Wills Memorial Building

Wills Memorial Building
Wills Memorial Building from road during day.jpg
The 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
ArchitectSir George Oatley

The Wills Memorial Building (also known as the Wills Memorial Tower or simply the Wills Tower) is a Neo Gothic building 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]

Situated near the top of Park Street on Queens Road in Bristol, United Kingdom,[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 third 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 of Bristol 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

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 was started in 1915 but was halted in 1916 due to the continuation of World War I.[16] Building was restarted 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] To celebrate the Centenary of the University receiving its charter, 'Great George' was rung, along with bells in Bristol's other churches, just as they did in May 1909 when King Edward VII granted the University its Royal Charter to grant degrees.[19] Oatley received a knighthood that same year in recognition of his work on the building.[20]

In 1940, during the Bristol Blitz of World War II, 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.