Queen’s Road, Bristol, BS8 1RJ
Designed 1912-14, built 1915-25
Perpendicular Gothic Revival
Ferro-concrete, faced with Bath stone and with carvings in Clipsham stone
University ceremonial building
The Wills Memorial Building houses the Earth Sciences Faculty and Law School.
Tower tours take place on the first Wednesday and Saturday of the month (see link).
Open to the public on Doors Open Day in September each year.
The building can be viewed externally from Park St and Queens Road.
Bristol University’s Wills Memorial Building is an iconic landmark. Its soaring 66 metre (215 feet) Gothic Revival tower looks down over the city from the top of steep Park Street. The building was designed (1912-14) by leading Bristol architect George Oatley as the university’s main ceremonial entrance. Finished in 1925, it is one of Britain’s last major Gothic buildings.
Funds came from the Bristol’s Wills family (of the Wills Tobacco Company) – the building was in memory of Henry O. Wills III, the university’s first Chancellor. Impressive stone and wood carving inside and out includes grotesques on the outside depicting university staff. The tower has three square tiers plus an octagonal bell-tower, corner turrets, and a huge stained-glass ‘Founder’s Window’ over the entrance at the base. Inside, the vast entrance hall has a spectacular fan-vaulted ceiling – perhaps the last one in Britain.
A magnificent first-floor ‘Great Hall’ is oak panelled with a hammerbeam vault using 60 tons of oak, and graduation ceremonies still take place here. Medieval Gothic was thought the perfect style to express the importance of this new institution, which had gained full university status in 1909. It was opened with much fanfare by King George V and Queen Mary in June 1925, and Oatley was knighted. Today the building houses the schools of Law and Earth Sciences, with public and private events taking place in its grand historic rooms.
Oatley has been described as Bristol’s most important 20th-century architect and this is his most famous work. The Wills family backed various important university and public buildings in Bristol. Oatley’s daughter said the design came to her religious father in a dream. A ‘perpendicular’ Gothic style from the early 1500s (grotesques, turrets and pointed windows) was chosen because it was traditionally English and gave status by reminding people of Oxford and Cambridge colleges. Also, a classical-style design would have been more symmetrical and that would not have allowed for packing so much into the space and for having huge windows. The building looks very fancy to us today but is actually quite simple for a Gothic style.
The tower design was carefully thought out. The deeply religious Oatley said that the spirelets on each corner of the tower (below the flat parapet of the belfry) symbolised that university education only takes people so far, and that there is something beyond it to which they point – meaning God. This was one of the country’s last buildings to use wooden scaffolding – a dramatic sight in itself. Construction was halted by WWI and for years people came to stare in amazement at the tower’s enormous wooden skeleton. Shields on the tower bear the arms of Wills family members, Bristol University, the Society of Merchant Venturers and the City of Bristol, among others. A panel over the main entrance represents the muses from classical myth, who symbolize the arts and sciences.
The original stained-glass ‘Founder’s Window’, in memory of H.O. Wills, had a huge, solid, central design so it could be seen clearly from a distance. It was damaged in WWII and its replacement has a different design that lets in more light. The Great Hall was also damaged by bombing and repaired at a cost of £140,000, with an official reopening ceremony in 1963.
Other impressive rooms include a reception room, the old Council Chamber with a glass top-light in the ceiling and beautiful libraries.
Photography: ©Frances Gard