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It is time to rename Wills Memorial Building

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An ‘ornately carved neo-gothic treasure’; ‘a true Bristol icon’; ‘a dramatic and inspiring venue’ – these are three of the descriptions the University of Bristol devotes to the Wills Memorial Building on its official website. As freshers, we had a similar impression of the historic building at the top of Park Street – sadly, our naivety deceived us. Many of you reading this piece may know, the building is a dedication to Bristol University’s first Chancellor, Henry Overton Wills III. Many of you may also be aware of why this individual was of great significance. However, for those who are unacquainted with H.O. Wills III, let us first take a whistle stop tour of imperial history to understand why we are raising a petition to rename the building.

 

Who was Wills and what did he do?

Henry Overton Wills III entered his family owned tobacco business in 1846, named W.D. & H.O. Wills, aged 18 – later becoming Imperial Tobacco Ltd., the UK’s number one distributor of tobacco today. Despite the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act passing UK law in 1807, the company had already profited greatly by importing tobacco from slave plantations in the Southern Colonies of America. In addition, for the 19 years in which H.O. Wills III led the company, the firm continued to employ and exploit the labour of slaves – the unscrupulous practice only halted by the abolition of slavery in the U.S. in 1865.

Why is such an iconic building dedicated to such an ill character? How did he become the first Chancellor of Bristol University?

Upon his retirement in 1880, H.O. Wills III began engaging in philanthropic activities that involved donating large sums of money to various institutions – including a £100,000 (equivalent to roughly £10.5 million in today’s money) donation that established the University of Bristol in 1909. Henry was subsequently granted the position of the university’s first Chancellor. Shortly after his death in 1911, his sons, George and Henry Wills, influenced the University to construct the building as a memorial for their father.

Why are we starting the petition?

While we recognise that slavery is an indelible part of history and that Bristol’s ties to slave profiteers should not be covered up, we do, however, condemn the glorification of an individual who advocated such immoral practices. We also do not believe that an act of generosity should justifiably conceal a dark past of conversely oppressive activities. The Great Hall, within Wills Memorial Building, is often used to host inspirational speakers from all four corners of the globe, including some of this generation’s most progressive thinkers – the irony is clear. Let’s not forget, it’s also the setting for graduation ceremonies. If the university wishes us, as students, to be as proud of the building as they are, then we ask them to re-name it after an individual that we, as a community, can be proud of.

Shouldn’t we embrace our history instead of erasing it?

Those who seek to gain justice are often met with comments such as this. However, we feel that this perception fails to encapsulate the wider picture we wish everybody to comprehend. We accept Bristol’s historical ties to the slave trade and the profits obtained through said means as being a part of history that should not be covered up nor forgotten. A change of name does not have to erase this. In fact, we hope that in years to come individuals seek to find out why the name of Wills Memorial Building was successfully changed by a student-led campaign and educate themselves on the horrors of slavery – not just in the case of Bristol, but worldwide. A name is still such a powerful tool in today’s society, anywhere from branding to an individual’s status. We believe that a centrepiece within our university deserves a name that exemplifies the progressive thought our generation seeks to instil on the contemporary world.

For more information about the petition please follow the link as follows: https://www.change.org/p/rename-wills-memorial-building?recruiter=147438155&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=copylink

 

Asher, Elmi and Shakeel are 2nd year University of Bristol Students

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