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Our University’s links to Bristol’s business community in the late 19th century

Press release issued: 4 July 2017

Our University can trace its roots back to the formation of University College in 1876, which was the precursor to the university we have today. From 1876, the University College struggled financially until 1908, when Henry Overton Wills promised a gift of £100,000 – a massive sum at that time – provided that a Royal Charter was granted to the University within two years. The promise of this gift led to further funding, and in 1909 the Charter was granted and the University of Bristol came into being.

Our relationship with the Wills family is longstanding and covers many generations. HO Wills’ gift was undoubtedly transformational for the University, and he was our first Chancellor, serving from 1909 until his death in 1911. In 1913, Wills’ sons promised the University a new building in memory of their father: this is the Wills Memorial Building on Park Street, which was finally completed in 1925. Later that decade the family also paid for the building which is now Wills Hall, in Stoke Bishop. Over its lifetime the University has been the beneficiary of multiple gifts from the Wills family spanning several decades.

In addition to the support from the Wills family, the University has acquired property from and been supported financially by other successful Bristol families, including the Fry, Tyndall and Goldney families. Throughout its history the University has also received valuable support from Bristol’s Society of Merchant Venturers, which is a society of businessmen and women drawn from the Bristol area who work together to support education, care for older people, charitable giving and social enterprise.

Put simply, it is highly unlikely that the University of Bristol would have been established, and then flourished as a highly successful, international, research-intensive university, without this longstanding support from the local business community.

It has been suggested by some that the University should remove from its buildings the names of individuals or families whose business dealings were associated with slavery, either directly or indirectly, at some stage during their history. We have considered this suggestion and also sought to learn from other universities who have been involved in similar discussions.1

We have listened carefully to views on both sides. After much reflection, we do not think it would be appropriate to rename the Wills Memorial Building or the other University buildings mentioned above. This decision is consistent with the Yale guidelines on renaming, which emphasise that ‘the presumption against renaming is at its strongest when a building has been named for someone who made a major contribution to the University’. The guidelines also emphasise duties of non-erasure of history. As outlined above, Bristol commercial families have made major contributions to the University, without which the institution would not have flourished. In our view, it is important to retain these names as a reflection of our history.

While we have taken the decision not to rename Wills Memorial or other buildings, we realise that the University should actively encourage students and staff to engage thoughtfully with our complex and multifaceted past. This includes making aspects of our history more explicit, including any historical links to slavery, so that our students and staff have a chance to engage critically with the important issues of public ethics that they raise. We will develop any such strategies in consultation with a range of groups, but possibilities for the future could include public art; permanent and temporary exhibitions about the history of our buildings; and exhibitions related to the history and legacies of slavery in Bristol and beyond.

We take this opportunity to positively affirm our commitment to opposing injustices arising from the history and legacies of slavery. We are very mindful that the historical injustices of slavery continue to have present-day ramifications in terms of economic, social and cultural inequalities. We are committed to working with our communities to recognise and address these. We cannot alter the past but we can enable reflection upon it and add to knowledge about slavery past and present. We can also adopt policies and promote practices that help rectify historical injustices.

Our University has academics across a range of disciplines who research and teach undergraduates and postgraduates about slavery2, including through the activities of our Black Arts and Humanities Research Cluster, which is soon to become the ‘Centre for Black Humanities’ – one of six designated Research Centres in the Faculty of Arts. Through our new Bristol Futures curriculum, which will be launched in September 2017, we are looking at ways to encourage all our students to engage with Bristol’s past, both as a university and as a city, including links to the slave trade and its abolition. We run a short course for mature students intended to help them progress to a history degree, entitled ‘Ways into History’, which focuses on the history of slavery; and we host an annual Fulbright Summer Institute on Slavery and the Atlantic Heritage. With regards to present-day slavery, we reaffirm that the University of Bristol is completely opposed to slavery in all its forms, and we are committed to working with others to eradicate modern slavery practices3.

