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A brief history of the Sneyd family, the Keele estate and the origins of Keele University
THE SNEYD FAMILY AND THE KEELE ESTATE
The Keele estate was originally purchased by William Sneyd in 1544 and was owned by the Sneyd family for over 400 years. The family dates back further to the 13th century as a minor branch of the powerful Audley family in Cheshire. The Sneyd coat of arms featured a device of a scythe to identify them in battle - the word for a handle of a scythe is a sned - offering the opportunity for a pun on the family name. One Sneyd fought in the victory over the French at Poitiers in 1356 and was awarded the French royal emblem of the fleur-de-lys to add to the scythe as a battle-honour.
The Sneyds were successful drapers and merchants in Chester and some took up law, two of them becoming Recorder of Chester. They were even more successful at marrying wealthy heiresses and from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century the family grew in stature. After the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, Sir William Sneyd bought the Keele estate and other lands in 1542, beginning the long Keele connection. William's son, Ralph Sneyd, built the first Keele Hall in 1580. Litle or nothing remains from this time apart from the quarry - referred to sometimes as the amphitheatre - and some very elderly trees. During the Civil War, the Sneyds took the King's side but fared badly in this predominantly Parliamentarian area. Colonel Sneyd was killed in the war and the family fell into a decline.
After two centuries of comfortable but comparatively modest living, the Sneyds moved up in the world during the 19th Century. Lt-Colonel Walter Sneyd was a Member of Parliament from 1784 to 1790 and commanded the Staffordshire Militia, which served for thirteen years as a bodyguard to King George III at Windsor. Sustained by substantial food parcels from Keele, the good Colonel managed to hold onto his expensive post and accrue advantages for the family. His children were brought up at the Royal court and the King and Queen were their godparents. Education at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, followed for the fortunate offspring and the family enjoyed a closer familiarity with the enormously rich Sutherland family (who lived nearby at Trentham). The gardens were landscaped during the 1820s and 1830s and the Springpool woods planted; the seven lakes, the holly hedge, the white well, the Italian garden, the sunken garden and the fountain were also created around this time. The small boathouse on the first lake was also constructed. Most of these elegant heritage features remain intact, have been restored or are scheduled to be restored.
Ralph Sneyd succeeded to the estate after the Colonel's death in 1829. Ralph stayed at Claridge's in London (as was right and proper for a gentleman of apparent - if not actual - means) and stayed frequently among the wealthy and aristocratic families of the realm. However, he invested with a persistent lack of success in coal mines and other ventures. His first agent managed affairs poorly at Keele so increasingly extreme financial measures were required to remain afloat. After 1848 Ralph engaged a new agent whose probity and efficiency restored the estate to a much healthier footing. Ralph Sneyd remained a bachelor and his main occupation became the management and improvement of the estate; he constructed or repaired farm buildings, improved the lakes, planted trees and altered the roads. The old hall had fallen into such disrepair that it had been in danger of collapse for decades but the up turn in the estate's fortunes enabled Ralph to achieve in 1855 his dream of rebuilding of Keele Hall, at the age of 69. He completed the project in 1860 and the existing Keele Hall is largely the result of Ralph Sneyd's work, with a very few survivals from earlier times.
In 1870 the estate passed to Ralph's famously idle brother, Rev Walter Sneyd. Walter was so exhausted in God's ministry that he retired to a comfortable but busy indolence in his mid-twenties. He went on to collect rare books and manuscripts and established one of the most notable private libraries in the country.
Walter’s son Ralph threw a notable party for three thousand people at Keele Hall when he attained his majority. He also found time to race horses and to lead the local Hunt. "Sporting Ralph" was the last of the family to reside at Keele, although he actually lived away for much of the time. He founded the Keele Park racecourse and built breeding stables (now the Clock House buildings) and even a railway station for the convenience of race-goers. The Keele racecourse was located to the right of Clockhouse Drive, facing away from the Clock House. The home straight is now under the M6. In 1907 Uttoxeter Racecourse was built and opened by a company formed to take over the interests and licence of Keele Park Racecourse which had recently ceased to operate.
