History of the University

Sunset over the Wills Memorial Building

University College, Bristol opened in October 1876 with two professors, five lecturers and 99 students. It was the first college in the country to admit men and women on an equal footing.

Thirty-two years later, after much hard work by a variety of dedicated individuals and generous financial support from the Wills and Fry families (who made their fortunes in tobacco and chocolate, respectively), the College was ready to petition King Edward VII for a charter that would give it full university status. The King signed the charter in May 1909, and flags flew and churchbells rang across the city. The new University of Bristol opened in October 1909 with 288 undergraduates and some 400 other students. Henry Overton Wills became its first chancellor.

The University's reputation grew steadily throughout the 1930s, helped in no small way by the appointment of Winston Churchill as its third Chancellor in 1929. It became known as an institution with formidable academic strengths and an unshakeable commitment to quality - characteristics that are just as apparent now.

The story of how the organisation progressed from its humble origins in a house on Park Row to today's massive, international enterprise is briefly told in the timeline below.

Date Event
1872 The Reverend John Percival, first headmaster of Clifton College, wrote a circular letter to Oxford Colleges stressing the absence of a university culture in the provinces.
1874 A public meeting was held in the Victoria Rooms to promote a 'College of Science and Literature for the West of England and South Wales'. The meeting emphasised the 'growing conviction that all subjects which form the staple of university teaching should be made more widely accessible'.
1876 The College Council rented 32 Park Row for use as a College at £50 pa.

The College opened at 9am with a lecture on mathematics. Registration fees were 7/- per course. The College was the first in Britain to open its doors to men and women on an equal basis - 30 men and 69 women registered.
Formal portrait of Alfred Marshall Formal portrait of Mary Paley
Alfred Marshall, Professor of Political Economy, was appointed first Principal of University College, Bristol. He taught evening classes while his wife, Mary Paley, the first woman lecturer, taught ladies during the day. Her fee was deducted from his salary!
1881 The College was in severe financial difficulties. William Ramsay, the Professor of Chemistry who discovered neon and helium, took over as Principal from Marshall. During his tenure the College was able to expand into new premises. He remained instrumental in helping the College become a University long after he left in 1887.
1905 The Blind AsylumFollowing years of discussion about forming a West of England University in Bristol, the Blind Asylum, on which the Wills Memorial Building now stands, was purchased with money donated by the Fry and Wills families.
1906 The University Committee was formed, with Lewis Fry as Chairman and Morris Travers as Secretary.
1908 Henry Overton Wills announced he would give £100,000 to endow a university for Bristol and the West of England, 'provided a charter be granted within two years from this date'.

The Wills family made their money from the manufacture of cigarettes, and over the years donated the equivalent of £100m to the University.
1909 Clifton Hill House The Corporation of Bristol granted the proceeds of a penny rate (about £7,000 a year) for the projected university.

The Charter was signed by the King, creating the University of Bristol. Henry Overton Wills was named as the first Chancellor of the University.

The University gave its first courses to 288 undergraduates and nearly 400 'other students'.

Clifton Hill House was opened as the first hall of residence for women.
1912 Viscount Haldane of Cloan was appointed Chancellor.
1913 George and Henry Herbert Wills announced their intention to give a building to the University in memory of their father, Henry Overton Wills.
1920 The Victoria Rooms Helen Wodehouse was appointed to the Chair of Education - the first woman to hold a chair in the University.

George Wills bought the Victoria Rooms and endowed it as a students' union.
1924 The Department of Extra-Mural Adult Education was set up.
1925 King George V and Queen Mary with Churchill in the centreThe Wills Memorial Building was opened by King George V and Queen Mary. The final cost was £501,566 19s 10d.
1927 The H. H. Wills Physics Building was opened by Ernest Rutherford. He thought it would be an unmitigated disaster to utilise the University laboratories for research bearing on industry!

No fewer than four Nobel Laureates worked here at various times: Paul Dirac (1933), a Bristol graduate; Cecil Frank Powell (1950); Hans Albrecht Bethe (1967); and Sir Neville Francis Mott (1977).
1929 Sir Winston Churchill became the University's third Chancellor.
1931 Portrait of Winifred Lucy ShaplandMiss Winifred Lucy Shapland was appointed the first female registrar of any British university.
1940 The Great Hall of the Wills Memorial BuildingThe Wills Memorial Building was bombed during the war. The Great Hall, including the organ, was destroyed.
1946 The first drama department in the country was established at Bristol.

The resettlement of service men after the war was facilitated by grants and special entrance exams to the University.
Aerial shot of the Queen's Building The foundation stone of the Queen's Building was laid by Sir Winston Churchill, third Chancellor of the University. It was opened by the Queen seven years later and housed the Faculty of Engineering.
1965 George Odlum with the QueenThe new Students' Union building opened. Famous Student Union presidents include Sue Lawley (1967) and George Odlum, who was also the first black president. The sixties marked unprecedented growth in student numbers.

The Duke of Beaufort became Chancellor.

1968 Student protests, Park StreetThe year of discontent. Students marched in support of the Anderson Report which recommended higher student grants.

An 11-day sit-in took place at Senate House.
1970 Professor Dorothy Hodgkin in formal gownProfessor Dorothy Hodgkin, then first British woman to win a Nobel Prize, was appointed fifth Chancellor of the University. She was also academic tutor to Margaret Thatcher, the first British woman Prime Minister.
1981 The Centre for Deaf Studies began its first research project. The Access Unit now co-ordinates the University's support for all disabled students.
1988 The Norah Fry Centre was established and is now one of the country's leading centres for research into learning difficulties.
1989 Sir Jeremy Morse was appointed Chancellor.
1999 The University launched its Widening Participation Strategy aimed at attracting students with the greatest academic merit and potential from the widest possible pool of talent.

The Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship was set up in recognition of the importance of ethnicity to the study of contemporary societies.
2000 The Bristol Enterprise Centre was launched to stimulate and support an entrepreneurial culture and encourage the establishment and growth of technology-based businesses.
2001 Professor Eric Thomas Professor Eric Thomas was appointed Vice-Chancellor.

The Henry Wellcome Laboratories for Integrated Cell Signalling and the MRC Centre for Synaptic Plasticity both opened (mainly) in the School of Medical Sciences.
2002 Aerial shot of the Centre for Sport, Exercise and Health The Centre for Sport, Exercise and Health opened in Tyndall Avenue.
2003 The Centre for the Study of the Evolution of the Terrestrial Planets opened in the Inner Court behind the Wills Memorial Building.
2004 Baroness Hale of Richmond Dorothy Hodgkin Building window art The Dorothy Hodgkin Building, a leading centre for integrative neuroscience and endocrinology research, opened.

Baroness Hale of Richmond was officially installed as the University's second female Chancellor.

The Bristol Institute for Research in the Humanities and Arts (BIRTHA) was officially launched on 25 October.

2005 The BLADE building The Queen opened the £20 million Bristol Laboratory for Advanced Dynamics Engineering (BLADE) Building.

The creation of two Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETLs) at the University was announced on 27 January. One, AIMS is based in Medical Sciences and the other, BristolChemLabS in the School of Chemistry.

2006 Close-up of flower, Tulbaghia fragrans The new Botanic Garden was opened to the public on 19 March.

The Centre for the History of Music in Britain, the Empire and the Commonwealth (CHOMBEC) had its public launch on 20 March.

2007 Advanced Composites Centre for Innovation and Science (ACCIS) opened on 16 April.