Society of Merchant Venturers

Society of Merchant Venturers
Motto Indocilis Pauperiem Pati
Formation 13th century
Type Private
Headquarters Merchant Hall, Clifton Down
Official language
Nick Hood
Website Society of Merchant Venturers

The Society of Merchant Venturers is a private entrepreneurial and charitable organisation in the English city of Bristol.

It can be traced back to a 13-century guild, which went on to fund John Cabot's voyage to Newfoundland, before receiving its Royal Charter in 1552. For centuries, it was almost synonymous with the government of the city, especially its port, and it played a big part in the building of Clifton Suspension Bridge and the Great Western Railway, and the development of the University of Bristol. In recent times, its activities have centred on charitable agendas.


A Guild of Merchants was founded in Bristol by the 13th century, and swiftly became active in civic life; by the 15th century it had become synonymous with the town's government. It funded John Cabot's voyage of discovery to Newfoundland in 1497. The society in its current form was established by a 1552 Royal Charter from Edward VI granting the society a monopoly on Bristol's sea trade.[1] They remained in effective control of Bristol Docks until 1848.[2] Further charters were granted by Charles I, Charles II and Elizabeth II. The society was active in the English colonisation of North America, helping to establish the Bristol's Hope and Cuper's Cove colonies in Newfoundland.

In 1595 the Merchant Venturers' School was founded, which subsequently became the Merchant Venturers' Technical College[3] and was a precursor of the University of Bristol, the University of the West of England and City of Bristol College. In 1676 the society took control of the Manor of Clifton including Clifton Down.

In 1694, the Merchant Venturers Society organised protests against the monopoly held by the Royal African Company in the slave trade, leading to the ending of this monopoly in 1698.[1] By 1700 many Merchant Venturers including the celebrated Edward Colston were active in the slave trade,[4][5] a connection which still haunts the society and the city of Bristol. Colston also founded the Merchant Venturers Almshouses and a school which still exists today, situated on Bell Hill.[6]

The first light on the island of Flat Holm was a simple brazier mounted on a wooden frame, which stood on the high eastern part of the island.[7] In 1733 the Society of Merchant Venturers of Bristol found the brazier to be unreliable and petitioned the General Lighthouse Authority, Trinity House, for an actual lighthouse, but the petition failed.[8] In 1735 Mr. William Crispe of Bristol submitted a proposal to build a lighthouse at his own expense. This initial proposal also failed but negotiations resumed in 1736 when 60 soldiers drowned after their vessel crashed on the Wolves rocks near Flat Holm. Following this disaster, the Society of Merchant Venturers finally supported William Crispe's proposal.[9] Crispe agreed to pay £800 (£110,552, $220,241 in 2008) for the construction of the tower as well as the fees permits.[7] The construction of the tower finished in 1737 and it began operating on 25 March 1738.[10]

In the 19th century the Society helped to fund the building of Clifton Suspension Bridge and members of the society helped to establish the Great Western Railway. In the 1860s the Society acted with the Bristol Corporation to put Clifton Down and the adjoining Durdham Down under the control of a single Downs Committee. Alderman Proctor's Drinking Fountain on Clifton Down was built in 1872 by G and H Godwin in a Gothic Revival style to commemorate the 1861 presentation of Clifton Down to the City of Bristol. With the end of its control of the docks, the society moved towards a philanthropic role; in addition to its earlier almshouses, it established St Monica's Home of Rest, a substantial retirement home adjacent to Durdham Down.[11]

The 20th century saw the society continue this period of transition: away from its historic economic role and towards its modern status as a charitable organisation. As patrons of the Merchant Venturers' Technical College within the city, they were intimately involved with University College, Bristol's desire to merge and create a distinct university. Whilst not in favour of such a course of action, the eventual creation of the University of Bristol, with the Technical College assuming a smaller role than previously envisaged, led the Merchants to a position of high influence within another of the city's educational institutions.[12]


Records of the Society of Merchant Venturers including foundation and membership, administrative, financial, charities, education, estates management, trade, associated clubs and societies, the Seamen's Hospital Fund, and various name indexes are held at Bristol Archives (Ref. SMV) (online catalogue) as well as further papers and correspondence related to the Society of Merchant Venturers' interests (Ref. 12152) (online catalogue). Other deeds and estate papers related to the Society's interests in Somerset and Dorset are available at Somerset Heritage Centre.[13]

Current status

The Society of Merchant Venturers comprises men and women, prepared to give their time and skills to support the organisation's objectives. The Merchant Venturers work closely with the wider community and many of its members play a role in Bristol's commercial life and the institutions within the city. Its objectives are to:

  1. Contribute to the prosperity and well being of the greater Bristol area through active support of enterprise and commercial and community activity;
  2. Enhance the quality of life for all, particularly for the young, aged and disadvantaged;
  3. Promote learning and the acquisition of skills by supporting education;
  4. Act as effective stewards of the charitable trusts, heritage, ancient buildings and open spaces for which the society is responsible.

