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Keele's Mascot: Herbert the Dragon
Herbert the Dragon is made of bronze and has removable wings. He is believed to date from the turn of the 20th Century and was probably one of a pair of giant boot-scrapers, originally made for Keele Hall at Gresham’s Apedale Works.
T he customary Keele drizzle and 'Stoke smoke' invariably greeted early visitors to the site of the new University College of North Staffordshire. The first Principal, 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, a brass dragon was plucked from the rubble, refurbished and polished to become the first University mascot.
Keele’s Dragon is made of bronze and has removable wings. He is believed to date from the turn of the 20th Century and is probably one of a pair of giant boot-scrapers, originally made for Keele Hall at Gresham’s Apedale Works.
The Dragon was re-discovered in 1951 in one of the many rubbish dumps that had built up around Keele Hall during its wartime occupation by British and American forces. The second dragon was never found.
When the new University College of North Staffordshire (later Keele University) opened in 1950 a founding lecturer, Dr Ron Evans, and his wife Mairwen found the dragon in three pieces and moved him secretly to their room in Keele Hall. After weeks of repair, cleaning and polishing they named the splendid discovery Herbert. He has answered to many other names – Herbert is the one assigned by his finders. Former students also remember him as Cyranus or Soranus – a minor Roman god associated with the God of the Underworld.
Herbert became the University Mascot for Results Day celebrations and sporting competitions. He lived riotously from 1956 to 1961 in the main hall of Hawthorns House under the custody of Warden Paul Rolo. For a short while he became the "Beast of Lindsay Hall”, after he was stolen and installed in the female residences of Lindsay Hall.
"Our 1952 intake were the first men to live in Hawthorns House. Our arrival at Keele increased the undergraduate population from 300 to 450, split roughly 50/50 men and women. When we found ourselves to be a bike ride from the centre of campus we certainly bonded very quickly but also felt a bit isolated. We decided something should be done to let the girls know we existed. So we issued an invitation to the girls of Lindsay Hall to come for tea. A brave posse of young ladies walked down the long drive and we greeted them in the lounge to the right of the front door. This was 1952 – the Swinging Sixties were far off. We had no idea what to do with them. There followed an excruciating, embarrassing afternoon of small talk over cups of tea and cakes and if any promising liaisons were formed they were not very obvious. The frequent after lunch coffee sessions in a room of one of the huts on campus were much more rewarding. The girls did not arrive en masse again until much later when they sneakily stole our beloved dragon Cyranus and took it back up the drive. We got it back, eventually, but the Hawthorns house always remained a bit of a fortress and a foreign place for most of the other students until the site was developed into halls of residence, long after we had gone." Keith Clement (1956)
Herbert was recaptured from Lindsay Hall but was soon evicted permanently from the Hawthorns when it was announced that the floor had been weakened by so much jiving during parties that it could no longer bear his weight.
For many years Herbert stood guard outdoors at the Evans’ home in Keele village but he absconded frequently to take part in student pranks. On a snowy night during 1960 Rag Week he ended up on a bonfire. He has been painted bright blue and enjoyed pride of place during many Rag Weeks, riding imperiously on the back of a flatbed truck. He has attended innumerable Balls, Dinners and social events and been introduced to HRH Princess Margaret.
"Soranus, now called Herbert, was discovered in one of the cellars of Keele Hall and transported on a cart to the Hawthorns where it was mounted in the hall opposite the main entrance. Part of the rivalry between the Campus and the Hawthorns dwellers involved the “dragon” being stolen and moved to Lindsay Hall by six or so young lady undergraduates, generally accepted as no mean feat in view of the weight of the monster. It returned to the Hawthorns following the victory party which the young ladies arranged, but it went on to have many subsequent adventures and was renamed Herbert. There are several photographs of it when it was in the Hawthorns’ possession, notably at the Xmas Party in 1952 and a subsequent Cricket match." John Groom (1956)
During the 1990’s he was renamed as the Ron Evans Trophy and he presented prizes to the winners of the annual Raft Races on Keele Hall Lake.
