Successive generations of the Colston family were prominent merchants in Bristol for over 300 years. The first known family member was Thomas Colston, who was appointed to a senior position on the Common Council in 1387. (1)
The Colston family suffered a set-back at the end of the Civil War when a subsequent Thomas Colston (Master of SMV in 1644) played a prominent role on the Royalist side, commanding Colston’s Fort on Kingsdown during the siege of the City. After the King’s defeat, leading members of the City Corporation were dismissed. These included Thomas, together with Edward Colston’s father, William. (2). Edward Colston himself, born and christened in Bristol, was sent away to London. (3)
After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, William Colston re-joined the Corporation and resumed his business importing wine, oil and raisins from Spain and Portugal. (4) His son, Edward, never returned to live in Bristol, becoming a member of the Mercers’ Company in London. (5)
In 1680, Edward Colston became a member of the Royal African Company and took an active part in the slave trade. (6)
After his father’s death, Edward Colston visited Bristol and joined the Society of Merchant Venturers in 1683. He attended two meetings (7) and continued to live in London.
He became Deputy Governor of the Royal African Company in 1689, attending a Court for the final time in 1691. The last mention of Edward Colston in connection with the Royal African Company was made in the company records of 1692 when he received a small share of the warrant for gratuities to the Assistants. (8)
With no heirs, Edward Colston gave away his vast fortune before he died in London in 1721. His body was buried in Bristol. How much of his wealth was derived from the family business based in Bristol and how much from the Mercers’ Company or Royal African Company is unknown, but there is no doubt that Edward Colston profited from the slave trading conducted by the Royal African Company.
Today, the Society of Merchant Venturers continues to play an active role in the management of three institutions associated with Edward Colston’s name.
In 1696, Colston entrusted to SMV the Almshouse on St Michael’s Hill, which still functions today as originally intended.
He also put the management of Colston’s Hospital, his school ‘for 100 poor boys’, into the care of the Society. Originally opened in 1710 in the Great House on the site of today’s Bristol Beacon, formerly known as Colston Hall, in 1861, when the Great House was bought and renamed by the Council, Colston’s School relocated to Stapleton where it has expanded, flourished and is now a co-educational school for 740 pupils.
His substantial endowment of this school led to the opening of Colston’s Girls’ School (soon to be renamed Montpelier High School) on Cheltenham Road in 1891 for 300 pupils. It has since greatly expanded and maintains high standards, now educating over 900 students. As well as being a non-selective academy, the students reflect the communities that the academy serves and, since 2018, the sixth form, V6, has admitted boys.
Note: This summary has been reviewed by Dr Richard Stone, University of Bristol.
‘Jones’ Bristol Past by Donald Jones. Phillimore & Co Ltd 2000.
‘Latimer’ History of the Merchant Venturers Society of Bristol by John Latimer. J.W. Arrowsmith 1903
‘Clarke’ Concerning Edward Colston of Bristol and London by E.G. Clarke. J.W. Arrowsmith 1877
‘Wilkins’ Edward Colston by H.J. Wilkins. J.W. Arrowsmith 1920
‘McGrath’ The Merchant Venturers of Bristol by P. McGrath. Society of Merchant Venturers 1975
‘Bohm’ A Closed Elite? Bristol’s Merchant Venturers and the abolition of slave trading. By Bohm and Hillmann. Emerald Group Publishing 2015
‘Marshall’ Bristol and the Abolition of Slavery by P. Marshall. Bristol Historical Association 1975
Also: The Bristol Slave Traders; A Collective Portrait by David Richardson. Bristol Historical Association 1985
1 Latimer Page 173
2 Latimer Page 163
3 Clarke Page 6
3 Wilkins Pages 10 to 12
4 Wilkins Page 9
4 Latimer Page 174
5 Wilkins Page 14
6 Wilkins Page 20
7 Latimer Page 174
8 Wilkins Pages 38 & 41