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. Little 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 upturn 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.
"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.
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. He had been exiled from Russia for marrying below his station and dismissed from command of his regiment in disgrace. His wife was given the title of Countess de Torby by the Grand Duke of Luxembourg in an attempt to elevate her status. She was grand-daughter of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin and, through him, a descendant of Peter the Great's African slave Abram Hannibal. 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.
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.