SIR GEORGE WILLS (PART II)
The philanthropy of Sir George Wills was a continuation of the tradition embodied in both the private actions of the Wills family and their management practices in business.
In his managerial years at Bedminster, George Wills had been a driving force in making the business embody the paternalism with a strong moral purpose that came naturally from a devout Congregationalist background. To the chagrin of other employers they paid very well not only the key skilled workers but also the unskilled workers, including the many women, making a huge contribution to the overall prosperity of the City. Professor Alford, the official historian of W.D. & H.O. Wills, has emphasised, that in the 1890’s they paid 50% above the national average pay for unskilled workers. They treated their workers very well. Wills’ pioneered meal breaks in the 1870’s; on the move to Bedminster in 1886, George created the first works kitchen and dining room. In the same year he reduced the working week, to a mere 50 hours, and in 1891 introduced the first paid one week holiday for all workers who had worked a year. In 1889 he introduced a Matron, and in 1895 the very first works Doctor, Dr Aubrey. A particular interest of George’s was the bonus scheme he had introduced in 1889; he became concerned that his workers spent the lot when it was paid out each year, so that in 1899 he changed the rules so that only 2/3rds was paid out, with the other 1/3rd compulsorily saved for the worker’s retirement - one of the first occupational pensions. There were works outings in charabancs to the seaside or the country, there were cricket and football pitches, a brass band, and if ill-health struck, there was the convalescent home in Clevedon.
Some who have written about all this have played down the importance of “the Nonconformist Conscience". The paternalistic approach, they say, was merely enlightened, but still self-interested capitalism. The business wanted high productivity uninterrupted by labour troubles, and got that from a grateful non-unionised work force. The paternalism increased efficiency just like installing electric light throughout the new Bedminster factory did ! Yet others say that as wages were such a small part of Wills’ total costs, they could have paid even more and put even more into workers’ welfare. I leave it to readers to make their own judgment. George, who never had much to say in public, once simply said that he wasn’t anti-union, but he thought that if a business was properly managed there was simply nothing for trades-unions to do.
George’s public philanthropy began as he grew in affluence. He followed the lead of his uncle W.H (later Sir W.H.) Wills (later Lord Winterstoke) in going beyond the family’s traditional support of the Congregational churches to the support of wider civic and community development and welfare. Unlike his uncle, he began additionally to support Anglican good causes too. His brothers Harry and Melville (Bracken Hill) followed suit. Funding the Public Library in Bedminster and the new Vestry and Choir practice room at the Cathedral illustrate how his philanthropy developed, as residents of Leigh Woods were to experience for themselves.
However, before that occurred, George Wills had become extremely rich with the creation of Imperial Tobacco, and just after that his wife, Susan, had died. He had exchanged hands-on management for the Chairmanship of Imperial, and Directorships of BAT and the GWR, but was now a widower aged 50. He began to take a much more prominent part in the campaign to turn the University College into a fully-fledged University of Bristol. He had already taken up the Bristol Nonconformist patronage of the (Liberal) General Hospital, and in due course of time became its President and dominant figure; this now took on the character of a memorial to his wife; he paid for the balconies around the Hospital wards so that patients could get out into the fresh air, and for a lot more; he regularly walked the wards. To this day the Susan Britton Wills Unit at BGH commemorates her name.
Just as the University campaign was getting under way, news came of the threat of renewed large scale development in Nightingale Valley and the rest of the remaining woodland in the ownership of the Leigh Woods Land Company. Desperate campaigners found their salvation in George’s ability and readiness to buy up all the land and to gift it, except for Burwalls Wood, to the National Trust. The centenary of these events will soon be on us, and there is a story very well worth telling. If the Editor of this Newsletter allows, I would hope to tell it at the appropriate time to coincide with the celebrations and commemorations I hope will take place in Leigh Woods.
It was to George at Burwalls that his father wrote the letter in 1908 pledging £100,000 that made the University a feasible proposition for government approval. But soon it was George and his brother Harry who were turning it into a reality, in co-operative but sometimes competitive rivalry. In 1911 George inherited from the childless Lord Winterstoke, and in the same year both inherited from their father, H.O.Wills III. The Wills Memorial Building cost them £500.000, having previously bought out the Gloucesters by providing a new Drill Hall in Old Market. Harry put a fortune into Physics on the Royal Fort, and would have done more had he lived, on top of his activities at the Anglican (Tory) Royal Infirmary, and later creating St.Monica's. George gave the Coombe Dingle Sports Grounds, and then bought the Victoria Rooms for the Students’ Union. He bought Goldney to be the first hall for men, but to Harry’s derision accepted the veto by the Lady Warden of Clifton Hill who would not have men so near her young ladies; (it was not until the 1950s that the University bought Goldney from George’s daughter’s estate) Harry went off and bought an estate in Stoke Bishop for a men’s hall, well away from the young ladies. After Harry’s death in 1922, George picked up the project, and funded Wills Hall as his memorial to his brother.
George’s philanthropy brought recognition. In 1921, in a joint ceremony with Harry, he was made a Freeman of the City. In accepting he merely said “I have only done what I consider to be the duty of every citizen". He received his baronetcy in Stanley Baldwin’s first honours list in 1923. But he valued most the award of an honorary degree in 1926 by the University of Oxford. He was too ill to travel, so, for the first time ever, Oxford came to the recipient, and he was given the degree in a special ceremony at Burwalls. Like his old rival, Buck Duke, he had founded a University and was honoured for that by a University that could not have admitted him, as a Nonconformist, when he himself had been of University age in the mid-19th century. Times had changed, and he had helped to change them.
©Derek Smith January 2007