Right: This original print from "Vanity Fair" depicts thoroughbred horse breeder Ralph Sneyd and ws published on March 10th, 1898.
"Sporting Ralph" continued as a Victorian gentleman at the end of the nineteenth century should – a world tour, a new yacht, shooting-parties with the King, horse-racing, three wives and an expensive divorce. He seldom visited Keele although it seemed to "possess every qualification which could be required in a country seat". In 1902 there was a severe reversal of future - an economic slump coincided with the expiry of the lease on the Silverdale coal mines. Legal disputes over the condition of the mines continued for years and heavy financial losses were incurred. Image: Sporting Ralph in Vanity Fair 1898
From 1901 to 1910 Keele Hall experienced a brief renaissance when it was rented to the Grand Duke Michael of Russia, a cousin of the Tsar. In 1891, the Grand Duke fell in love with Countess Sophie von Merenberg, daughter of Prince Nikolaus Wilhelm of Nassau and his morganatic wife, née Natalie Alexandrovna Pushkin, a member of the minor Russian nobility. Sophie’s maternal grandfather was the renowned poet-author Alexander Pushkin and through him, she had black African ancestry as a direct descendant of Peter the Great's African protégé, Abram Petrovich Gannibal. The Grand Duke met Sophie when he saved her from a horse that had run away with her. He did not bother to ask for the necessary permission for the marriage from the Tsar or his parents because he knew it would not be granted. Four previous proposals of marriage had already been spurned! He was then exiled from Russia for marrying below his station and without permission. Sophie was later given the title of Countess de Torby by the Grand Duke of Luxembourg in an attempt to elevate her status. The Grand Duke indulged his passion for the life of an English country squire and took a full part in the Keele community - for example, as Governor of Keele School and as patron of the cricket club. The Bolshevik Revolution prevented his return to Russia and he died in 1927.
Ralph lived on in the south of England, serving as Colonel of the Staffordshire Yeomanry. In his absence, the Sneyd family's association with Keele - so glorious in the 17th Century and revived briefly in the late 19th Century – gradually dwindled in the face of an expensive social life, economic failure and indifferent absentee ownership. The house which had been rebuilt on the grand scale for the family's successors served it for only one more generation. Ralph sold many of the treasures of the house and when he died in 1949, his eulogy, as he might have liked, revered him as "a fine sportsman, a keen fisherman and expert shot". In other respects he was less successful - three marriages produced no children.
Colonel Ralph Sneyd's moment of historical destiny occurred during the Great War when he arrested the notorious exotic dancer and courtesan Mata Hari for counter-espionage. It was believed that Hari was spying for the Germans and she was charged with revealing secrets that resulted the deaths of at least 50,000 men. After a controversial trial, she was found guilty and executed by firing squad 15 October 1917.
Photo left: Colonel Ralph Sneyd in the Great War.
In 1939 the deteriorating house and estate were requisitioned by the military for war. The Hall was occupied and dozens of temporary buildings were erected to house troops - most of whom were in transit. Forces evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940 were certainly passed through Keele and American forces were stationed later in the war (many of the accommodation huts were of an American design far superior to their British counterparts). After the war the base was converted into a transit camp for refugees. The estate was finally acquired in 1949 to become the home of the newly created University College of North Staffordshire, later to become the University of Keele.
The estate eventually passed to a sister's son, Major Henry Howard, but his early death left the estate liable to double death duties and forced the sale of the estate. This financial collapse to all intents and purposes brought an end to the Sneyd connection with the Keele estate.
THE NEW UNIVERSITY AND LINDSAY'S "IDEA"
By 1969 Keele University was being described as "the most original innovation in British university education in the 20th century".
So how did such a remarkable achievement come about at a dilapidated old house near a little-known village in Staffordshire rather than, as might be expected, in a major city or at an existing academic powerhouse? It was "the first of the New Universities", joining just twelve long-established English universities and four university colleagues.