The Merchant Venturers aim to play an active role in education to help improve and sustain the quality of educational provision within Bristol. The organisation has been involved in education for at least 400 years, and in 2008 sponsored and supported two new Academies. Merchants' Academy in Withywood opened its doors in September 2008 to replace Withywood Community School.[14] The Society has invested £2m in the Academy and additional support has been provided.[15][16] Some concerns have been raised about the independence of the academy after the Society of Merchant Venturers awarded the contract for the building of the school to an architects firm connected to one of its members.[17]

The Merchants also sponsor Colston's Girls' School which moved from the independent sector to become an academy in September 2008.

The organisation has a tradition for supporting the provision of high quality care for the elderly and is currently involved with St Monica Trust[18] and the Cote charity.[19] The Merchant Venturers also support, through the means of charitable grants, many other organisations and causes within the greater Bristol area. They also retain the custodianship of some historic buildings and, together with the City Council, the open spaces of the Clifton and Durdham Downs.[20]

Men and women active in commerce in the Bristol area are eligible to receive an invitation for membership in the Society. The group meets four times a year[21]


The society says it is not deliberately elitist, but also that the qualification for potential members is being "prominent in their own sphere of business and active in the charitable or public life of the area". An article in Venue, a local magazine, claims that many members are not active in charity. There were no female full members of the society until 2003 (though Margaret Thatcher had earlier been made an honorary member), and, as of 2009, there were no ethnic minority members. The society said it expected to have ethnic minority members in the future. There is a list of members, with brief biographies, on the website.[22]

Venue claims that the Merchant Venturers control 12 charities and 40 trust funds, and also a private unlimited company, SMV Investments, that has major investments in defence contracting, tobacco, genetically modified agriculture and the petroleum industry. Merchant Venturers serve on the boards of many local charitable and cultural organisations, and are guaranteed seats on the University of Bristol Court and the Downs Committee. It quotes Paul Burton of the University's School of Policy Studies as saying, "they exert quite a bit of influence and we, the people of Bristol, don't know much about them and can't hold them to account".[23]

See also


  1. 1 2 "The Society of Merchant Venturers". Bristol Slavery. Retrieved 8 October 2008.
  2. "The Rise of the Merchant Venturers". Bristol Past. Retrieved 8 October 2008.
  3. "A brief history of UWE Bristol". University of the West of England. Retrieved 8 October 2008.
  4. "Meeting the merchants". Inside Out. BBC. Retrieved 8 October 2008.
  5. Rawley, James A.; Stephen D. Behrendt (2005). The Transatlantic Slave Trade. U of Nebraska Press. p. 157. ISBN 978-0-8032-3961-6.
  6. "Education". The Society of Merchant Venturers. Retrieved 10 August 2016.
  7. 1 2 Worrall, D. H.; Surtees, P. R. (1984). Flat Holm – an account of its history and ecology. South Glamorgan County Council. pp. 8–30.
  8. "Flatholm Lighthouse". Trinity House. Retrieved 17 February 2008.
  9. Chaplin, Captain W.R. (1960). he History of Flat Holm Lighthouse. Reprinted from the American Neptune V. XX.
  10. "Flat Holm Lighthouse, Flat Holm Island". Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales. Retrieved 29 April 2008.
  11. "Care for Older People". The Society of Merchant Venturers. Retrieved 10 August 2016.
  12. McGrath, Paul (1975). The Merchant Venturers of Bristol: a history of the Society of Merchant Venturers of the City of Bristol from its origin to the present day. The Society of Merchant Venturers. ISBN 0-9504281-0-8.
  13. "National Archives Discovery Catalogue page, Society of Merchant Venturers". Retrieved 18 April 2016.
  14. "Merchants' Academy Withywood". Merchants' Academy Withywood. Retrieved 8 October 2008.
  15. "Residents canvassed on new school". BBC News. 9 March 2005. Retrieved 23 May 2010.
  16. "University backs new school for Withywood". University of Bristol. 14 June 2004. Retrieved 8 October 2008.
  17. Cookson, Richard; Rob Evans; Matthew Taylor (18 April 2007). "Call for closer scrutiny of academy contracts". The Guardian. London: Guardian Newspapers. Retrieved 8 October 2008.
  18. "About the Charity". St Monica Trust. Retrieved 8 October 2008.
  19. "The Cote Charity". Society of Merchant Venturers. Archived from the original on 8 February 2005. Retrieved 8 October 2008.
  20. "Clifton & Dundham Downs". The Society of Merchant Venturers. Retrieved 10 August 2016.
  21. "Membership". The Society of Merchant Venturers. Retrieved 10 August 2016.
  22. "Membership". Archived from the original on 2016-03-31. Retrieved 27 January 2015.
  23. "The Merchant Venturers". Venue Magazine. Retrieved 8 October 2008.

Further reading

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