, for the use of Fellows and others, and installed a gamekeeper, Joseph Ingrey and his wife Rebecca.

It was called The Palace, perhaps as a joke because of its contrast with the small cottages of the farm labourers which made up the village.

Line drawing from the Vanity Fair print of Mr John Perkins by 'Hay' – dated 30th October 1886 and captioned 'Downing'.

Line drawing from the Vanity Fair print of Mr John Perkins by ‘Hay’ – dated 30th October 1886 and captioned ‘Downing’.

The Bursar often stayed there and when his period of office as tutor came to an end in 1888, he farmed at nearby Pincotes,** in partnership with Joseph Ingrey.

In 1901, aged 65, Dr Perkins became oppressed with melancholia.  In spite of the care of his brother Henry, a London barrister who came to stay with him for some weeks, he shot himself outside the door of The Palace on 30 April.

Evidence was given at the inquest that he feared approaching blindness and worried, without cause, about the affairs of the dairy farm.

A popular lecturer and tutor in the classics, Dr Perkins had been a friend of W G Grace, the cricketer, was invited to shoot with the Duke of Cambridge at Six Mile Bottom and gave a much-appreciated annual address to the Great Gransden Agricultural Society.

He stocked the village ponds with fish, and for 25 years he was Secretary of the Cambridgeshire Hunt.  He once declared he believed his best memorial to be the great increase in the number of Downing undergraduates while he was a tutor – and the fact that while he was Bursar, no fox was shot on the College estates.

Dr John Perkins (1837–1901) of Downing College, Cambridge. He is buried in St Denis' church graveyard. [Photo credit: Colleges in the University of Cambridge]

Dr John Perkins (1837–1901) of Downing College. He is buried in St Denis’ graveyard. [Photo: Colleges in the University of Cambridge].

Stories which circulated in the village for years after his death have not survived, but would have told much about his sometimes flamboyant behaviour.

His portrait (left – click on it for an enlargement), which hangs in Downing College, shows an auburn-haired and bearded man in his favoured hunting kit, with the trees of Buff Wood in the background.

John (or Jack) Perkins was the youngest son of the four children of the vicar of Sawston.  His eldest sister, Martha, unmarried like him, also lived in East Hatley and is buried next to him.

When brambles were cleared from their graves after some years of neglect, the wild yellow daffodils planted in their memory began to bloom again – they still flower in the spring: this photograph was taken in March 2016; Martha’s grave is on the right – where a Star of Bethlehem popped up unexpedly in 2014.

Gamlingay Gazette, November 1993.


* The Downing Arms, also known as the ‘Scratching Cat’, was on Lower Road, Croydon – as remembered in ‘Rent day at the Cat‘.  It has been a private house since 1996 – but a reference to its days as a pub is on the Lost Pubs Project website.

** Pincote Farm is in a private area of Hatley Park estate and is noted on the Ordnance Survey Explorer map 208 as Pincote Barn.

Rent day at ‘The Cat’

Re-published on the original Hatley website, August 2006; with minor changes for this website, October 2018.