The University and slavery

We have examined our past in a quest to better understand and represent our foundations.

The University was incorporated by Royal Charter in 1909, long after the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and slavery in 1833.

However, its predecessor institution, the University College, was established in 1876 and our institutional history is intertwined with that of the city, much of whose late seventeenth and eighteenth-century wealth was based on the transatlantic slave trade.

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Bristol and the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Bristol merchants were involved in the transatlantic trade of enslaved Africans from its early stages. But, its official involvement in the transatlantic trade started in 1698 when the London-based Royal African Company’s monopoly on the trade ended.

A key member of the Royal African Company was the Bristol-born merchant Edward Colston who left his wealth to found schools and alms houses in Bristol.

The Royal African Company had been trading since 1672 and had itself taken over the monopoly from an earlier company established by King Charles II in 1662.

A few Bristol ships had been licensed to engage in trading in enslaved Africans, in what is now West Africa, as early as 1690, and there is little doubt that Bristol ships traded illegally in slaves well before then.

By the late 1730s Bristol had become Britain’s premier slaving port. In 1750 alone, Bristol ships transported some 8,000 of the 20,000 enslaved Africans sent that year to the British Caribbean and North America.

By the latter half of the century, Bristol’s position had been overtaken by Liverpool. But even as late as 1789, the trade to Africa and the West Indies was significant for the city and its merchants.

Learn more about the University’s history.

The University’s foundations, the Wills, and the Frys

Four families are remembered in the nomenclature and symbolism of the University of Bristol: Wills, Fry, Colston, and Goldney. The nature of the link between each of these families and the University is very different.

The supporters of University College Bristol (the predecessor of the modern University) needed funding that would secure full University status which would allow them to independently award degrees.

Henry Overton Wills’ 1908 initial gift of £100,000, along with sums from the Fry family and many other local businessmen allowed the University to receive its Royal Charter in 1909.

Donations with a known value total over £1.37 million were recorded between 1909 and 1957, excluding several significant gifts of land and property to the University.

The Wills family

The Wills family were neither slaveowners nor slave-traders. The records of all 2,114 known Bristol slave-trading voyages do not mention the name 'Wills'.

No members of the family claimed compensation when Britain abolished slavery in 1833, and records reveal that they held no land in the United States prior to the 1890s.

However, earlier generations of the family, such as H.O. Wills who opened a tobacco shop in Bristol in 1786, did owe some of their profits to trading in products imported from plantations in the United States where slavery was not abolished until 1865.

In 1886, the firm of W.D. & H.O. Wills opened a major new factory in Bedminster, expanding further in South Bristol. The company developed machine-rolled cigarettes in 1871 which further cemented their success.

The company expanded into Australia and America in the early 1900s, merging with a number of other companies to become Imperial Tobacco Company in 1901.

Several generations of Wills family served as directors of the company and gave significant donations throughout the 20th century, including funds for Professorial Chairs as well as land for academic use, student residences, playing fields and sponsoring the purchase of the Victoria Rooms for the use of the new Student Union.

The centrality of their philanthropy to the University’s origins can be seen in the list of the endowments and donations of land:

  • Wills Memorial Building: Named in memory of H.O. Wills (d. 1911) and funded by his sons, Sir George Alfred Wills and Henry Herbert Wills, who initially pledged £100,000, in December 1912. The final cost, (met by them and recorded in a final account, July 1927), was just over £500,000.
  • H. H. Wills Physics Laboratory: Named in memory of H.H. Wills, who made donations of £200,000 for its erection and equipping, and built on land (part of Royal Fort estate — see below) donated by him in 1917.
  • Wills Hall: Built on a site purchased by H.H. Wills, (d. 1922), and funded by donations of his brother George Alfred Wills.
  • Royal Fort House and Tyndalls Park estate: purchased in 1917 by Henry Herbert Wills and donated for university development. Royal Fort House was built for Thomas Tyndall around 1767 by the architect, James Bridges. Tyndall was a partner in the Old Bristol Bank while his uncle, William Tyndall, was a plantation owner and slave factor in Jamaica. Thomas Tyndall’s daughter, Caroline married into the Bright family who were compensated £8,384 by the British government for 404 slaves.
  • Bracken Hill House, Leigh Woods: Bracken Hill House was built in 1886 for Walter Melville Wills, grandson of Henry Overton Wills and donated to the University. In 1959, the University of Bristol Botanical Gardens moved their garden and collection to Bracken Hill. In 2002, the University decided to relocate the botanic garden nearer to the University campus to its current site at Stoke Bishop. As a result, the University sold the site of the former botanic gardens for redevelopment.
  • Burwalls House, Leigh Woods: George Alfred Wills bought the house in 1893. In 1908, he donated Leigh Woods including Nightingale Valley and Burwalls Wood to the National Trust. The University bought the house from the Trustees of his estate in 1948. The house and grounds were used as halls of residence until 1973 when it was converted into Bristol University Conference Centre. By 2010 the building was deemed surplus to requirement and sold. 
  • Coombe Dingle: In 1911 George Wills bought the nucleus of the present Athletic Ground at Combe Dingle. A few years later he added additional acreage.
  • Victoria Rooms: In 1920 George Wills bought the Victoria Rooms and endowed it as a students' union.

