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100 years ago: a letter with a promise that made Bristol University

Photograph of the original letter from HO Wills

Photograph of the original letter from HO Wills

Press release issued: 15 January 2008

On January 15 1908, Bristol tobacco magnate George Wills received a letter from his father Henry Overton (HO) Wills, at his Burwalls home in Leigh Woods. That letter made possible the University of Bristol, whose official centenary will be celebrated next year.

On January 15 1908, Bristol tobacco magnate George Wills received a letter from his father Henry Overton (HO) Wills, at his home in Burwalls in Leigh Woods. That letter made possible the University of Bristol, whose official centenary will be celebrated next year.

For the previous ten years, campaigners had sought to create a true University, teaching a full range of subjects and awarding its own degrees out of the University College that had been founded in 1876, but had always been plagued by financial difficulties and had never had the full support of all the city.

Despite the creation of a non-political committee to promote the cause, progress was slow and Bristol was clearly lagging behind other great cities that were getting their universities; party politics kept getting in the way, as did the Merchant Venturers’ interest in keeping their long-established Technical College independent. Against this background, fund-raising was patchy and very dependent on the goodwill and generosity of the keenest supporters.

In January 1906, the Merchant Venturers College was burnt down, and with co-operation at last between the conflicting parties, Lewis Fry was able to announce a new start to the campaign with £30,000 from members of the Fry and Wills families. The dynamic young Professor of Physics, Morris Travers, argued, cajoled and lobbied every influential person and organisation that could help.

Everything was going well until the Privy Council, reflecting official concern at the establishment of what were patronisingly called ‘Lilliputian’ Universities, demanded proof of another £100,000 in endowments before it would grant a Charter for a University of Bristol. In January 1908, the Committee had still not got much more than the £30,000 and the situation looked bad. It was saved by HO Wills’ promise in the letter he wrote to his son.

By 1908, the Committee was led by George Wills with growing support from his brothers, Harry and Melville. Like their father, HO Wills, his cousin WH Wills and other members of the family, they had all become extremely rich when their hugely successful business became a private company, and even richer when they created the Imperial Tobacco Company in 1901, as the largest British company of the day. Whilst George and his brothers were still active in the firm, HO was retired from active involvement and spent a great deal of his time at an estate he had bought in Norway, but he kept in touch with business and family and Bristol affairs through George. It seems that the key person in engaging the interest of the Wills family in the campaign for the University, ultimately superseding the Fry family in their generosity, was their family solicitor, Napier Abbott.

Professor Arthur Tyndall, then a newly appointed young lecturer, has left an account of what happened at the dinner when George Wills read out the letter from his father. ‘We all stood up, waved our napkins and proceeded recklessly to order champagne at 7/6 per bottle!’ Thus enthused, those present pledged many more thousands of pounds before the night was out. HO Wills had truly made the University possible, and in just over a year, in May 1909, the Privy Council granted the Charter that formally established the University of Bristol.

Most appropriately, HO Wills was appointed the first Chancellor of the new University. The local press recognised his importance delightfully in the contemporary cartoon, showing him arriving with his money-bags to be welcomed by Abbott and friends. George went on, of course, to make gifts to the University, with his brothers, that far far exceeded those of his father, including their Memorial Building for HO that reminds Bristolians of him to this day as they look up Park Street or hear ‘Great George’ booming out over the City. HO’s letter not only made the University possible; it changed the face of Bristol.

Derek Smith - Senior Lecturer, University of Bristol 1960-2001.