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 educates over 3,900 children in our nine schools; together with the St Monica Trust, we support over 5,000 older people; in 2016, we made charitable grants to over 90 individuals and organisations; as part of Bristol & Bath Regional Capital, we support social enterprise; we administer a wide range of trusts and grants; and with the City Council, we are responsible for the stewardship of the Clifton and Durdham Downs.
Embracing the History of Bristol
The transatlantic slave trade undoubtedly played a significant role in the growth of Bristol during the 18th century.
Today, Bristol continues to struggle with its past and with the profile of Edward Colston within the City. It is clear that we must address and acknowledge Bristol’s historic connection to the slave trade in a way that is illuminating and meaningful.
Whilst we cannot change the past, we can help to eradicate modern-slavery by educating the young people of Bristol about the abhorrence of slavery, both past and present. The Society of Merchant Venturers continually reviews the curriculum at each of our schools to ensure that students are confident, equipped and prepared for the responsibilities they have as global citizens.
By embracing the history of our city, we can all learn valuable lessons that will enable us to build a strong, fair and united future for Bristol, a city proud of its diversity and inclusivity.
The Society of Merchant Venturers is actively working with leaders across Bristol who share our commitment to achieve social justice and improve the quality of life for all. Accurately remembering and appropriately acknowledging Bristol’s connection to the slave trade is a discussion we are driving forward with purpose.