DOWNING, JOHN, fl. 1647–82, and WILLIAM, d. 1681; settlers in Newfoundland.
Their father John Downing senior, a London merchant, was appointed deputy governor of Newfoundland in 1640 during Sir David Kirke’s absence; he settled and died there. The younger John Downing became prominent in the island’s affairs when, in 1676, he came to London to represent the planters’ interests in the struggle for the survival of settlement on the island. The long conflict between planters and the western fishing merchants had culminated that year in an order that the inhabitants leave. The enforcement of the order was delayed first by Sir John Berry’s support of the settlers and then by John Downing’s powerful representation of their case.
Downing’s purpose was to have a governor appointed with authority over both inhabitants and visiting fishermen. He employed two main arguments: that it was the fishermen who committed abuses and the planters who brought order to the island, and that the French threat from Plaisance (Placentia Bay) was so great that, if the planters left, Newfoundland and its fishery would be lost to the Crown. Downing also held that the settlers had a legal right to live there because of the earlier proprietary patents. As a result of his pleading the Privy Council ordered an investigation to be made by the convoy commodore. (Such investigations soon became an established practice.) The hearing of evidence from both sides dragged on and early in 1677 Downing asked permission to return to Newfoundland where his family needed him. He seems to have gone to the island later that year and was still living in St. John’s in 1682.
By 1679 his brother William had become the planters’ agent and put forward arguments very similar to those used by John. With a fellow settler, Thomas Oxford, he proposed the fortification of certain key harbours. By now the inhabitants’ plight had grown so desperate because of the fishermen’s violence that they considered returning to England or seeking French protection. Early in 1680 William reported that the settlers were prepared to withdraw to four harbours and restrict the settlement to its present size. He renewed his plea for the appointment of a governor whom the planters offered to support; the suggestion was accepted on condition that the money could be raised voluntarily.
Such was the position when William Downing left for Newfoundland early in 1681 but in June he was reported to have died at sea. The steady opposition of experienced planters like the Downings to the pressure to end settlement in Newfoundland was a major factor in the defeat of the charter regulations of 27 Jan. 1675/76. The situation remained fluid, the government undecided, until the passing of the Newfoundland Act in 1699 when the position of the inhabitants was confirmed.
For the official petitions and representations made by the Downings see PRO, C.O. 1/38, nos. 33, 70, 73, 74; 1/39, nos. 12, 45, 49, 50, 53, 56, 57; 1/43, nos. 16, 41, 51 83; 1/44, nos. 18, 23, 27, 34; 1/47, nos. 15, 52; 391/1 nos. 305–7; 391/2, nos 22–26, 31–38, 323–35; 391/3, nos. 3, 4, 159, 160. BM, Egerton MS 2395, ff.560–66v. See also: PRO, Acts of P.C., col. ser., 1613–80; CSP, Col., 1675–76, 1677–80, 1681–85. William Downing’s will is at Somerset House, P.C.C., 40 North. Lounsbury, British fishery at Nfld. Prowse, History of Nfld.