Students at the University of Bristol are demanding that one of the institution’s most iconic structures is renamed over alleged links to the slave trade.
More than 450 people have signed a petition calling for the Wills Memorial Building - named after the university’s first chancellor Henry Overton Wills III - to be dedicated to someone “the entire university population can be proud of”.
According to the protesters, the tower currently “glorifies” a man who “profited greatly” from slave-grown tobacco in the American Republic.
Born in 1828, Wills made his fortune through the his family’s tobacco and cigarette business, W.D. & H.O. Wills, which would later become a founding member of Imperial Tobacco. The company strongly denies any links to the slave trade.
Wills later used £100,000 of his riches to help found Bristol University, which received a Royal Charter in 1909.
The Wills Memorial Building, commissioned by the businessman’s sons after his death, is now home to the university’s schools of law and earth sciences and hosts graduation ceremonies.
But students say it’s now time to cut ties with the Wills family.
The petition, launched by Asher Websdale, Elmi Hassan & Shakeel Taylor-Camara, reads: “Every student who first attends Bristol cannot help but notice the grand prominence of Wills Memorial Building at the top of Park Street.
“However, little know the history behind the name - enter Henry Overton Wills III. As honoured within the building itself, H.O. Wills is known best for being the first chancellor of the university; less people are aware that this position was granted to him after financing the university with slave-profited money.”
While the students say they “begrudgingly understand” Bristol’s historical connection with the slave trade, they said it was ironic that the building is used to host “some of this century’s most progressive thinkers”.
“As students of Bristol, we ask the university to uphold its commitment to diversity and inclusivity and revise the name of the building that is, somewhat, a centrepiece in the uni.
“The Wills family may have invested heavily in the institution, but this does not justify the means of slavery.
“As an establishment that wishes its community to be effective in ‘challenging accepted norms’, let us break free from Bristol’s homogeneous toleration of slave profiteers and name the building after somebody the entire university population can be proud of.”
Signatory George Soot commented: “Changing the name wouldn’t erase history, it would just mark a new chapter.
“The real erasure is Bristol’s refusal to celebrate people from marginalised groups as much as it celebrates rich, white, dead men.”
Another added: “Hiding from the past does nothing to help us move forward, this would be a step in the right direction for us in terms of apologising for the crimes of our ancestors.”
But a spokesperson for Bristol University said it would be “disingenuous” to try and cover up the institution’s relationship with the Wills family.
“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.”
They continued: “We believe that it is important to be open and reflective about our history, and the city’s historical connection to the slave trade.
“We have in the past held well-attended public events and discussions about Bristol’s relationship with the slave trade.”