Read more about the Wills family and their connections to the University of Bristol.

The Fry family

The other major founders of the University, the Fry family, were Quakers who made their fortune from the processing and sale of chocolate.

Their production relied on sugar and cocoa, both of which were planted, harvested, and processed using enslaved labour in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Joseph Fry started making chocolate in Bristol in 1761 and in 1791, using a patented process, another family member, Joseph Fry patented the use of the Watts steam engine to grind cocoa beans.

By the mid-19th century, the Fry company was one of the largest producers of chocolate in Britain. And, with its factory on Union Street, they were one of the largest employers in Bristol.

There are no records of members of the Fry family receiving compensation when Britain abolished slavery in 1833. However, our research shows that they were still using cocoa planted and harvested by enslaved labour on San Tomé in the late 19th century.

The Frys’ financial contributions to the University, while still significant, were on a more modest scale than those of the Wills family.

Members of the Fry family served successively as chairmen of the University until 1914, and as Pro Chancellor until 1921. Support from the Frys continued into the next generation.

Norah Fry served on the council for over 50 years and made numerous donations, principally focused on teaching and researching the needs of people with disabilities.

  • Fry Building, Woodland Road: Named in honour of Lewis Fry who was Chairman of the University Council and directed negotiations leading to the award of the University’s Royal charter.

Read more about the Fry family and their connections to the University of Bristol.

Colston and the University

Edward Colston was born in Bristol and, having moved to London became a leading figure in the 17th century Royal Africa Company. He financed and profited from the trafficking of enslaved Africans.

At his death he left a significant fortune, appointing Bristol’s Merchant Venturers to use it to establish and run schools and alms houses in Bristol. However, contrary to popular belief, Colston is not directly linked with the University of Bristol. He died nearly 200 years before the University’s foundations and neither he nor his legacies provided any funding for the University.

The University's principal connection with Edward Colston was the foundation of University College Colston Society in 1899, which later became the University Colston Society.

The Society had no direct connection with Colston himself. The connection lies in this use of his name, and the appeal to civic philanthropy, that had become associated with Colston in later 19th century Bristol. The Society secured funds through an annual collection of donations from its subscribers. 

After 1910 the Society supported fellowships, large-scale projects, and publication grants through the university’s Colston Research Fund, which was renamed in 1921 as the Colston Research Society.

A significant philanthropic gift in 1929 led to the establishment of an endowment fund from which its grants were drawn.

After the Second World War, the Society focused on supporting an annual symposium, starting in 1948 with a conference on cosmic radiation, publication, and small research grants.

Since 2013 it has also supported travel scholarships for postgraduate research students. In 2019, the Society was renamed as the Bristol Collegiate Research Society.

The University received two donations in 1956 and 1968 of £75,000 and £25,000 respectively, from the Colston Educational Trust / Charles Colston Trust. This trust originates from the politician Charles Colston who is a direct descendant of Mary Hyman — Edward Colston’s niece.

Because of the connection to the Colston Society, there is a reference to Edward Colston in our current logo in the form of the dolphin (designed in 2003 and based on the University coat of arms which was granted from the College of Arms in December 1909).

Following the consultation about renaming University buildings, we have decided to remove the reference to Colston in our logo. There is no direct philanthropic connection to Colston in contrast to the Wills and Fry families whose philanthropy made our foundation possible. 

Read more about Colston.

Goldney’s relations to the University

Members of the Goldney family can be linked to the triangular slave trade through their provision of copper and iron as manilas which were sent to the West Coast of Africa and used to pay for enslaved Africans. They are also not directly linked to the University.

Goldney Hall was bought by Thomas Goldney II in 1756, as part of the Clifton estate and grounds of which Thomas Goldney III had part share. The estate was broken up in the 1950s and the University bought Goldney House and a proportion of the garden in 1956. It is through this acquisition that the Goldney family is connected to the University.

Read more about Goldney

Understanding our past to take action today

It is our most important task to learn, understand, and help educate all of our communities — be it staff, students, or the wider Bristol community. By being open about the past we can use the history as an important reminder and to create an open dialogue.

We examined our past in the Legacies of Slavery report, and we heard from our communities during the renaming consultation about their experiences with racism at the University.

Having a positive, long-term impact is about more than changing building names. We are investing £10 million in our ten-year Reparative Futures programme to address the broader issues of racism and inequality that our racially minoritised staff, students and wider communities face every day. These include health, education and economic inequalities as well as access to university study and employment.

See what action we are taking.

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