The Society of Merchant Venturers may be descended from a guild of Bristol merchants existing in the thirteenth century. More certainly, a century later the Corporation drew up ordinances for a Fellowship of Merchants under a master to be selected from those who had previously been mayor or sheriff of the city. Finally, in 1552, ‘The Master, Wardens and Commonalty of Merchant Venturers of the City of Bristol’ received their first Royal Charter from Edward VI. New Charters have since been granted by many subsequent monarchs and most recently by Queen Elizabeth II.
The earliest Charter granted a limited monopoly of maritime trade ‘beyond the seas’ to the Society’s members. Its purpose was the better-ordering of trade to the benefit, not only of Bristol and its merchants, but also of the Crown by simplifying the collection of customs, by encouraging investment in the nation’s shipping and by improving the supply of ships and sailors in times of war.
The story of the Society of Merchant Venturers is woven into the history of Bristol.
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Bristol merchants had financed John Cabot’s voyage in 1497, which led to the first documented landing on Newfoundland. Individual members of the Society of Merchant Venturers were to play a vital part in the exploration and early colonisation of the New World, and the Society itself supported one major venture – Captain Thomas James’s voyage in search of the North-West Passage in 1631.
From early in the seventeenth century, the Society managed the port of Bristol on behalf of the Corporation, building and improving quays, adding cranes, maintaining towpaths and anchorages at Hungroad and Kingroad and licensing, as well as occasionally disciplining the pilots.
The Society was to play a major part in the creation of the non-tidal Floating Harbour, opened in 1809. This vast undertaking involving the construction of Cumberland Basin, Bathurst Basin, the New Cut and several locks, bridges and weirs, was far beyond the financial means of the Society and the Bristol Dock Company was set up to manage the port.
The Society purchased the Manor of Clifton at the end of the seventeenth century and subsequently developed the Hotwells Spa, which was to be a fashionable summer spa in the eighteenth century. The commons of Clifton Down were also part of the Manor and in 1861 the Society of Merchant Venturers, together with Bristol City Council, promoted the Clifton and Durdham Downs Act. This ensured that the 442 acres of both Clifton and Durdham Down were ‘forever hereafter open and unenclosed’ for the benefit of all. The Downs Committee continues to be made up equally of councillors and SMV members under the chairmanship of the Lord Mayor.
In the nineteenth century members of the Society and the Society itself were to play a significant role in the building of the Clifton Suspension Bridge and many of its members were directly involved in the building of the Great Western Railway.
Increasingly, however, the Society concentrated upon its charitable concerns.
Since the sixteenth century, when the Society ran a free school for mariners’ children and the Society’s alms house cared for twelve aged sailors, education and the care of older people have been the Society’s principle charities.
In the following century, poor sailors were being instructed in the art of navigation and later a school of mathematics was set up. By the end of the nineteenth century the Merchant Venturers Technical College had well over 2,000 students enrolled and it can be seen as the forerunner of the University of the West of England.
The college’s department of engineering became the University of Bristol’s Faculty of Engineering when the new university received its Charter in 1909.
Edward Colston put the management of Colston’s Hospital, his school for 100 poor boys, into the care of the Society. It opened in 1710 in the Great House on the site of today’s Colston Hall. In 1861 it moved out to Stapleton where it has expanded, flourished and is now co-educational.
Colston’s substantial endowment of this school led to the opening of Colston’s Girls’ School for 300 pupils in 1891 on Cheltenham Road. In 2008 the school became an Academy and free to all. It has since greatly expanded and maintained its exceptionally high standards.
In the same year, 2008, the Society, in partnership with the University of Bristol, opened Merchants’ Academy, the former Withywood Community School. In 2016, this challenging initiative was followed by the opening of Venturers’ Academy adjacent to the school. It is the first state-funded Bristol school for children with a primary diagnosis of autism.
On becoming academies, the two secondary schools, Colston’s Girls’ School and Merchants’ Academy, immediately sought to raise the standard of education in primary schools. Today, the new multi-academy trust, Venturers Trust, includes primary schools, secondary schools, an all-age and a special school, located right across the City of Bristol and representing a diverse set of communities.The sponsors of Venturers Trust are the Society of Merchant Venturers and the University of Bristol.
In the late 1690s Edward Colston enabled the Society to enlarge and to rebuild the Society’s own medieval almshouse, Merchant Venturers’ Almshouse, at the end of King Street. This would be partially destroyed in the Blitz and is no longer an almshouse. However Colston’s Almshouse on St Michael’s Hill, which Edward Colston entrusted to the Society of Merchant Venturers in 1696, still functions as originally intended. Much updated internally, its exterior is almost totally unchanged.
The Society is closely involved with the St Monica Trust set up by Henry Herbert Wills and his wife Dame Monica in 1922. The Trust is independent, but the governing council includes nominees from the Society, which is the sole trustee of the endowment fund. That fund has grown substantially enabling exciting developments at St Monica Home itself on the far corner of the Downs, the building of Westbury Fields retirement village at Westbury-on-Trym and large developments in Bedminster and at Sandford Station in North Somerset. In 2017, St Monica Trust will open a hundred-plus bed care home within the former Cadburys factory at Keynsham – The Chocolate Quarter.
Since 1968, the Society has been the trustee of the Cote Charity which in 2009 greatly extended its care for older people by opening Katherine House, named after the charity’s founder Katherine Gotch Robinson. In 2016, an eight-bed residential home, Griffiths House, providing specialist dementia care was opened and there are further ambitious development plans.