Society of Merchant Venturers

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: British History; British History 1500-1750

The Society of Merchant Venturers (or just the "Merchant Venturers") is a private charitable organisation in the English city of Bristol, which dates back to the 13th century. At one time it was practically synonymous with the Corporation (local government) of Bristol and for many years had effective control of Bristol's port. It is still seen by some as unduly influential and overly secretive.


A Guild of Merchants was founded in Bristol by the 13th century, and swiftly became active in civic life; by the 15th century it had become synonymous with the town's government. 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. They remained in effective control of Bristol Docks until 1848. further charters were granted by Charles I, Charles II and Elizabeth II. The society was active in the colonisation of North America, helping to establish the Bristol's Hope and Cuper's Cove colonies in Newfoundland.

In 1595 the Merchant Venturers' School was founded, which subsequently became the Merchant Venturers' Technical College and was a precursor of the University of Bristol, the University of the West of England and City of Bristol College. In 1676 the society took control of the Manor of Clifton including Clifton Down. Around 1700 many Merchant Venturers including the celebrated Edward Colston were active in the slave trade, a connection which still haunts the society. Colston also founded almshouses and a school which still exists today.

In the 19th century the Society helped to fund the building of Brunel's 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. With the end of its control of the docks, the society moved towards a philanthropic role; in addition to its earlier almshouses, it established St Monica's Home of Rest, a substantial retirement home adjacent to Durdham Down.

Current status

As of 2004 there are 67 members of the society; a list of names is available on their website. The society says that the Data Protection Act prevents them releasing the list without the unanimous consent of the membership. The society says it is not deliberately elitist, but also 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". An article in local magazine Venue claims that many members are not active in charity. There were no female full members of the society until 2003 (though Margaret Thatcher had earlier been made an honorary member), and as of 2004, there are no ethnic minority members. The society says it expects to have ethnic minority members in the future.

Venue claims 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".

The Society has been based in a pair of semi-detached mansions facing onto Clifton Down since the destruction of the 16th century Merchants' Hall during the Second World War. Its own charity donates around £300,000 per year to various good causes; the largest trust it controls, St. Monica's Trust, has an annual turnover of over £6 million.

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