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Keele's Mascot: Herbert the Dragon
Drizzle and 'Stoke smoke' invariably greeted early visitors to the new University College of North Staffordshire in 1950. 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 hope and imagination, the University adopted a Fabulous Dragon as its Mascot.
But where did the dragon come from? For many years it was believed to date from the turn of the 20th Century and to perhaps be one of a pair of giant boot-scrapers, made for Keele Hall at the nearby Gresham’s Apedale Works. However, Herbert the Dragon is 400 years older than was thought - and he's actually an Italian, and not a local from North Staffordshire!
The True Story
In 2018, Helen Burton (curator of Special Collections and Archives in Keele Unviersity Library) researched an archive of Sneyd family documents on deposit from the local solicitors Knight and Sons:
"Until recently we still had a large deposit of mid twentieth documents in the original metal deed box. Yesterday I discovered that these records include documents and photographs relating to 'Herbert', shedding a whole new lights on its origins.
"Herbert is in fact a late Gothic bronze 'fabulous monster', once part of a drinking fountain with a marble cistern. It was brought from Italy by Col. Ralph Sneyd in 1903 and installed in the 'Flower Court' (a downstairs conservatory) in Keele Hall."
In 1889 Ralph Sneyd decided that he needed a Smoking Room on the principal floor of Keele Hall , so the Billiard Room was turned into a Smoking Room, and an extension was added at the west end of the house. This provided a new a slightly larger Billiard Room, with a Gun Room beneath, looking out on to the entrance courtyard, and a conservatory or 'winter garden' on the south side.This conservatory became the Flower Court where the fabulous monster was installed in 1903. The wellhead was damaged when this room was used as a cook house during the war, but the photographs and documents confirm that both dragon and wellhead were in situ in 1949. The location of the wellhead remains a mystery but the dragon was rediscovered in 1951.
Ralph Sneyd's father, the Rev Walter Sneyd was a renowned collector of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, especially from Italy, and he may have inspired Ralphs' interest in re-homing the fabulous monster.
Photo right: A Fabulous Monster lived in the Flower Court, with well-bucket and font.
Discovering a Dragon
The Dragon was re-discovered in 1951 by the first residents of the new Unviersity College of North Staffordshire. He was buried in one of the many rubbish dumps that had built up around Keele Hall during its wartime occupation by British and American forces.
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 them secretly to their room in Keele Hall. After weeks of repair, cleaning and polishing they reassembled the splendid discovery and named him Herbert. He has answered to many other names at Keele – 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 the urbane and popular warden Paul Rolo.
For a short while he was renamed 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)
Photo right: A Fabulous Monster in mid flight in the Flower Court, with well-chain and pulley.
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 left: 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.
Herbert now lives in an elegant “Dragon’s Den” in the atrium of Keele University Library. His new lair was built 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. I used to carry a pulley and chain in my wife to draw water from a well beneath my feet but they went missing. I don't mind, they were quite heavcy. But I do wish I could find that old font!
And when did you come to Keele?
People say I was born at the turn of the 20th Century at Gresham’s Apedale Works and that I have an identical twin brother. They even ared to suggest that first job was as a boot-scraper outside Keele Hall. In fact I am a Fabulous Monster and I am already over four hundred years old. I came to Keele Hall in 1903 to protect Colonel Sneyd from my lair in the Flower Court. Very soon afterwards I served a refreshing drink to His Majesty King Edward VII when he visited Grand Duke Michael of Russia, the Tsar’s cousin, at Keele. My family and the Royal Family are distantly related, through the Welsh line. So it is very apt that I was rescued by Ron and Mairwen Evans - they are both Welsh!
Did you serve in the war?
No, my loyalty was torn between my homeland of Italy and my adopted home of Britain. I was forced to take refuge in a rubbish heap to avoid being melted down for use in munitions. But I did offer water to the Italian prisoners of war who worked on the surrounding farms.
Photo right: Sporting Mascot
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.
I am thrilled that Helen Burton rediscovered my true glorious lineage in 2018 - for nearly seventy years I was described as a... as a... as a.... BOOT-SCRAPER! The indignity! My name has been dragged through the mud.
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. The best bit was riding aroun Stoke and Newcasle on the back of a truck. I was applauded by thousands of cheering people, you know.
I was an ever-present at Balls, Dinners and social events too.
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?
For a while 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 hew to make a dragon happy.
Photo left: Fair Captors of the Beast of Lindsay Hall.
What was your most embarrassing moment?
That was when I was painted bright blue. Oh, the abrasions i got from being scrubbed clean. 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. I may be heavy but I still have the moves.
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 and of Staffordshire.
And favourite films?
I didn’t like “Dragonslayer” at all and "How to Train your Dragon" was way off. I quite like that Bruce Lee martial arts one – what was it called? “Enter the Dragon”? Or was it, “Dragon: the Bruce Lee story”? I model myself on Bruce Lee - but I am even better in a fight. I have not seen "Game of Thrones" yet but hear it is quite good. As for that Smaug - he is a disgrace.
Do you get out much?
Not much now. For a while I enjoyed a peaceful retirement in the Raven-Mason Suite in Keele Hall. I attended the Keele Pioneers Reunion of 1950s Graduates in 2006, when 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 comings and goings in the atrium from my splendid glass case. I really appreciate it that Keele alumni gave the money to build my new home through the Keele Key Fund - so thanks, everyone!
Grace Filby (Class of 1974) has photographed Herbert during his various adventures (see below) and added to his history:
"A famous tenant of Keele Hall from 1901-1910 was Grand Duke Michael Michael of Russia, a cousin of the Tsar and a great friend of King Edward VII. 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."
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?