Frequently Asked Questions

Records go back to 1467 when the ‘Corporation of Bristol’ drew up ‘Ordinances for a Fellowship of Merchants’ primarily to regulate maritime trade within the city so that any benefits remained with the citizens of Bristol. For its role in this activity, in 1552 the Society of Merchant Venturers was granted a Royal Charter by Edward VI, followed by another from Elizabeth I. The Royal Charter granted by Charles 1 in 1639 is recognised on Charter Day each year in November.

Yes. SMV’s records, dating back to 1493, were given to the Bristol Archives on indefinite loan in 2005 so that they could be accessed by members of the public. The archives can be researched online here.

Whilst the Society itself did not invest in slaving voyages, it is understood that at some point in the eighteenth century one quarter of the Society’s members were themselves involved directly in this abhorrent trade, representing approximately one fifth of the 536 slave traders in Bristol.

In February 2024 SMV published an independent report that examined its historic role in the transatlantic trafficking and enslavement of Africans. You can read the report, researched and written by the historian Dr Richard Stone, ‘Enslavement, the Transatlantic Traffic in Enslaved Africans, and the Society of Merchant Venturers of Bristol’ here.

To read the letter from Michael Bothamley, SMV’s leader 2023-24, issued alongside the report to members and partners of the Bristol Legacy Foundation, please click here.

Yes, Edward Colston was a member of the Society of Merchant Venturers. He attended two meetings during his lifetime, spending most of his time in London.

No. The Society of Merchant Venturers neither erected nor owned the statue. The decision about what words should be placed on the plinth plaque is a matter for the people of Bristol to decide.

The Clifton and Durdham Downs is one of Bristol’s most precious assets, providing 440 acres of open green space for everyone to enjoy. Clifton Down was bought by SMV in 1676, with the City Council purchasing Durdham Down almost 200 years later. SMV’s members wanted to protect the land from future development and ensure that it remained available to the people of the city. The creation of the Downs Act in 1861 brought together Clifton Down with Durdham Down, setting out a long-term partnership to protect this amazing space.

Today, several groups work together to maintain and preserve the Downs, including the Friends of the Downs, the Avon Gorge and Downs Wildlife Project, Bristol City Council and SMV. Protecting the environment, landscape, wildlife and heritage of the Downs sits alongside a far-reaching education programme for people of all ages to become involved with and learn about the Downs, as well as all the hard work that goes into planning and delivering a wide range of sport, music, cultural and recreational activities that take place on the Downs week in, week out.

Representatives from Bristol City Council and members of SMV form the Downs Committee. This group meets regularly to ensure that the Downs is maintained and improved for the long-term so that people from all over Bristol and beyond can continue to enjoy this wonderful space forever.

No, SMV receives no income from schools or from any other education organisation. All of our members give their time voluntarily, including as school governors and trustees. In fact, as well as volunteering their time and expertise, our members also make financial donations every year to support extra curricular opportunities for students such as trips and residentials that help to broaden horizons and build confidence.

Individual members make donations to the SMV Charity annually, which is topped up by funds that are generated from investments. In an average year, around £250,000 is donated to charities and organisations in Greater Bristol, typically across five key sectors: social needs, education, youth, environment and healthcare. In the past 12 months alone, the charitable grants made by SMV have directly supported over 23,800 people.

We welcome applications from across the Greater Bristol region. For details of the grant application process, including the application criteria and the form, please click here.

We’re privileged to be working with many fantastic organisations who share our determination to help communities across Greater Bristol to thrive. Collaborating and sharing ideas allows us all to be more effective and to have a greater impact.

For example, at Collegiate School and across the eight academies managed by the Venturers Trust family of schools, the talented teachers, staff, governors and central team work incredibly hard every day to provide an excellent education for over 4,600 young people. SMV is the joint sponsor of Venturers Trust, alongside the University of Bristol who provide not only hands-on support in schools as active governors and trustees, they also provide amazing development opportunities for teachers as well as preferential university places for Venturers Trust students.

The experienced team at Quartet Community Foundation help us to ensure that the 100 and more grants we donate each year are making a real difference. We rely on their expertise and on-the-ground knowledge to direct our charitable giving where it’s needed most.

