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. The Society’s role was recognised in 1552 by the grant of a Royal Charter by Edward VI, followed by another from Elizabeth I. An even more important Royal Charter, granted by Charles 1 in 1639, is celebrated on Charter Day each year in November.
The Society currently has 76 members. Membership is capped at 80.
Membership is by invitation. The Society looks for individuals who are interested in making a contribution to one or more of the activities of the Society: education, care for older people, social enterprise, charitable giving or the management of the Downs. Membership is drawn from individuals who have been successful in their chosen area of business and who are already actively involved in voluntary activity across the greater Bristol area.
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. The Society 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.
The Treasurer is de facto the Chief Executive and therefore oversees all of the Society’s activities and, together with the membership, sets and drives forward the strategic direction of the Society.
The Society is an apolitical organisation and has no influence whatsoever over Bristol politics. Of course, each member has their own views, but the Society itself has no political bias.
Yes, Edward Colston was a member of the Society of Merchant Venturers, however, he attended only one meeting during his lifetime, spending most of his time in London.
The Society itself has no wealth derived directly from the slave trade. Although, during this period in the eighteenth century, individual Bristol merchants who were members of the Society at that time, may have profited from the slave trade.
The Society of Merchant Venturers celebrates 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 Master of the Society for the ensuing year takes office and is sworn in at Merchants’ Hall after a special service in Bristol Cathedral.
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. Find out more by visiting our Hall Hire website.