We also affirm our deep commitment to fostering a community of higher education in which students from all socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds flourish. In recent years the University has taken significant steps towards creating a more inclusive environment, for instance through working to diversify our curricula, and we are committed to working hard in future years to consolidate and deepen these changes. We were the first UK university to accept men and women on an equal basis, and we continue to champion groundbreaking initiatives in our new University Strategy to promote inclusion and address inequality, as it may relate to issues including gender, ethnicity, socio-economic background, sexual orientation and disability. The city of Bristol today is an official City of Sanctuary and, as part of this initiative, the University recently extended its Sanctuary Scholarship Scheme which offers educational opportunities to people from asylum-seeking and refugee communities.

We see our role as a university to add to, and share, knowledge, through research, education and public engagement. We are committed to freedom of speech, including freedom to express controversial views. We are committed to creating space for open discourse and debate. We will work with our students4 to celebrate the diversity of our current community and enable reflection upon our past. Finally, as a community of learning we will seek to honour and remember the lives of enslaved persons, past and present, who have struggled against slavery, and others who have worked and are working so hard towards its elimination.

Further information


1. See in particular the principles developed by Yale University below.

2. Examples of University of Bristol research about slavery include our Black Arts and Humanities Research Cluster, which fosters a broad range of research into the histories and artistic and intellectual work of people of African descent, including about slavery. Specific projects include the ‘Literary Archaeology’ project, which brings together archaeological scientists, writers and literary scholars to explore what it was like to be enslaved. In relation to our degree programmes, we offer a range of units in subjects such as English, History, History of Art or Modern Languages. These units include Black British Literature, Bristol and Slavery, Modernism and the Black Atlantic, and Slavery and the Modern World.

Our Brigstow Institute, which supports research that aims to help us live well in the 21st century, has enabled the co-curation of new cross-disciplinary explorations of the afterlife of transatlantic slavery that ask what we should or can remember, and why.

We also promote engagement with the public about slavery; for example, through an exhibition and related events in 2007, through a panel discussion event in 2014, and through events planned in 2017 as part of the Festival of Future Cities conference in October.

3. Read our Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking Statement.

4. A subgroup of the University’s Heritage and Public Art Committee, chaired by Pro Vice-Chancellor for Education Professor Judith Squires, is working with students (including those who launched a petition to rename the Wills Memorial Building in 2017) to develop a programme of activities. These are likely to include an exhibition in the foyer of the Wills Memorial Building to describe our relationship with that family, and the commissioning of new artwork to celebrate the diversity of our current community and enable reflection upon our past. 

Principles developed by Yale Unversity 

Yale University has developed guidelines regarding renaming on the basis of values. It may be helpful to reproduce those principles here:

A. Presumptions: Renaming on account of values should be an exceptional event.  There is a strong presumption against renaming a building on the basis of the values associated with its namesake. The presumption against renaming is at its strongest when a building has been named for someone who made a major contribution to the Universities.

B. Sometimes renaming on the basis of values is warranted.

  • a. Is a principal legacy of the namesake fundamentally at odds with the mission of the University?
  • b. Was the relevant principal legacy significantly contested in the time and place in which the namesake lived?
  • c. Did the University, at the time of a naming, honour a namesake for reasons that are fundamentally at odds with the mission of the University?
  • d. Does a building whose namesake has a principal legacy fundamentally at odds with the University’s mission play a substantial role in forming community at the University?

C. Decisions to retain a name or to rename come with obligations of non-erasure, contextualization, and process.

  • a. When a name is altered, there are obligations on the University to ensure that the removal does not have the effect of erasing history.
  • b. When a name is retained, there may be obligations on the University to ensure that preservation does not have the effect of distorting history.
  • c. The University ought to adopt a formal process for considering whether to alter a building name on account of the values associated with its namesake; such a process should incorporate community input and scholarly expertise.


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