Wills Memorial Building

Coordinates: 51°27′22″N 2°36′16″W / 51.45611°N 2.60444°W / 51.45611; -2.60444
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Wills Memorial Building
General information
Architectural stylePerpendicular Gothic, Gothic revival
Town or cityBristol
Construction started1915
Cost£501,566 19s 10d
ClientW. D. & H. O. Wills
Height215 ft (65.5 m)
Design and construction
Architect(s)Sir George Oatley

51°27′22″N 2°36′16″W / 51.45611°N 2.60444°W / 51.45611; -2.60444

The Wills Memorial Building (also known as the Wills Memorial Tower or simply the Wills Tower) is a neo-Gothic building in Bristol, England, designed by Sir George Oatley and built as a memorial to Henry Overton Wills III[1][2][3][4] by his sons George and Henry Wills.[5] Begun in 1915 and not opened until 1925, it is considered one of the last great Gothic buildings to be built in England.[6]

Standing near the top of Park Street on Queens Road,[6] it is a landmark building of the University of Bristol that currently houses the School of Law and the Department of Earth Sciences, as well as the Law and Earth Sciences libraries.[7] It is the fourth highest structure in Bristol, standing at 215 ft (65.5 m).[8]

Many regard the building as synonymous with the University of Bristol. It is the centrepiece building of the university precinct[9] and is used by the university for degree ceremonies and examinations, which take place in the Great Hall.[10]

Architecture commentator Nikolaus Pevsner described it as:

"a tour de force in Gothic Revival, so convinced, so vast, and so competent that one cannot help feeling respect for it."[11]

It has been designated by English Heritage as a Grade II* listed building[12][13] and serves as a regional European Documentation Centre.


The Wills Memorial Geology Library
Wills Memorial Building, front face
Great George in the tower of the Wills Memorial Building
Wills Memorial Building interior

The Wills Memorial Building was commissioned in 1912 by George Alfred Wills and Henry Herbert Wills, the magnates of the Bristol tobacco company W. D. & H. O. Wills, in honour of their father, Henry Overton Wills III, benefactor and first Chancellor of the university who donated £100,000 to the university. Sir George Oatley, who also worked on a number of other buildings for the university,[14] was chosen as architect and told to "build to last". He produced a design in the Perpendicular Gothic style, to evoke the famous university buildings of Oxford and Cambridge. The building was funded through the fortunes which the Wills family made through tobacco.[1] Oatley later claimed that his inspiration for the building came from a dream where he saw a tower on a hill, with shields around it.[15]

Construction started in 1915 but was halted in 1916 due to the continuation of the First World War.[16] Work resumed in 1919, and the Wills Memorial Building was finally opened on 9 June 1925 by King George V and Queen Mary,[17] having cost a total of £501,566 19s 10d. The building was opened with a Royal Salute of 21 chimes from 'Great George', the nine-and-a-half ton bell within the octagonal belfry of the tower, which is tolled on the death of a monarch or chancellor.[18][19] Oatley received a knighthood that year in recognition of his work on the building.[20]

In 1940, during the Bristol Blitz of the Second World War, the Great Hall with its hammerbeam roof was badly damaged by a German bomb-blast. It was restored in the 1960s to Oatley's original design;[18] at the same time the adjoining wing was enlarged by Ralph Brentnall.

21st-century controversy[edit]

The alleged connection of the Wills family to historical slavery via the U.S. tobacco industry attracted controversy in the 2010s, with some students petitioning the University of Bristol to rename the building in March 2017. In 2018, the university published a response and consultation on how to address the issue, including (amongst others) the suggestion of renaming university buildings and changing the coat of arms.[21]

On 28 February 2022 the Great Hall of the Wills Memorial Building was occupied by a group of students. The student occupiers barricaded themselves in the Great Hall in solidarity with ongoing industrial action by the University and Colleges Union which represents many teaching and professional services staff at the University.[22]


The building's dominant feature is the Wills Tower, built in reinforced concrete faced with Bath and Clipsham stone,[2] with carving designed in collaboration with Jean Hahn of King's Heath Guild, Birmingham. At 215 ft (65.5 m) high it is over twice the height of the nearby Cabot Tower. It is 16 metres square and ornamented with heraldic shields. It is topped by an octagonal lantern which houses Great George (England's ninth-largest bell, weighing over 9.5 tonnes)[23] which strikes on the hour.

