The tower of Wills Memorial Building, photographed in November 2005, before cleaning and restoration.
photo © Liz Loeffler
Its impressive tower, which is 68 metres high and 16 metres square, is encircled by brightly-coloured heraldic shields. The octagonal belfry at the top houses Great George, a bell weighing over 9.5 tons, that strikes the hour above the noise of the city traffic.
The building was a gift, from brothers George and Henry Herbert Wills, in honour of their father Henry Overton Wills (1828-1911), an early benefactor and the first chancellor of the University of Bristol. They chose a respected local architect, George Oatley, and opted for a design in the Gothic style to make best use of a difficult site. Oatley later claimed that his inspiration came in a vivid dream in which he saw a tower, on the hill, with shields all around it.
Construction of the building began in 1915, but it was halted by the progress of World War I. Work resumed in 1919 and was eventually competed in 1925. It was officially opened on June 9th of that year, by King George V and Queen Mary, at a spectacular opening ceremony when Great George sounded the Royal Salute with 21 chimes. The final cost of construction came to £501,566 19s 10d.
In its original form, the building provided about 50 rooms, in addition to the General Library, the Reception Room, the Council Chamber and the Great Hall. The latter is approached from the Entrance Hall via the two grand ceremonial staircases.
The main structure of the building is of reinforced concrete, which is clad in Bath Stone (Bathonian, from the Bath area), with more weather-resistant Clipsham Stone (Bajocian, from Rutland) used for parapets and ornamental work. The front steps, the flooring of the Entrance Hall and the steps of the twin staircases are of hard-wearing York Stone (Namurian).
The Wills Memorial Building provides some excellent examples of 20th century craftsmanship - from the splendid fan-vaulted ceiling in its Entrance Hall, and the detailed carving of the Muses above the main entrance door, to the amusing grotesques that gaze down from the outside ledges.
Although the Great Hall was badly damaged during World War II, it was subsequently restored almost to its original splendour, with finance again provided by the Wills family. Several of the young apprentices who were engaged on the original work played a leading part in the restoration, which began in 1959 and was completed late in 1963. The building has also been extended, and currently houses the School of Law and the Department of Earth Sciences, and their libraries.
A major cleaning and restoration project began in January 2006 and is still in progress, although work on the upper part of the tower is now largely complete. During the summer, cleaning revealed an inscription, hidden from view for over 80 years, that recognises the support of Sir Isambard Owen (thenVice-Chancellor), for the realisation of Oatley's plans.
Last updated 05.12.06 - Liz Loeffler