The origin of Keele lies in an “Idea” and not in government policy or big business investment. The idea was that of Lord Lindsay, Master of Balliol College, Oxford. While several new universities were founded in the 1960s under the auspices of the University of London and through explicit government policy, Keele was an earlier and singular experiment, emerging from the era of post-war austerity and idealism. Its creation was driven by Lindsay's vision and the needs of an impoverished local community.
Lindsay's Idea emerged from his lifelong study of the social and political organisation of the state. He charted the social and political changes that arose from the industrial and technological revolutions of the 18th century and the social and political Revolutions of the 19th century. He identified one consequence of these changes in the universities: their original purpose (to train people in the learned professions and as leaders of a traditional society - in Law, Divinity and so on), had been supplemented by a new requirement to train technologists, scientists and specialists for a new kind of society and economy. As the trend developed, graduates lost the common background, terminology, and values which had previously been almost universal in university education. Mutual understanding declined as specialisation increased and the great institutions of the country appeared to be at risk of fragmentation.
The triple catastrophe of the First World War, the Great Depression and the rise of Nazism and the Second World War, in Lindsay's view, represented a breach in society, which was caused at least in part by a failure of communication among educated people. He said, "The man who only knows more and more about less and less is becoming a public danger". He believed that steps needed to be taken to balance essential specialist and expert knowledge with "a wide outlook and general understanding" - particularly an awareness of the shared European cultural heritage. He considered that this balance would keep the threats of perverted science and unethical political systems in check. He summed it up at the end of his life: "If we are going to try and keep a democratic country and maintain understanding of one another, we have to send out people from our universities who can do the technical stuff and who at the same time have an understanding of political and social problems and of the values that lie behind them". It is from this idea that the original Keele interdisciplinary curriculum developed - and which Keele still espouses - and in response to which the Keele Experiment was created.
Money was tight after the War and university expansion, although desperately needed, was expected to occur through existing universities and not through a fanciful educational experiment in the wilds of North Staffordshire. Nevertheless, these obstacles were overcome - due largely to three local factors.
One local catalyst for a new university was the Workers Educational Association, particularly a very influential class founded in Longton in 1908 by R H Tawney. The movement was supported by Oxford University, especially Balliol, and summer schools were held at Balliol from 1910. Lindsay was one of the young tutors and he fell in love with the WEA - this was a crucial local connection that proved the demand for academic and intellectual stimulation in the Potteries. Whereas most great new industrial cities had acquired universities or university colleges in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Potteries never did, due to a lack of financial "muscle" and influence. It fell to the WEA and not a wealthy industrialist or benefactor to provide the impetus.
Alderman Rev Thomas Horwood, Vicar of Etruria and leader of the Labour group on the Stoke City Council was the second local catalyst. After the Labour landslide victory 1945 Horwood galvanised and cajoled the city council to provide the funds and drive through the bid for a new university in North Staffordshire. Academic standards and respectability were secured for a new "University College of North Staffordshire" and an Academic Council overseen by Oxford, Manchester and Birmingham Universities imposed academic rigour until the full university charter was awarded in 1962. Horwood steered a relentless and imaginative course of political fixing to achieve the creation of the university.
Photo left: The first cohort of students pass through Keele Hall gates in 1950.
The third catalyst was the acquisition of Keele Hall itself. The Hall had been occupied by various military forces during the war, accumulating a range of temporary buildings and a new layer of neglect. Colonel Sneyd didn't want to live in the distant, dilapidated residence so Horwood offered to buy it from him for the university. Sneyd resisted grimly and only when he was distracted by the radio commentary on a horse race (his horse won!) did Horwood finally persuade him into giving up the ancestral home... Further "fixing" and bargaining secured the military buildings from the War Department and a physical home for the university was acquired. The first "cheap and cheerful" buildings began to be planned on a tight budget to house the essential functions and laboratories.
