Walter M Wills

Walter Melville Wills

With the sale of Bracken Hill and Rayne Thatch taking place, it seems an appropriate time to record a few facts about the builder of both. Melville Wills was one of the sons of H.O.Wills III, partner in the firm of W.D. and H.O Wills and vital benefactor in the establishment of the University of Bristol in 1908. Melville Wills’ memory has been overshadowed in many ways by both the business and the philanthropic fame of his two elder brothers. George and Harry powered the conversion of the firm from partnership to company, and then made it the key component in Imperial Tobacco, and ploughed back enormous sums of money into educational and other charities in Bristol and its surroundings, not least into the young University of Bristol.

Melville Wills was born in 1861, and lived in Leigh Woods from the 1890s until his death in 1941, following the example of his brother George, who came first to Woodlands in Bridge Road in the late 1880s, and then bought Burwalls after the death of Joseph Leech in 1893. Unlike George, Melville built his own property - Bracken Hill - and created an estate around it with grounds, outbuildings and servants houses. His arrival as the builder and owner of such a substantial property followed on from becoming in quick succession a partner in the firm, a family man with wife and first child, and then, in 1891, one of the five managing directors of the new W.D and H.O Wills Ltd.

Melville’s route to the centre of the family business had been different to that of his elder brothers. They had been educated at Mill Hill, in accordance with family Nonconformist tradition. Melville was sent to the newly established Clifton College, where he was a contemporary of the later Field Marshall Earl Haig. Whereas both George and Harry became employees of the firm fairly soon after leaving school, Melville took advantage of the fact that by his time Oxford and Cambridge had been opened up to Nonconformists, and went to Cambridge.  After graduating in natural sciences, he worked as an accountant for Price Waterhouse for some years before finally joining the family firm, becoming responsible for its internal financial affairs. Initially he came to work on a handsome horse, then replaced, for the journeys from Leigh Woods, by the most up-to-date motorcycles, which he parked inside the front hall of the great new factory in Bedminster.

Melville’s wife, Gertrude, was the orphaned daughter of missionaries, both of whom had lost their lives in China. Their first son, Douglas, who owned Bracken Hill after Melville’s death and who gave it to the University in 1951, was followed in due course by three brothers and a sister.  Two sons met untimely deaths.  One was killed inaction in France in 1915, and another by an avalanche whilst skiing in the Alps in 1925. Douglas reduced his share holding in Imperial Tobacco to buy Barley Wood in Somerset from his uncle Harry in 1919, where he became very much the country gentleman well away from Leigh Woods (Master of the Mendip Foxhounds, County Councillor, Justice of the Peace etc).

Melville too developed country and sporting interests. On the formation of Imperial Tobacco in 1901 he became one of the original directors, and with its success and that of its international associate British-American Tobacco, his prosperity, like that of his brothers, flourished. At Killilan in Ross-shire, he acquired, like others in his family, a Scottish estate, to which he and his family, and selected servants, removed annually for the shooting season.  He died, unexpectedly, whilst at Killilan in 1941.  He bought farmland in Somerset, out and beyond Failand and Abbots Leigh.  He owned and sailed two yachts;  one a steam yacht of some grandeur. That said, he remained a director of Imperial Tobacco, and was a active in the affairs of the Merchant Venturers and of the business community of the City generally.

Perhaps not on the scale of his elder brothers, Melville, and his wife, continued the family tradition of philanthropy. Until a fortnight before her death in 1936 Gertrude Wills had worked at the Dockland Settlement. Melville supported the YMCA.  He gave generously to the University, and one of the Chairs in the Physics Department that bears his brother Harry’s name, bears his. Like George, he bought land in Leigh Woods and handed it over to the National Trust, to complete the preservation of the Avon Gorge and the woodland as far as opposite Cook’s Folly; George had bought 80 acres in 1909, Melville another 63 in 1933.

The most personal of his charitable acts was, of course, the Homeopathic Hospital, which opened in 1923 in memory of his dead soldier son Bruce.  Melville bought the site, opposite the Congregational Highbury Chapel, where the Wills’s used to worship, paid for and equipped the building and supported it all his life.  He used George Oatley as his architect, whom his brothers were using for the University Great Hall and Tower.

Melville was given the Freedom of the City in 1937.

Just as Jane and I were leaving Burwalls in 2001, a lady and her daughter came to Leigh Woods seeking to learn more about their Wills ancestry.  They had a photograph of a wedding at St. Mary’s, which we worked out was of Melville’s daughter.  The lady lived in Perthshire, in a house named “Bracken Hil”l; but she knew nothing about the original “Bracken Hill” and her ancestor who built it. We were glad that we could tell her.


  ©Derek Smith 26th September 2004

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