Social enterprise is another route to removing barriers and increasing opportunities for everyone. We’re privileged to be able to work with and support the great work of Bristol & Bath Regional Capital, who focus their skills on helping local projects that champion inclusion and community empowerment.

Our relationship with Bristol City Council (BCC) dates back over 160 years, when we came together to manage and maintain the Downs so that it would be freely available to everyone. Today, this partnership reaches much further and because of BCC’s expertise and support, especially in the areas of education and care for older people, the positive impact of our activities is far greater.

Quality apprenticeships are life changing for young people and we’re actively developing new partnerships across the public, private and charitable sectors to create many more of these within the region. Increasing the number of high-quality apprenticeships, work placements and mentoring opportunities will help young people to be better prepared to enter the world of work and build successful careers.

SMV is responsible for the management of a substantial endowment on behalf of the St Monica Trust as well as providing nominations to the Council of Trustees, which oversees the strategic direction of the Trust. Trustees must act solely in the best interests of the St Monica Trust charity and therefore are independent of SMV. The endowment, and the income it generates, belongs entirely to the St Monica Trust.

Yes. All of our work in education, care and charitable giving is regulated and assessed by official bodies including the Department for Education, Ofsted, the Regional Schools Commissioner, the Education and Skills Funding Agency, the Charity Commission, the Care Quality Commission and Bristol City Council. To find out which organisations we are accountable to across our core activities, click here.

Time, energy and expertise. We expect our members to make a significant and meaningful contribution to SMV’s charitable work, which today extends beyond the nine schools, 4,700 children, two care homes and, as the trustee for the St Monica Trust, the 5,000 older people who we help to support.

In an average year, our members contribute over 10,500 combined voluntary hours – for example as committee members, school governors and trustees. Our members also support specific projects being delivered by SMV, for example in education, where some of our members give their time and expertise as mentors for young people.

We also ask our members to make financial donations on an annual basis to support our charitable giving work, allowing SMV to support over 100 local charities in an average year.

SMV looks for individuals who are interested in making a contribution to one or more of our main activities: education, care for older people, social enterprise, charitable giving or the management of the Downs. Because we ask our members for a significant commitment in terms of time and expertise, we look for individuals who are successful in their chosen career and already actively involved in voluntary activity across the region.

We also look for particular skillsets that will help us to support the many individuals, organisations and partners with whom SMV works.

If you’d like to know more about how to become involved in SMV’s activities, please email us:

SMV is an apolitical organisation. Of course, each member has their own views, but SMV itself has no political bias.

Social purpose describes an organisation whose work is focused on helping to create a better world for everyone. Social inclusion means improving opportunities and removing barriers so that everyone can take part in society.

SMV currently has 74 members. Membership is capped at 80.

Being the leader of SMV requires an enormous commitment of time and focus, in fact it’s almost a full time job and yet it’s an unpaid, voluntary role. Alongside work and other commitments, leading SMV for 12 months is considered to be a manageable period of time.

Although appointing a new leader on Charter Day each November is a tradition that dates back more than 400 years, there are practical reasons for maintaining this tradition. It takes a great deal of time to lead a charitable organisation that supports over 4,700 young people across nine schools and, as the trustee for the St Monica Trust, more than 5,000 older people; not to mention the extensive work in social enterprise, charitable giving and as custodians of the Downs.

SMV recognises Charter Day each year on 10th November (or on the closest Monday after the 10th if the 10th falls on a weekend). Charter Day itself commemorates the granting of the Royal Charter by Edward VI in 1552, endorsed by Charles I in 1639. On this day, the new leader of SMV for the ensuing year takes office and is sworn in at Merchants’ Hall after a special service in Bristol Cathedral.

The Treasurer is de facto the chief executive and therefore oversees all of SMV’s activities and, together with the membership, sets and drives forward the strategic direction of the organisation.

Each year Merchants’ Hall participates in ‘Doors Open Day’, part of the national Heritage Open Days, which takes place across England in September, enabling members of the public to visit and explore interesting buildings. We also welcome private group tours, by appointment only, and we offer Merchants’ Hall for private hire for weddings, events, conferences and corporate functions. You can find out more by visiting our Hall Hire website.

Generally speaking, the two are very similar, particularly in their charitable outlook and the types of activities that many London Livery companies are involved with. SMV largely differs in the size of its membership, which is much smaller than London Liveries, but with a significantly higher percentage of actively engaged members.