Most new universities of the 1960s evolved from being University Colleges of London University... but after decades of waiting they had not earned the right to award their own degrees and become independent degree-awarding universities. For example, Nottingham had to wait 67 years and Southampton 50 for their independence to be finally recognised in the 1960s. The upstart University College of North Staffordshire at Keele gained University status in 1962 - after a mere twelve years of existence - and had the coveted degree-awarding status, under oversight, from the very beginning.
It had been urgent and imperative for Keele to award its own degrees as soon as possible or Lindsay’s idea and its new approach were doomed. Existing patterns of curriculum, examinations and awarding of degrees would have stifled the innovative Keele experiment and Keele’s success in gaining the freedom to experiment bears testimony to the force of the idea and the energy of those who implemented it.
Photo: Programme for first degrees awarded at UCNS, Keele, 1954
The University College of North Staffordshire overcame stiff opposition and in 1949 the founding professors prepared for the first intake of students. Lindsay's vision metamorphosed from a concept into a reality – Keele was not just the first of the “new universities” but also a completely new kind of university.
THE KEELE EXPERIENCE
Visitors to Keele invariably find their way to Keele Hall and its beautiful woodlands, lakes and gardens. For all Keele students and alumni, it is the focal point for memory. Each year new students trek the woodland paths and discover secret dingles, experiencing these delights for the first time. Keele students love Keele Hall and the estate simply because it is there – and seemed to have been there forever. For some it is remembered as a place of study, others for social and special occasions, but for all it has been the starting point for campus wanderings and trysts of every kind.
Students have studied and spent of much of their time within its walls from the beginning – the last academic department didn't vacate until the 21st century. But how did the estate look in 1949? After years of neglect the estate was in a poor state by the 1930s. Occupation by military forces during the Second World War also had a severe impact. A mass of over a hundred temporary buildings - christened by students as the "Huts" - clustered together for warmth on the wind-swept fields and scrubland. Their wooden, cardboard and tin walls and asbestos compound roofs were made more weatherproof and proved to be remarkably habitable. The pride and glory were two Nissen huts to house the Students' Union, the original refectory and Chapel and a primitive gymnasium and a garage; these structures were originally triple-sized NAAFI units. Two large and particularly ugly huts were placed on the Italian gardens by Keele Hall. These were finally removed and the garden restored to its full glory during the 1980s.
The Arboretum proudly planted around the lakes by the Sneyd family was in a very sorry state. Even the elegant and temperamental swans were yet to take up temporary residence. The glorious mature trees that adorn the campus now were mostly absent or mere saplings – but hundreds of trees planted over many years have increasingly added colour, shelter and beauty. An area of 26 acres was allocated for playing fields but the work to prepare the ground was protracted and was not completed until 1954. This work was delayed by spells of heavy snow and record breaking rain. The essential equipment for the early students was a pair of hard-wearing gumboots or Wellington boots - and they proudly adopted the nickname of "the Welly Brigade". Further problems arose from the heavy red clay soil which has hindered every effort at landscaping and construction on the campus and causes glutinous mud to appear in places after any lengthy spell of rain.
Photo right: At rear, Lois Proctor and Jan Niewiadomski and members of the Polish forces stationed at Keele, Easter 1947. Lois and Jan married and stayed along with many former Polish soldiers in North Staffordshire, while others returned to Poland.
Photo below: Officers of US Third Army at Keele in 1943. American forces built the more durable barracks huts that were adopted by the University as residences and work spaces.
In 1949 parts of Keele Hall were gutted. The grand main staircase was still to be restored, the roof was half-covered in galvanised iron, a fire had damaged part of the top floor and the courtyard was a mass of debris and construction materials. The customary Keele drizzle and "Stoke smoke" inevitably greeted early visitors to the university site. Lord Lindsay commented to two glum, sodden professors when they attended for their job interview, "Yes, but you must see it with the eye of imagination...." As a symbol of that imagination of regeneration, a bronze dragon was plucked from the rubble, refurbished and polished to become "Herbert" or “Soranus”, the first university mascot. Further parts of the estate were acquired in 1951, including The Hawthorns, a large house in Keele village. In 1951 the first meteorological station was set up by Keele Hall and it has been maintained ever since.
