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The Snell Foundation

John Snell was born about 1629 on what is now Almont Farm at Pinwherry, a hamlet in the Ayrshire parish of Colmonell. His father was the local blacksmith. Snell was enrolled at the University of Glasgow for the 1642-3 session, and stayed there for two or three years, but did not take a degree, and travelled south to fight for the King in the English Civil War. By 1654 he was in the service of Sir Orlando Bridgeman, who was Lord Chief Justice of Common Pleas 1660-8, and Lord Keeper of the Great Seal 1667-72. Snell was seal-bearer to Bridgeman and his successor the Earl of Shaftesbury. He accumulated a substantial fortune, no doubt partly from the perks of office, but he was already a man of means before holding any official position. This fortune of obscure origin he invested in the Manor of Ufton, Warwickshire, which he bought from William Spencer in 1674. He gave books during his lifetime to the University of Glasgow, which conferred an MA degree on him by diploma in 1662.

Snell made his will in 1677. Its main provision was to put the Manor of Ufton into the hands of Trustees, for the maintenance of Scottish students from Glasgow at Oxford, continuing philanthropy along these lines he had already begun informally. The Master of Balliol was to be one of the Trustees ex officio, but Balliol (then a College of relatively little consequence) was not otherwise mentioned in the will. Balliol was, nevertheless, the natural base for Snell's legacy - partly because of its Scottish associations through Dervorguilla of Galloway and her son King John Balliol, and partly because Balliol already had some Exhibitions for Scots from the will of John Warner, Bishop of Rochester. Snell died at what is now 31 Holywell Street, Oxford on 6 August 1679. He was buried in nearby St Cross Church: there was an inscribed marble gravestone, but it was covered or destroyed in Victorian times.

A scheme was eventually worked out for the Glasgow authorities to nominate young men to Snell Exhibitions tenable at Balliol, but no requirement to take Holy Orders (this being frustrated by the 1690 re-establishment of Presbyterianism in Scotland) or to return to Scotland was enjoined on them. Snell had wanted these conditions (which were derived from the Warner Foundation) enforced by a stiff financial penalty. The first four Snell Exhibitioners were sent from Glasgow and admitted to Balliol in mid-1699. There was bickering, distrust and litigation from the outset. Consistently comfortable relations between Balliol and Glasgow were only achieved this century, but this did not generally bother the Exhibitioners themselves, who included James Stirling the mathematician; Adam Smith the great political economist, author of The Wealth of Nations; Matthew Baillie of Morbid Anatomy fame; AC Tait, Archbishop of Canterbury; Robert Blair VC; Edward Caird, Master of Balliol; and one of the College's greatest Benefactors, JS MacArthur.

List of Snell Exhibitioners 1699 - 1999

List of Snell Visitors 1972 - 1999


WI Addison, The Snell Exhibitions from the University of Glasgow to Balliol College, Oxford, 1901.

[E]L[G] Stones, The Life and Career of John Snell (c.1629-1679), Stair Soc. Miscellany II, 1984, 148-220.

In 1999, as part of the celebrations of the tercentenary of the Snell Foundation, an exhibition of Snelliana (biased somewhat in the direction of Adam Smith) was staged at Balliol. An illustrated catalogue was produced: John Snell's Exhibition 1699-1999 (ISBN 0 9512569 4 7). Copies are available from the author.

- John Jones

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Updated 11.viii.14
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