In addition to the Great Hall there is a General Library, Reception Room and Council Chamber, and a further 50 rooms including some teaching space such as seminar rooms and lecture theatres. In the Entrance Hall are two ceremonial staircases. The building is also used as a conference venue.[9]


Restoration work in 2006

In 2006, cleaning work began on the Wills Memorial Building costing £750,000.[24] Cleaning on the building revealed the engraving "IO TRIVMPHE"[25] intended as a tribute to the architect of the building Sir George Oatley. The engraving had remained hidden for over 80 years[26] and recognises the role of Sir Isambard Owen (then Vice-Chancellor) in the realisation of Oatley's plans. Harry Patch, a veteran of the First World War who also worked on the building, re-unveiled the now clean building.[27]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Bristol University | The University | The Wills Memorial Building Archived 10 October 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  2. ^ a b "About Bristol – Landmarks – Wills Memorial Tower". Archived from the original on 23 November 2001.
  3. ^ Building – 686 – Wills Memorial Tower – Bristol
  4. ^ "Bristol University". Wills Tower set for new glory. Retrieved 23 June 2007.
  5. ^ Lucy Smith, 100 Buildings 100 Years, 20th Century Society, Batsford, 2014
  6. ^ a b The Wills Memorial Building is situated at the top of Park Street in Queens Road
  7. ^ Bristol University | The University | Law Library Archived 27 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ "Wills Memorial Building, Bristol | 151240". Emporis. Retrieved 3 May 2022.[dead link]
  9. ^ a b Bristol University – Centre for Romantic Studies – Wills Memorial Building Archived 27 June 2006 at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ Bristol University | The University | Graduation Archived 19 May 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  11. ^ "Wills Memorial Building". University of Bristol, Centre for Romantic Studies. Archived from the original on 27 June 2006. Retrieved 18 March 2006.
  12. ^ Historic England. "University Tower and Wills Memorial Building and attached front walls and lamps (1218203)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 4 April 2015.
  13. ^ "University Tower and Wills Memorial Building and attached front walls and lamps". historicengland.org.uk. Retrieved 13 March 2007.
  14. ^ "Administrative/Biological History". Sir George Oatley Architectural Papers. Archives Hub. Retrieved 22 September 2011.
  15. ^ "Wills Memorial Building". Archived from the original on 5 June 2007.
  16. ^ "School of Earth Sciences | School of Earth Sciences | University of Bristol".
  17. ^ "University of Bristol Press Release: Harry Patch, 109, WWI veteran, lights up city's skyline". University of Bristol. 21 February 2008. Retrieved 22 September 2011.
  18. ^ a b Burrough, THB (1970). Bristol. London: Studio Vista. ISBN 0-289-79804-3.
  19. ^ "2009: Bell-ringing". University of Bristol. Retrieved 24 September 2020.
  20. ^ "New Chapter for the Wills Memorial Building". University of Bristol. Retrieved 18 March 2006.
  21. ^ "Past Matters". University of Bristol. Retrieved 11 October 2019.
  22. ^ "Bristol uni students continue occupation over pensions row – BBC News". BBC News. 3 March 2022. Retrieved 5 March 2022.
  23. ^ "Great Bells – British Isles". Archived from the original on 18 May 2021. Retrieved 23 January 2022.
  24. ^ Bristol University | News from the University | Wills Tower set for new glory
  25. ^ Wills Memorial Building – August 2006 Archived 11 June 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  26. ^ Bristol University | News from the University | 80-year-old engraving finally discovered
  27. ^ "Obituary: Private Harry Patch". Daily Telegraph. London. 25 July 2009. Retrieved 25 July 2009.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]