In 1950 the first students arrived - to study and live in the hall and the temporary military buildings, alongside the academic staff in the surrounding houses. From above came rules: academic gowns were to be worn at all Foundation Year lectures, and when visiting academic staff and at the regular formal dinners. Guests were allowed into the room of a student of the opposite sex only between 2 pm and 7pm and a curfew of 11 pm was applied. The Horwood Refectory boasted a top table where the academic staff could overlook students munching vigorously through meals (some recognisable and others not), that had been concocted to the limit of post-war rationing and fertile imagination. From below creative new traditions were devised by the students. A special candlelit dinner became an annual tradition - the first having been forced upon students by a power-cut. The Students Union was founded and the honorary position of Swanmaster or Swanmistress invented to recognise distinguished service and to meet the needs of Keele’s new waterfowl. Before long the Chapel , the Union, the little shop and the plethora of societies were eagerly serving soul, mind and body (not necessarily in that order).
Photo right: Taken on the very first day of UCNS at Keele in 1950, these students and friends stride boldly through Keele Hall Gate, watched by builders and estate workers.
Despite a bus service to Newcastle and beyond, most students were on campus “for the duration" of term. An almost total absence of cars meant that staff and students could have felt isolated. Forced to create a campus community from scratch, they built up the practical and social supports that enabled them first to survive and then to thrive. In some ways students were well looked-after in a time of general austerity - there were regular meals, the military huts could be made comfortable and were usually warm and cosy. The local authority grant sufficed for the prudent to buy all their necessities and even some carefully-hoarded treats. With a student body of just over 102 men and 55 women, company and friendships were never in short supply in that first intake - and the prompt creation of 25 societies provided an outlet for every passion or interest, most students joining many! Attendance at the Saturday evening "hop" and the Film Club was always high, while the highlights of the social calendar were the Christmas and Summer Balls. Debates, Drama, Musical shows and concerts of all styles were regular outlets for creativity and enjoyment. Sport and Athletics, despite the most primitive conditions, began and thrived - alongside the team sports like hockey, cricket, rugby netball and football even fencing, golf, swimming and tennis were played and coached.
Photo left: Queueing for Film Night in a Nissen Hut.
Only the relentless wind and rain across the bare fields and the glutinous mud hindered progress – but before long these pioneering students were to proudly adopt the title of the "Welly Brigade" as they trudged from Hut to Hall in boots and gowns.
Those first students knew they were taking on something challenging and unusual. Most did so deliberately and with their eyes open - many wanted to be "in" on something unique and experimental. Some were idealists, while others were just open to adventure. Amongst the students there were characters - from mavericks drawn to novelty and gifted students who caught fire from the revolutionary programme. A few arrived by default when their dearth of Latin excluded them from Oxford or Cambridge. A large proportion was from North Staffordshire, coming to "their own place". Most had an entrance interview that left them nonplussed but even more determined to come. A quarter of the first intake of men, older and experienced, returned from National Service or Government Service to find the "new" and "modern" Keele more appealing and accepting than the stiffer, more traditional universities.
Photo Right: Early members of Keele University Cricket Club.
Friendly relationships with staff were actively encouraged. The rules, while restrictive in some ways, reflected the mores of the time but were generally less hide-bound then elsewhere. More importantly, the thrill of novelty and creativity pervaded everything. The syllabus was challenging and stretching beyond the experience of any, including the teachers! And the staff exhibited similar characteristics to the students - most were young, unknown or just setting out on ambitious academic careers that would spread the Keele experience to many other universities. All were exceptional in one way or another, reflecting Lindsay's impulse to bring together educated, imaginative and cooperative people for "the pursuit of truth in the company of friends".
