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A group of Bristol students have started a petition to rename one of the city’s most famous buildings over its current name’s historic links to the slave trade. 

The Wills Memorial Building, officially opened in 1925, is named in honour of the university’s first chancellor Henry Overton Wills III, the same man after whom the Stoke Bishop hall is named.

Asher Websdale, Shakeel Taylor-Camara and Elmi Hassan are arguing that Wills, whose fortune was made as part of the tobacco importing firm W. D. & H. O. Wills, was only afforded this position after ‘financing the university with slave profited money’.

Products of the Wills family tobacco firm, one of the founding companies of Imperial Tobacco

‘While we begrudgingly understand that Bristol has a historical connection to the slave trade, we find it hard to accept that the university still glorifies an individual who advocated such an immoral practice’, the petition reads. ‘We also find it ironic that the building is often the setting for events hosting some of this century’s most progressive thinkers.’

The building has since become a hub of university life, housing the School of Law and School of Earth Sciences, as well as playing host to graduations, exams and numerous talks and formals. It is also regularly used for external events and members of the public can book on to tours of its tower.

A masked-past behind the Wills name?

Speaking to Epigram, Taylor-Camara insisted that the petition was ‘not an attempt to cover up Bristol’s ties to slavery, nor whitewash history.’

‘However,’ he went on, ‘we feel that the building should be named after an individual that we, as an institution and city, can be proud of.’

A spokesperson for the University of Bristol said: ‘In 1908, a substantial gift of £100,000 from Henry Overton Wills III helped to establish our University, and a year later, partly as a consequence of that gift, we were awarded a Royal Charter.

‘We have never sought to hide our association with the Wills family. We believe that it is important to be open and reflective about our history, and the city’s historical connection to the slave trade.

‘To us, it would seem disingenuous to seek to deny or cover up our relationship with the family. We would welcome the chance to discuss this further with the organisers of this petition.’

The petition follows a similar recent campaign to rename Colston Hall, one of the city’s premier entertainment venues, which is named after the slave trader Edward Colston.

At the time of writing the petition has 340 signatures.


Do you think Wills should be renamed? And what would you change the name to?

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