Obituary: Sir John Wills Bt

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
JOHN WILLS enjoyed the unique distinction of being the first and last Lord-Lieutenant of Avon. It was a role he carried out with efficiency, courtesy and good humour. And when months before the county of Avon was abolished in 1996 he was appointed to the same role in Somerset, he became the first man to be Lord-Lieutenant of two counties simultaneously.

Behind the spurs and sword of the Lord-Lieutenancy, and beneath his formal duties as the Queen's representative in that part of the West Country, Wills was the quintessential English gentleman, a member of a dwindling breed who were born to serve as much as to lead. The mischievous twinkle in his eye and the efficient employment of a finely honed business acumen made him a highly respected figure whether on ceremonial duty during royal visits to the counties he served, or in the various board rooms in which he was invited to sit.

Fourth baronet, Eton, Coldstream Guards, and the Royal College of Agriculture at Cirencester - Wills was born in 1928 into one of the West's great families. But when he succeeded to the baronetcy on the death of his brother, Sir George Wills, on active service in 1945, he made it his business to use his position to support others. He visited youth clubs, talked with ordinary people, and at receptions would actively hunt out those who were not of the great-and-good variety of human life to canvass their views on any subject under the sun.

The Wills family history is steeped in the merchant venturers of Bristol. John Wills was a descendant of H.O. Wills who helped found W.D. & H.O. Wills (later Imperial Tobacco) and Bristol University. Although he was never involved in the tobacco business himself, his incisive mind was called upon by many of the region's companies including the Bristol and West Building Society, of which he was president from 1993, and Bristol United Press, which he served as deputy chairman from 1980. Bristol Waterworks invited him on to their board in 1963 and the Wessex Water Authority made him chairman a decade later, the same time as he began nine years service as a member of the National Water council.

Although he served for only three years with the Coldstream Guards (1946- 49), Wills maintained his military connections in the region and went on to become a brevet colonel in the North Somerset Yeomanry, honorary colonel of the 37th (Wessex and Welsh) Signal Regiment, and in 1988 was made an honorary captain of the Royal Naval Reserve.

A Knight of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, Pro-Chancellor of Bath University, a magistrate and a former master of Bristol's Merchant Venturers' Society, Wills sat as an independent county councillor in Somerset from 1958 until 1974 including a spell chairing the county's social services committee. He was made Deputy Lieutenant of Somerset in 1968 before his appointment as Lord-Lieutenant of Avon in 1974 when the county was created during local government reforms.

As an ambassador for the region Wills was peerless. The list of charities of which he was the local president, patron or chairman is exhaustive and includes the Royal Bath and West Show, the Scout Association, the Army Benevolent Fund, Marie Curie Cancer Relief and the Avon Wildlife Trust.

A passionate supporter of rural pursuits, Wills also ran a number of Somerset dairy farms and during the 1950s bred a herd of Hereford cattle on the family farm. His sudden death from a heart attack came while on a North Yorkshire grouse moor enjoying a belated 70th birthday shoot with his family.

John Vernon Wills, farmer and businessman: born Bristol 3 July 1928; Bt 1945; Director, Bristol and West Building Society 1969-93, Vice-Chairman 1982-88, Chairman 1988-93, President 1993-98; Chairman, Wessex Water Authority 1973-82; Director, Bristol Evening Post 1973-98, Deputy Chairman 1978- 98; Deputy Chairman, Bristol United Press 1980-98; Lord-Lieutenant of Avon 1974-96; Pro Chancellor, Bath University 1979-98; Lord-Lieutenant and Keeper of the Rolls of Somerset 1994-98; married 1953 Jane Baker (four sons); died 26 August 1998.