SIR GEORGE WILLS Bt (PART I)
“We regret to announce that Sir George Alfred Wills passed away last evening at his residence, Burwalls, Leigh Woods, where he had been lying seriously ill for some time”.
So began the home news page of The Western Daily Press (WDP) of Thursday 12 July 1928. Sir George’s life and achievements were reviewed, and some of the “princely gifts for which he will be remembered” were listed. The leader writer went on to assert “...not since the days of Colston and the great merchant princes has Bristol known anything to match the beneficence of Sir George Wills “.
The funeral took place on Saturday 14th July. Over 200 wreaths had been delivered to Burwalls. The funeral procession took hours to get to the Cathedral, past the newly opened Wills Memorial Building at the University, to the accompaniment of the solemn booming of its huge bell “Great George”. All businesses in the city closed for the duration of the funeral, and all flags flew at half-mast. A simple service was conducted at the Cathedral by the Bishop of Bristol and Sir George’s son-in-law, the Bishop of Bath and Wells. The Cathedral was packed with a congregation of “all sorts and conditions of men” “of all classes” (WDP). The press recorded as the principal mourners Sir George’s five children, Nurse Townsend and Nurse Collas, and the staff of Burwalls. The bearers were Mr Grieve, the Head Gardener, and Mr Sansum, the Head Chauffeur at Burwalls, together with their equivalents from Sir George’s properties at Coombe Lodge , Blagdon, and at Langford Court. Amongst the many recorded mourners were Mr Maddock and Mr Mulligan, the Church wardens of St. Mary’s Leigh Woods.
That afternoon, Sir George was buried at St George’s, Easton-in-Gordano, in the same grave, now lined with sweet peas, in which his wife Susan had been buried in 1904, in the presence of close family, Wills employees, and Blagdon and Burwalls staff.. On the Sunday evening the Dean of Bristol’s sermon at the Cathedral said of Sir George “there are many possessors of wealth, but they do not make such use of it as he has done”. The national and local press carried obituaries and reminiscences for days after. In August 1928, the published details of his will revealed a fortune, despite at least three decades of philanthropy, of £10 million - roughly £300 million at today’s values.
George Wills was the eldest of the fourth generation of the Wills family to own and manage the tobacco business that the first Henry Overton Wills had set up in Bristol in the late 18th century. Under his sons, W.D and H.O II, the business had expanded from Maryleport Street to Redcliffe Street, the family prospered and philanthropy became a way of life - favouring especially the Congregationalist community of which both brothers were important members, as well as Liberal City Councillors. At his death H.O II owned 30 silver trowels that had been used at laying foundation stones for new chapels. The third generation provided the “senior partners” of the late 19th century ; there were three of H.O II’s sons, including George’s father H.O III, together with W.D’s son W.H (the later Sir W.H Wills, and then Lord Winterstoke, commemorated for all to see in the stonework over his gifted City Museum and Art Gallery)
From the 1870s onwards, George and his younger brothers Harry (H.H) and Melville pressed expansion onward. In the 1880’s they bought the American Bonzack machine to mass-produce cigarettes, moved out to Bedminster to a model modern factory, pioneered branding their products (Woodbines etc) and other modern marketing devices (cigarette cards etc), and dominated their competitors with cigarettes at 5 for 1d. At the start of the new century, Buck Duke of the American Tobacco Company bought Ogden’s, burst into a board meeting of Player’s announcing “hi guys, I’m Buck Duke from New York, and I’m here to buy your company”, and started a price war with the British. George persuaded his father and uncle to fight, brilliantly created a merger of all the British tobacco companies to create in the Imperial Tobacco Company the largest British company of its day, and saw off Buck Duke. The deal at the end saw the British American Tobacco Company (BATs) created to divide the tobacco world outside UK and USA between Imperial and Duke.
At each stage of this success story, George prospered. He had come into Wills after education at the famous nonconformist school at Mill Hill, but he had been born just too soon, as a nonconformist, to go to still Anglican only English Universities. This he clearly regretted all his life, and was an important factor in his later philanthropy. He started on £300 a year, working around the business in the normal Wills’ way ; his uncle, W.H, had started as a traveler with a horse and cart around Somerset. Young Wills’s could not become partners until they had proved themselves at age 28, when they could be given a “share” of an existing partners share. George made it in 1882 with 1/9th of his father’s 1/4 share.
By 1893, with the business awash with cash after the dramatic successes of the 1880s, the partnership was converted into a company, and all the fourth generation got independent fortunes. George’s, assessed at £37,000, equates to just under £2 million at present day values. The creation of Imperial Tobacco at the beginning of the 20th century made George and his brothers close to being millionaires and therefore multi-millionaires at present day values.
It was this growing affluence that enabled George to come to Leigh Woods. He moved from Clifton to Woodlands in Bridge Road in 1886, after becoming a partner in the business. He shared the house with his brother H.O IV and his wife and two young daughters, (H.O IV was an architect who died aged 40 in 1899). George and his wife came with their three young daughters - Hilda (7), Lillian (6) and Vera (2). Their only son, Vernon, was born soon after the move and the final child, Margaret, four years after that. The creation of the Company in 1893 coincided with the death of Joseph Leech, and thus with Burwalls coming onto the market; George was well placed to buy the grandest house and estate in Leigh Woods, and to engage his uncle, the architect Frank Wills, to extend it for him. George paid £8000 (£400,000 at present values) for the whole estate, then including Burwalls Gardens which covered most of the Bridge Road/Burwalls Road/Rownham Hill triangle.
Established at Burwalls, the prime mover of Imperial Tobacco continued to prosper; in 1911 he inherited the childless Lord Winterstoke’s house and estate at Coombe Lodge in Blagdon, and a year later his own father died. World War followed, fought on Woodbines in the trenches. H.H. is on record as saying that Imperial “couldn’t help prospering”. “The way the tobacco business is making money now is to me positively frightening”.
The stunning business success of Wills/Imperial between the 1870s and the 1920s thus made George Wills very rich. It also made possible “the princely gifts”. The story of that philanthropy I hope to return to in Part II of this article in the next Newsletter.
©Derek Smith May 2006.