In 2006 Mairwen Evans and her daughter Catryn presented Herbert to the University in memory of Ron Evans, a founding member of the Biology Department and the founder or leader of many activities at Keele, including the Rugby Club, the Rag and the Orchestra. Ron was also the first Secretary of the Keele Society founded in 1954. Mairwen passed away in 2015: of the twenty original occupants of Keele Hall in 1949 she was the last survivor - they lived in Keele Hall with Miss Rolfe (Bursar) and Professor Vick. She and Ron lived in the former Butler's Pantry. Catyrn added: "Life at Keele as a child of the "academic families" in those days of the 1960's and 1970's was hilarious, brilliant, free, life changing and treasured".
Photo Right: Herbert is presented to Keele University at the Pioneers Reunion 6 May 2006 by Mairwen Evans and daughter Catryn, in memory of Dr Ron Evans.
From 2006 until 2010 the Dragon enjoyed an elegant but quiet retirement in the Raven Mason Suite in Keele Hall but in 2010 he flew into the Atrium of the University Library where he can now be admired and remembered by all. The elegant “Dragon’s Den” in the Library where Herbert now lives was made with help from the Keele Key Fund.
An Interview with a Dragon
So Herbert, how would you describe yourself?
I am made of solid brass with removable wings. I am about four feet tall - six feet if I stretch my neck! I am also a bit heavy for my size - I need more exercise.
And when did you come to Keele?
I was born at the turn of the 20th Century at Gresham’s Apedale Works. I have an identical twin brother but we lost contact years ago. My first job was as a boot-scraper outside Keele Hall.
Have you scraped any interesting boots?
Actually, I have. In 1901 I scraped the boots of King Edward VII when he visited Grand Duke Michael of Russia, the Tsar’s cousin, who lived at Keele for ten years.
Did you serve in the war?
No, I was forced to take refuge in a rubbish heap to avoid being melted down for use in munitions.
How long were you down in the dumps?
In 1951 Dr Ron Evans came to teach at Keele with his wife Mairwen. They rescued me and took me up to their room on the top floor of Keele Hall. They spent weeks cleaning and restoring me to my original splendour. Wherever they lived I usually stood guard outside the Evans’ home. At one stage I lived for a long time in Hawthorns.
Do you have any hobbies?
I am a very sociable kind of dragon. I have been the mascot at Keele results day celebrations and for sporting competitions. I also took part in Rag Week and Carnival Parades. I was an ever-present at Balls, Dinners and social events. I really loved being the prize for the winners of the annual raft races. They were fantastic fun - I enjoyed watching the students paddling across Keele Hall lake. But I preferred watching them sink.
Which adventure do you remember most fondly?
I became the "Beast of Lindsay Hall”, after the Lindsay girls spirited me away from the Hawthorns to be installed in their own “Hall” - actually it was a Hut. Ah, those Lindsay girls… I'll never forget them... They really know how to treat a dragon like a dragon.
What was your most embarrassing moment?
That was when I was painted bright blue. Oh, but it was even worse was when I was expelled from the Hawthorns. The floor was pronounced too weak to take my weight after all the vigorous jiving at hops and parties during the Fifties.
What’s your favourite colour?
Almost anything but blue. I quite like the colour of brass but my favourites are red and gold - the colours of Keele.
I didn’t like “Dragonslayer” at all. But I did like that Bruce Lee martial arts one – what was it called? “Enter the Dragon”? Or was it, “Dragon: the Bruce Lee story”? Anyway, I model myself on Bruce Lee - but he has better moves.
Do you get out much?
Not much now. For a while I enjoyed a peaceful retirement in the Raven-Mason Suite in Keele Hall. When I visited the Keele Pioneers Reunion of 1950s Graduates in May 2006, Mairwen Evans formally presented me to the University. That was a great day out – but I’d love to get out a lot more – especially as a prize or mascot. In 2011 the University Library took me under its wing and built a Dragon's Den for me. I love watching all the coming and going in the atrium from my enormous glass case. I really appreciate it that Keele alumni gave the money to build my new home through the Keele Key Fund - thanks, everyone!
