Society of Merchant Venturers

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

Society of Merchant Venturers
MottoIndocilis pauperiem pati
(Will not learn to endure poverty)
Formation13th century
PurposeHelping communities across Greater Bristol to thrive
HeadquartersMerchants' Hall, Clifton Down
Official language
Ross Ancell
WebsiteSociety of Merchant Venturers

The society can be traced back to a 13th-century guild which funded the voyage of John Cabot to Canada.[1] The society its first Royal Charter in 1552 and for centuries had almost been synonymous with the government of Bristol, especially Bristol Harbour. In recent times, the society's activities have centred on charitable agendas.[2]

The Society played a part in the development of Bristol, including the building of Clifton Suspension Bridge and the Great Western Railway. It also influenced the development of educational institutions in Greater Bristol, including University of Bristol, University of the West of England, University of Bath, City of Bristol College, Colston's Girls' School and Merchants' Academy.


A Guild of Merchants was founded in Bristol by the 13th century, and swiftly became active in civic life. 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.[3] The society remained in effective control of Bristol's harbour until 1809.[4] Further charters were granted by Charles I, Charles II and Elizabeth II. The society's members were active in the English colonisation of North America, helping to establish the Bristol's Hope and Cuper's Cove settlements in Newfoundland.[4]

In 1694, the Merchant Venturers Society petitioned parliament against the monopoly held by the Royal African Company in the slave trade, leading to the ending of this monopoly in 1698.[3] During the eighteenth century one quarter of the individual members of the Society were to be directly involved in the slave trade with such prominent Bristol slave traders as Michael Becher, John Duckenfield, and Isaac Hobhouse.[5]

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.[6] 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.[7] 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 supported William Crispe's proposal.[8] Crispe agreed to pay £800 (£110,552, $220,241 in 2008) for the construction of the tower as well as the fees permits.[6] The construction of the tower finished in 1737 and it began operating on 25 March 1738.[9]

The costs of the construction of Bristol's Floating Harbour, completed in 1809, were far beyond the limited resources of the Society and necessitated the setting up of the Bristol Docks Company. Although the Society was represented on the Board, it ceded its role in the management of the port of Bristol, which had dominated its activities throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.[4]

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 Society's presentation in 1861 of "certain rights over Clifton Down made to the citizens" of Bristol.[10]

In the sixteenth century the Society had maintained a free school for mariners’ children under the Merchants’ Hall in King Street. A century later sailors were being instructed in the ‘Arte of Navigacion’.[4] This was to evolve into the Merchant Venturers’ Technical College in Unity Street towards the end of the nineteenth century when over 2500 students were enrolled. When Bristol's University College finally achieved its charter as the University of Bristol in 1909, the Merchant Venturers’ Technical College provided the faculty of engineering, whilst the remaining departments of the college eventually became the University of the West of England. At the beginning of the eighteenth century the Society took on Edward Colston's 'Colston's Hospital', a school for 100 boys. This was to move to Stapleton in 1861, becoming co-educational in 1991. In 1891 Colston's Girls' School was opened on Cheltenham Road using funds from Edward Colston's endowment. It became an academy in 2008, when Withywood School reopened as Merchants' Academy. In 2016 the Bristol Autism Free School, now called Venturers’ Academy, opened nearby. Since 2017 the Society and the University of Bristol have jointly sponsored five primary schools, a secondary school, an all-through school and a special school in Bristol. The overarching Venturers’ Trust now oversees the education of more than 3,200 students.[11]

The Merchant Venturers cared for twelve poor mariners in the sixteenth century and the Society continues to be involved with the care of the elderly. The Society has managed Colston's Almshouse on St Michael's Hill since its foundation by Edward Colston in 1696. Since 1922 the Society has been the endowment trustee for the independent charity, the St Monica Trust, enabling very substantial developments in recent years. The Society has also been sole trustee of the Cote Charity, set up in 1968, which in 2009 opened Katherine House, a residential care home and in 2016, Griffiths House for those living with dementia.


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.[12]

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.


An article in local magazine Venue, in 2002, claimed that many members were not active in charity. However, the society says 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". 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 now a list of members, with brief biographies, on the website.[13]

Venue claimed 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".[14]


The company's arms are blazoned as follows:

Arms: Barry wavy of eight argent and azure, on a bend or, a dragon passant with wings indorsed and tail extended vert, on achief gules, a lion passant guardant of the third, between two bezants. Crest: In a ducal coronet or, a main-mast of the last with pennon flying argent, charged with a cross gules, on the round top a man in armour proper, on his dexter arm a truncheon, his sinister hand supporting a carved shield of the second, from the round top six pike staves, three on each side issuing bendways of the first, the rigging from the round top to the coronet sable. Supporters: The dexter, a mermaid in the sea, all proper crined or, the middle fins at the joining of the bodies of the last, holding in her sinister hand a mirror of the first, and supporting with her dexter hand an anchor of the second, cabled proper: the sinister supporter, a winged satyr proper standing on a mount vert, winged and legged or, holding in his sinister hand a scythe the blade in base, all proper. Motto: Indocilis pauperiem pati.[15]

The motto Indocilis pauperiem pati (Will not learn to endure poverty) is from the Odes of Horace. [16]

luctantem Icariis fluctibus Africum
mercator metuens otium et oppidi
laudat rura sui; mox reficit rates
quassas, indocilis pauperiem pati.

A merchant fearing the African wind
wrestling the Icarian sea praises leisure and
the fields of his own town; soon he repairs the battered
ships, not taught to suffer poverty.

See also

  • The Merchant Venturer, passenger train from London to Bristol and Weston-super-Mare, running from 1951 to 1961


  1. Ferguson, Niall (2004a). Colossus: The Price of America's Empire. London: Penguin. ISBN 978-1594200137.
  2. "History - The Society of Merchant Venturers".
  3. "The Society of Merchant Venturers". Bristol Slavery. Archived from the original on 13 June 2014. Retrieved 8 October 2008.
  4. 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.
  5. Böhm, Timo; Hillmann, Henning (2015). Political Power and Social Theory. vol. 29. p. 147.
  6. Worrall, D. H.; Surtees, P. R. (1984). Flat Holm – an account of its history and ecology. South Glamorgan County Council. pp. 8–30.
  7. "Flatholm Lighthouse". Trinity House. Archived from the original on 9 May 2008. Retrieved 17 February 2008.
  8. Chaplin, Captain W.R. (1960). he History of Flat Holm Lighthouse. Reprinted from the American Neptune V. XX.
  9. "Flat Holm Lighthouse, Flat Holm Island". Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales. Archived from the original on 30 July 2012. Retrieved 29 April 2008.
  10. Merritt, D; Greenacre, F (2011). Public Sculpture of Bristol. Liverpool University Press. ISBN 978-184631-481-0.
  11. "History of the Merchant Venturers Society".
  12. "National Archives Discovery Catalogue page, Society of Merchant Venturers". Retrieved 18 April 2016.
  13. "Membership". Archived from the original on 31 March 2016. Retrieved 27 January 2015.
  14. "The Merchant Venturers". Venue Magazine. Retrieved 8 October 2008.
  15. Arthur Charles Fox-Davies, The Book of Public Arms, London, 1915.
  16. Odes (Horace)/Book I/1

Further reading

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