Debate about Bristol law school’s name continues as two opposing petitions race to 1,000 signatures

More than 600 supporters want building’s links with slave trade erased, more than 600 do not

The debate surrounding Bristol law school has hotted up this week, after a student made a counter-petition calling on the university not to change its name.

Two weeks ago, Legal Cheek reported three students had launched a petition asking the University of Bristol to change its law school’s name. The Wills Memorial Building is named after Henry Wills (pictured below), a businessman whose fortunes are said to derive from slave-grown American tobacco.

Henry Wills

The petitioners — who say the building should be named “after somebody the entire university population can be proud of” — have garnered the support of 649 people, as well as Bristol’s Students’ Union.

In a Facebook post (embedded below), the SU said “it’s time” to give the building a modern name that fits with the university’s “image of inclusivity and diversity.”

Despite the SU’s support, a name change is certainly not set in stone. For starters, the Russell Group university doesn’t seem too keen (read our previous story on this for Bristol’s full comment), and nor do many other students.

One of these is John Goacher, who is studying civil engineering. Days ago, he launched a petition called ‘Do NOT rename Wills Memorial Building’. It states:

By deleting the Wills family from the universities [sic] identity it only serves to erase the past. By keeping the name we can shine a light on the horrors of the past and ensure that they are not repeated.

Goacher also calls on the SU to withdraw its support for the original petition because: “it is not supported by the students they are meant to represent.”

So, who is winning? At the moment, it’s neck and neck, with the counter-petition currently sitting on 664 supporters. Both campaigns have set their targets at 1,000 signatures — but who will get there first?

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27 Comments

High Street Solicitor

Only bourgeois law students have the time and pomposity to involve themselves in this stupid argument. No doubt they’ll put it on the their CVs.

There’s a host of great historical figures with highly dubious views… Churchill, Jefferson, Lincoln, Mandela, Mother Teresa.

What about we remove all historical references to Henry VIII because he ordered his wife’s head to be chopped off?

(25)(2)
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Tim

Actually, only bourgeois lawyers would shrug their shoulders with a ‘what’s the problem?’ attitude towards slavery, as if it were just a bit controversial.

In the racist, sexist and disablist profession, only the posh white males’ wounds are real.

(9)(35)
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ALawyer

Your comment smacks of intolerance and ignorance. Your seek to denigrate and generalise a set of people based on a single shared characteristic namely they are lawyers, that is the same attitude that was directed towards slaves we can target them because of a shared characteristic, they are all black. Secondly, no one here is saying what’s the problem with slavery they are pointing out that re-writing history by in this case renaming a building and in essence seeking to expunge the basis on which the building was built does not serve to aid those who would seek to highlight this nations history of slavery and how we should be aware of it not chisel the memory off our buildings. We can only learn from the past if we are aware of what that past is and we cannot be aware of it if we start removing evidence of uncomfortable truths from visible view. In addition, as others have indicated there is rarely any figure who does not hold views which we would not now agree with, it is easy to judge in hindsight and with the passage of time but I suspect Mr Wills is a representative of his era and a product of his birth and the culture of the time, that is not to say we now say what he did was correct and all his views were fine far from it, but we do not condemn a man for being born in a different time period to our own.

(13)(4)
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Not Henry Wills

Keeping the name to remember the “horrors of the past,” is a ridiculous argument. By that vein we should keep all of the things that were named after Hitler. I completely agree with the proposal to change the name to someone who is more deserving. Surely they must have some notable alumni who were incredibly successful and more worthy of having a building named after them. As a Russell Group University I’m sure they would love the opportunity to remind everyone how successful their students are…

(7)(11)
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ALawyer

Your argument is ridiculous reductio ad absurdum, you are taking someone who had some element of bad about him but was actually almost certainly representative his era and then comparing him to someone who is not representative of his or any era and equating the too. Using that same technique we should say that we should rename the Churchill war rooms he had questionable views on the colonies, we should rename the Lincoln memorial, Cleopatra’s needle, St Paul’s Basilica in Rome and so on you so how stupid it gets when you start down this path?

(5)(2)
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ALawyer

I did not use it in my post as legitimate technique I took the technique deployed and explained how through example it did not work hence the use of the phrase “Using that same technique”.

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Dicks & Poon

People should turn their attention and efforts to the international crimes of today, indeed the slavery that continues today, rather than agonise over past sorrow. LSE’s former chumminess with Gaddaffers comes to mind.

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Just Anonymous

Agreed that “remembering the horrors of the past” is a rather silly argument.

But then, so is the comparison to Hitler.

Wills isn’t commemorated because of his business links. He is commemorated because he was the University of Bristol’s first Chancellor: a man who cared a great deal about education and who donated a great deal of his own personal fortune to that university so that future generations could have such education.

Was he a perfect human being? No. But attempting to whitewash him out of history in this way is, in my opinion, silly and childish, and completely overlooks his considerable positive contribution to humanity.

(20)(2)
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Anonymous

The distinction that you seem to have drawn here between Wills’s contribution to the University and his ‘business links’ is clearly false.

The very fortune that he used ‘so that future generations could have such education’ was built on tobacco and slave labour.

(3)(12)
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Just Anonymous

“The very fortune that he used ‘so that future generations could have such education’ was built on tobacco and slave labour.”

So what? my argument was that if someone has done good things and bad things, the bad things need not necessarily stop us from commemorating the good things.

Your response is essentially, “but he did bad things.” Which, even if true, doesn’t refute my argument.

That said, can you justify your assertion that Wills’ fortune was built on slave labour? The modern day company has strongly denied any historical links to the slave trade. Do you actually have any evidence to prove that denial false. Or is this whole exercise just an unevidenced witch-hunt against Henry Wills?

(14)(1)
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ALawyer

As a further point if the building was built on the basis of a gift from the Wills family in the basis it was named after Henry Wills or the Wills family then presumably removing that name, nullifies the gift and they would have to hand ownership back to the Wills family or the equivalent modern day value of the original gift plus interest or even destroy the building entirely, so there are to my mind trust and gift legal issues involved here not simply a question of renaming a building.

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Anonymous

The building is named after Henry Wills III who did not even join the Wills family business until over 10 years after slave trade was completely abolished. I struggle to see why students are aiming this at him when there is no evidence that he himself partook in any slave trade nor that the company did when he was a part of it – what’s the issue?

Unless of course their argument is that Henry Wills III has links to his grandfather, Henry Wills I, who MAY have partook in slave trade – is that really a justification to rename the building which Henry Wills III donated a great deal of his fortune to?

(7)(0)
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Frange

Indeed. By this logic Benedict Cumberbatch should not be allowed to act, or else all his fees should go in restitution to descendants of victims, or his programs should come with an apology from him.

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Anonymous

@10.45. Good post.

I do believe review of honorific attribution can be worthwhile. Who’d want, say, a children’s ward honouring Jimmy Savile to keep that name, for example?

But you have to be careful and, among other things, always consider the historical context. This Bristol campaign seems to be more about the process of activism for its own sake than a genuine attempt at removing a memorial because of wrongs done.

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Gricole

Hi all,
I am a Bath University Politics student considering going down the solicitor path. Yet, Bath is not in RG and I am really worried that it would put a barrier on my applications… Do I stand in a good position graduating from Bath (I meet the academic requirements for both uni and A-levels).

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