One key feature of the new Keele syllabus was the Foundation Year. A course of lectures and tutorials led all students on a journey across all disciplines of learning to establish a common basis of knowledge. The subsequent three years involved two subjects at honours level and three (later two) subjects at subsidiary level - at least one of the subjects had to be from the sciences, one from the arts and one from the social sciences. During the first decade, 40% of students changed one of their main subjects and 9% changed both after the Foundation Year - an indication of how influential this experience of new fields of endeavour was on study and thought. Tutorial teaching was a key component and students of other universities marvelled that Keele students not only knew their professors by name and character and idiosyncrasy - but even socialised with and baby-sat for them! Staff and students were drawn together into a cooperative enterprise. Keele students acquired the rare ability to discuss almost any subject with insight and understanding and, as a very useful by-product, the capacity to "bluff" convincingly in any circumstances. They also acquired a flexibility of thought and adaptability that gave access to a unlimited variety of exceptional, fulfilling or unusual careers and lifestyles.
Another feature of Keele was an emphasis on campus residence. In the beginning, all students lived on campus for all years - that has been eroded gradually but even in the 21st century, Keele still has one of the highest rates of on campus residence in the UK (70% for undergraduates). Keele still retains its special reputation for developing students who are mature (some might question this!) and with precious social skills acquired through surviving and thriving in a close community. And Keele remained small and beautiful - by 1960 there were still only 800 undergraduate students and less than a thousand alumni of the 1950s forging their careers.
Photo Left: Socialising, early 1960s style.
In 1972, Sir James Mountford stated, "Keele survived and flourished. Compared with other unviersities... it is still - and largely by choice - one of the smaller institutions; but it has continued to make a kind of contribution to English university education which is not parallelled elsewhere".
THE KEELE LEGACY
In 2007, the University described itself thus:
"A dynamic, forward-thinking and innovative campus university. Keele continues to adapt, thrive and evolve in the 21st Century. Keele was the first Higher Education institution to be established after the Second World War in the United Kingdom, gaining degree-awarding powers in 1949. Its founders espoused radical educational principles and the University was created to promote interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary scholarship. This ethos and commitment continues to this day".
So why didn't the other new universities – or even the traditional ones - copy Keele? In many ways, many did... nearly every UK University now presents dual-honours degrees, although none to the same extent or in the esoteric combinations that Keele still continues to offer. The attempt to create a campus community was adopted by many, often using Keele's original template, in an effort to replicate Keele’s integration of educational and social life. The Foundation Year was discontinued in the 1990s under political pressure, cost and growing unpopularity among applicants. FY was prized by nearly all students but it was not widely emulated. An equivalent survives at Keele to help students less familiar with higher education to extend their knowledge before embarking on a full degree course.
Despite its innovations, Keele's impact was perhaps more fundamental on a social rather than a strictly educational level. Keele broke the restrictive mould of university education and every university founded since the 1960s benefited from the breakthrough that gave the power Keele to present its own degrees, to devise its own curricula. Keele catalysed cross-fertilisation and cooperation between academic schools and disciplines. Lord, Fulton, Vice-Chancellor of Sussex when it was founded in 1961, said: "The battle for Keele was no pushover. It had to be fought all the way. And, in fighting that battle, Keele smoothed the path for all the new foundations which have come after it."
While Keele has changed, and continues to change, Lindsay's Idea remains fundamental to its ethos and the unique Keele experience. Keele provided the impetus to adapt university education in the UK to the needs of a rapidly changing world and seeks to continue that mission.
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Keele University October 2007
This information is taken largely from a lecture by John M Kolbert, historian of Keele and the Sneyd family and a former member of the Keele administrative staff. His book, "Keele: The First Fifty Years. A Portrait of the University 1950-2000" and other relevant books are listed at the foot of the Heritage webpage
The University Charter was granted by HRH Queen Elizabeth II on 26th January 1962.
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