Obituary: Sir David Wills

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The Independent Culture
DAVID WILLS was one of the greatest but least-known benefactors of the post-war era. Probably his crowning achievement is the Ditchley Foundation which, since its inception in the 1950s, has matured into an internationally respected centre for conferences on a range of issues of moment affecting nations across the globe.

There are other, less well-known causes that owe their origin either to Wills's initiative or financial backing or both. In conjunction with his cousin the second Lord Dulverton and the Dulverton Trust, the Michael Wills scholarships at Oxford for students from West and East Germany, now extended to Eastern Europe and Russia, were initiated by him to foster reconciliation after the Second World War, in memory of his brother Michael, who was killed in North Africa in 1943.

The Sandford St Martin Trust was endowed, with its highly regarded award for excellence in religious broadcasting, given in alternate years for television and radio. With Earl Mountbatten of Burma, Sir George Schuster and Kurt Hahn, Wills was a founder member of the group which launched the Atlantic Colleges. In 1987 he established and funded the 21st Century Trust, devoted to bringing together young people of promise from across the world to debate topical issues of importance.

As a member of the committee set up to consider the gift to be given from the people of Britain to mark the American Bicentennial, Wills pressed the idea of a replica set of the bells of Westminster Abbey. Impatient of the committee's delays, he commissioned such a set and, when the committee finally decided against the bells, Wills paid for them, persuaded Trafalgar House to ship them and with the help of his many American friends cajoled an initially reluctant Congress to accept and install them, in the name of Ditchley, in the Old Post Office Tower in Washington. They were rung on the day of his funeral.

But the Ditchley Foundation is perhaps the monument by which Wills will be most widely remembered. He and his wife, Eva, his support and counsellor in his many interests, bought the Ditchley estate from the seventh Earl of Wilton in 1953, with a view to farming the land and managing the woods, where over the years he replaced old and diseased timber by three million young trees. The fine early Georgian house - the work of James Gibbs and Francis Smith of Warwick for the second Earl of Lichfield - was thrown in for pounds 100. With no intention of living there, Wills cast round for a use to which to put it.

After much consultation he came up with the idea of a conference centre devoted to fostering Anglo- American friendship, as a memorial to the many who had died in that war and in the belief that, had the wartime alliance between Britain and the America existed in the 1930s, the war might never have happened. In the face of some initial scepticism Wills and a group of supporters together drove forward the project, whose realisation was only made possible by the injection of his own money on a truly munificent scale. Indeed, in 1958 he sold the greater part of his stud to raise money for Ditchley; and the following year, besides gifting the house, he guaranteed a sum to cover running costs, described by a colleague as "this King-Emperor- like gesture".

In parallel Wills was actively canvassing support in the United States, an activity which culminated in the formation of American Ditchley, to be followed some years later by Canadian Ditchley. After the restoration and adaptation of the house, the first conference was held in 1962 under the auspices of the first Provost, the late Harry Hodson, and the project was launched.

David Wills was born in 1917 and educated at Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford. He served during the war with the Cameron Highlanders, contracting polio when he was with his battalion in the Caribbean area.

The history of Ditchley illustrates several facets of his character, his vision, his strength of purpose amounting sometimes almost to stubbornness, his ability to recruit others to work with him, his generous use of his wealth and his humility - none of his benefactions carries his name, although he took great personal interest in them. He combined in a rare manner the ability to formulate high concepts and to bring them to triumphant conclusion - in the words of Drake's prayer, printed in the service sheet at his funeral, "There must be a beginning of any great matter, but the continuing . . . until it be thoroughly finished yields the true glory."

Wills had many interests beyond his charitable activities. He was a talented amateur landscape artist, in oils and watercolour. He was a skilled and knowledgeable fisherman, especially in the rivers of Scotland which he loved. He was never happier than at the helm of his sailing boat, cruising in the waters off the west coast of Scotland and in the West Indies. Above all he loved dogs and horses, a love which found expression on the racecourse.

Throughout his life he bred and raced horses with considerable success. It was a happy coincidence that in 1944 his horse Growing Confidence came second by a short head in the Two Thousand Guineas run in wartime on the July course at Newmarket, and that 55 years later in his last attendance at a race meeting he saw his horse Craigsteel, named after one of his favourite salmon pools, win the Princess of Wales Stakes on the same course.

In character Wills was courteous and considerate of others. He was a man of deep Christian faith. He was a good judge of people and having put his trust in them he remained loyal to them. He was rewarded in return by affection and loyalty, by friends and employees alike. Financially astute as he was, his powers of persuasion were usually irresistible, but it was done with a tact and a gentleness that masked the determination underneath.

At Ditchley he could often be seen in his old tweed coat held together by the leather patches, with a twinkle in his eye - and a wriggle of his nose when he scented some promising endeavour.

John Graham

Hugh David Hamilton Wills, philanthropist: born Miserden, Gloucestershire 19 June 1917; MBE 1946, CBE 1971; Chairman of Trustees, Rendcomb College 1955-83; Chairman, Ditchley Foundation 1972-83; Kt 1980; married 1949 Eva Kavanagh (one daughter, and one son deceased); died Sandford St Martin, Oxfordshire 10 December 1999.