Parts of this Interview were published in Forever Keele Issue 2 2007
Grace Filby (Class of 1974) has photographed Herbert during his various adventures (below) and also added to his history:
"The owner of Keele Hall at the time of the dragon's creation was Ralph Sneyd, and a famous tenant from 1901-1910 was Grand Duke Michael Michael of Russia, a cousin of the Tsar and a great friend of King Edward VII. Keele Hall and the gardens were used for many social occasions by their family at that time so this might explain why a pair of fanciful dragons might be installed to greet guests at the main door. Meanwhile they had a practical function in enabling visitors to scrape their muddy boots before entering the magnificent interior of Keele Hall. Grand Duke Michael had fond memories from the first 20 years of his life in Georgia where the enduring symbol in mythology is of St George slaying the plague-bearing dragon. The same symbol is on the coat of arms of Moscow. In nearby Newcastle under Lyme a historic pub, the George and Dragon, stands in the centre of the Ironmarket. To have the dragons made locally at Apedale would have been a symbol of respect for the local people."
The Last Word?
Herbert has answered to many names – including Cyranus, Seranus or most probably Soranus... but the dragon's discoverers always knew him as Herbert.
"The dragon resided in the reception hall at the Hawthorns at least from 1956 - when my crowd joined the University and he was 'spirited' off sometime in about 1960 or 1961. His name is not Herbert! His name is Seranus and he was under the custody of Paul Rolo - warden at the Hawthorns at that time. Seranus was often the centre-piece of our rag floats and I have photos of Hawthorns undergraduates with the 'animal' - Ken Plampin, Mick Bailey, Bram Burger (the Dutchman) and Cliff Blakemore." Cliff Blakemore (1960) See Photo Left
"The dragon (I called it Cyrano or Herbert) got shoved on the bonfire or damaged in some way on the night of the 1960 Rag. it was a filthy snowing night and nobody bothered too much what happened to anything. The call of the Union bar was very great." Ticker Hayhurst (1960)
DR RON EVANS
Dr R G “Ron” Evans came to teach at Keele in 1951 until his retirement in 1981 and he continued to live in Keele village until his death in 1988. Mairwen continues to live in Keele village. Ron was a founding member of the Biology Department and he took a lead in many of the activities that made Keele what it is, including the Rugby Club, the Rag and the Orchestra.
Ron was also the first Secretary of the Keele Society and he and his wife Mairwen were important parts of the social life and welfare of both students and alumni.
Left: Ron Evans with another Keele "Original"- the late, great Paul Rolo.
Memories of Results' Day Celebrations
"When the University of North Staffordshire – later Keele University – celebrated its first Results Day it was a gloriously hot, sunny day. After scanning the Finals Results everyone made for the greenery and the lakes below Keele Hall. It was immediately obvious who had been successful in the Results and those unfortunates who had not. Ron and I went from group to group congratulating or commiserating, whichever was needed. We knew the students very well. There was not the large number that there are today. We had joined in student activities and had entertained most of them in our room. We were extremely sorry for those whose failure to graduate made them so miserable; so much so that while we walked home we decided future Results Days should include some jolly, physical activity. Ron immediately suggested including “Herbert” – already very much a popular addition to student activities and who could now feature as an Honoured Guest; so “Silly Things Down By The Lakes” came about hoping that unsuccessful candidates could succeed in making a raft or something similar from fallen branches was found, have races across the lake or to the island. There would be no prizes but instead photographs of participants, especially winners, posing with Herbert in central position as the Honoured Guest and University Mascot. It proved very popular. Everyone wanted to be placed nearest to Herbert and even to be seen “stroking” him. Copies of the photos would be given to those who wished them. Herbert was washed and cleaned and polished. His bronzed self was revealed minus the various painted stripes and daubs put on him for earlier student activities including a Royal parade for a visit by Queen Elizabeth. When Ron died in 1988 the Results Day celebrations continued in his memory in association with the legendary Raft races on Keele Hall lake." Mairwen Evans
Did you enjoy this? Why not read more stories from the Keele Oral History Project?