Everyone knows that there is only one Downing Street, the traditional home of British Prime Ministers just off London’s Whitehall. However, New York has two Downing Streets – one in Brooklyn and the other in Greenwich Village. They can be checked out on Google Streetview. And there is a direct connection: it is a man called George Downing (1624-1684), an extraordinary character whom Samuel Pepys once described as a “perfidious rogue”.
Downing was probably born in London in 1624, but joined his mother’s family in America in 1638. He became one of the first nine students to attend Harvard, sponsored by the soldier John Okey and, soon after finishing, became the first tutor there (Harvard’s founding benefactor was another Englishman, John Harvard from Southwark, by the way). A few years later he sailed as a preacher to the West Indies on a slave ship and eventually ended up back in England, where he became chaplain to Okey’s regiment, fighting on Oliver Cromwell’s side in the Civil War.
Downing was one of the people who urged Cromwell to take the crown. But when Cromwell died and Britain’s enthusiasm for republicanism waned, Downing did the only honourable thing a perfidious person could do. When the monarchy was restored, he jumped ship to support Charles II, having already cleared his path at a secret meeting with Charles in Holland while he was still on Cromwell’s payroll.
Charles dispatched him to the Netherlands, where one of his jobs was to organise a spy ring and hunt down the remaining regicides at large who had killed his father, Charles I. One of those he captured was none other than Okey, the man who had sponsored his education in America. Okey was executed and buried in the Tower of London, rather than the graveyard of St Margaret’s Westminster where most of the regicides were interred, to minimise popular reaction.
To be fair, Downing did help institute some major financial reforms and was one of the key people supporting the reform of the Treasury and establishment of what became the Bank of England. He was also instrumental in doing a deal with the Dutch, as a result of which Britain acquired ownership of New York in exchange for Surinam. He amassed a huge fortune by fair means and foul.
A grateful Charles rewarded him with a knighthood and a parcel of land adjoining St James’s Park, including what was renamed Downing Street after he commissioned a row of smart terraced houses there. Judging by the recent double dealing among cabinet members it looks as though the ghost of George Downing still haunts Number 10.
The previous 82 instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here.