One of the nation’s unique civic institutions, the Society of Merchant Venturers’ story is threaded through the history of Bristol.
Although there is no clear documentary evidence, the Society is believed to have evolved from a Guild of Merchants which existed in the 13th century.
In 1467 the Corporation of Bristol drew up Ordinances for a Fellowship of Merchants providing that ‘the Mayor and Sheriff choose a worshipful man that hath been Mayor or Sheriff to be master of the fellowship of merchants’.
At that time the Guild and the Corporation were effectively one. The prime role of the Guild was to regulate maritime trade within the city, ensuring that outsiders did not benefit at the expense of Bristolians.
A Royal Charter from Edward VI in 1552 was granted to ‘The Master, Wardens and Commonalty of Merchant Venturers of the City of Bristol’. New charters were granted by subsequent monarchs – most recently by our present Queen Elizabeth II.
Traders and Entrepreneurs
The Society of Merchant Venturers has been connected to Bristol’s sea-faring tradition since its inception, backing many epic voyages over the centuries including John Cabot’s ‘discovery’ of Newfoundland in 1497 and Captain James’ voyage in 1631 in search of the North West Passage.
From the beginning of the 16th century until the early 19th century, the Society managed Bristol’s harbour. During the 18th century, Bristol’s trade with Africa increased substantially, in particular through the ‘triangular trade’ whereby manufactured goods were shipped from Bristol to West Africa, where they were exchanged for slaves, who were shipped to the West Indies and exchanged for sugar, molasses and rum, which was brought back to Britain. In 2007, two hundred years after the abolition of the trade, the Merchant Venturers joined with the Lord Mayor of Bristol and other civic representatives in signing a statement regretting Bristol’s role in the slave trade.
In 1803 the Docks Company was formed with the active involvement of the Merchant Venturers and Bristol Corporation. They were instrumental in creating the Floating Harbour and the construction of Cumberland Basin, Bathurst Basin, the New Cut and various locks, bridges and a weir.
In 1832 the Society was involved in setting up the Great Western Railway Company. It also played a leading role in the creation of a number of major Bristol landmarks, including Clifton and Durdham Downs and the Clifton Suspension Bridge.
Over time and as its commercial influence waned, the Society began to concentrate on its philanthropic activities.
This included caring for older people, supporting education and entrepreneurs, promoting business and commercial interests and providing charitable assistance to other causes and initiatives within the greater Bristol area.
Today, the Society is responsible for the care of over 1,000 older people through its almshouses, very sheltered housing and residential care homes – Cote House and Katherine House – as well as through its work with the St. Monica Trust. The Society is also heavily involved in the education of over 2,000 young people through its schools – The Merchants’ Academy, Colston’s School and Colston’s Girls’ School.