Merchant Venturers

A rare glimpse
Why all the fuss about a bunch of strangely-dressed men?
What is the Society of Merchant Venturers?
How do you join?
The ties that bind
Connections with royals
The Society's charities
Dirty money? The Society's investments
What's the extent of their influence?
"Cause for concern"
The inner circle
The outer circle
The Antient Society Of St Stephen's Ringers
Challenge to the Merchants
About the author

Inner circle

Merchant Venturers intimately involved in the running of the organisation

* Geoff Matthews: master of Merchants in 2001, Matthews went to Taunton School and was general manager at Imperial Tobacco in the 1980s. He is now a Non-Executive Director of Bristol & West and Chairman of Bristol & West Pension Trustees Limited.

* Jay Tidmarsh is Lord-Lieutenant of Bristol. He, too, went to Taunton School. He was director, and subsequently chairman, of Radio West Ltd, and in 1985 became a founding director of GWR Radio plc. He was also one of the dozen businesspeople who, immediately after the riots in Toxteth, Liverpool, set up the Bristol Initiative in 1992. Master of the Merchants in 1994-95, he was awarded an MBE in 1989.

* Brigadier H Pye: the outgoing treasurer of the Merchant Venturers, Pye is an honorary colonel of the 9th/12th Royal Lancers (Prince of Wales') regiment and was a pall bearer at the Queen Mother's funeral.

* Andrew Densham, master of the Merchants in 2002-3, is an ex-partner at the law firm Burges Salmon. A leading agricultural lawyer, he was awarded a CBE in 2000 for services to agriculture.

* His brother, Charles Densham, who runs an estate agency specializing in expensive houses.

* Giles Clarke was educated at Rugby School and Oxford University. He set up Majestic Wine Warehouse in 1981, which he sold in 1989 for 15m. He is also the co-founder of Pet City and Safestore PLC and was chief executive officer from 1999-2001 of local recruitment firm Stepstone. He is currently chairman of telephone manufacturer ATL Telecom and a national council member of the Learning and Skills Council, the largest quango in the UK. His father, the late Charles Clarke, established Bristol's top law firm, Osborne Clarke, which lists both the Merchants and MITIE (see below) as its clients.

* Roger Smedley succeeded Densham as the master. He founded an engineering design company called SAC, later called SAC Ricardo.

* John Avery is a wine merchant and Chairman of Averys of Bristol. He was master in 1995, and is also a member of the Antient Society Of St Stephens Ringers. He was a director of SMV Investments until November 2002. He is also a member of the intriguingly named Wine Selection Committee For Government Hospitality.

* Louis Sherwood is an ex-chairman of HTV, and now Chairman of financial services firm Clerical Medical. He used to be director of Wessex Water Services Ltd.

* St John Hartnell, a valuer and surveyor, is executive chairman of surveyors Hartnell Taylor Cook and one of the best-known figures in Bristol's property scene. He was awarded an OBE for his services to the local community in 2002. An ex-director of SMV Investments, he is currently a Ringer. His brother in law Patrick Lucas is also a merchant.

* Denis Burn, a management consultant, is the youngest Venturer. Appropriately, he is chairman of Soc's Youth Committee.

* John Burke is a Bristol and West boss and President of Bristol's Chamber of Commerce.

* John Moger Woolley was chief executive of specialist packaging firm DRG plc from 1985-1990. He is now non-executive chairman of Bristol Water plc.

* Sir George White is a clockmaker and horological consultant. He was high sheriff of Avon in 1989 and a JP from 1991-5.

* Nicholas Hood, ex-chairman of 96 million tourist attraction @Bristol. It signed a controversial sponsorship and concessions deal with Nestle under his tenure. He was chairman of Wessex Water until 1999, and was educated at Clifton College.

* At-Bristol's new chairman Peter McIlwriath. He used to run the firm that audited the Venturers' investment company, SMV Investments. McIlwraith headed PriceWaterhouseCoopers in Bristol for 10 years. McIlwraith is also a director of Bristol Water, whose chairman is John Moger Woolley (see above) - a Merchant.

* Jim Hood is a wine merchant and Nicholas Hood's brother. Jim ran wine firm Howells of Bristol until it was taken over.

* Sir David James Vernon Wills is the fifth baronet of Blagdon. He's a major landowner and heir to the Wills tobacco fortune.

* Admiral Sir James Eberle was Vice-Admiral of the UK, one of the highest military positions in the country, from 1994-7. Educated at Clifton College, he's an ex-master of the society and is Master of the Britannia Beagles hunt.

* Robert Mckinlay, CBE, was President of Bristol Chamber of Commerce 1994-7. He was also Concorde's design director while he worked at British Aerospace.

* Andrew Milton Reid was deputy chairman of tobacco firm Imperial Group from 1986-9. He's an ex-master and was high sheriff of Avon in 1991.

* Colin Skellett became chief executive of Wessex Water in 1988 and oversaw the firm's privatisation. It was then taken over by Azurix, which was owned by the fabulously corrupt firm Enron, and more recently by Malaysian company YTL Power. Skellett hit the headlines on 22 August 2002 when the City of London Police staged a high-profile dawn raid of his home and the Wessex Water offices in Bath. He was arrested over allegations that he had received a 1 million bribe to influence the 1.2 billion sale of Wessex Water to YTL. The police dropped the investigation in February this year. He is also a board member of the South West Regional Development Agency.

* Robert Bernays is a farmer and landowner.

* Tim Pearce runs property development firm Bristol and England Properties Ltd. He is part of the family that used to run the Bristol-based firm Pearce Construction.

* Cullum McAlpine, 56, director of construction firm Sir Robert McAlpine and the MITIE Group (see below).

* David Michael Parkes is an accountant and ex-master of the Merchants. His brother, D'Arcy Parkes, is the Merchants' official spokesman (not a Merchant himself, he runs the Antient Society of St Stephens' Ringers).

* Richard Johnson is a solicitor. A senior partner at Burges Salmon, he was educated at Clifton College.

* James and Dayrell McArthur are brothers. They run security fencing firm the McArthur Group Ltd, based at the Fishponds Trading Estate. Dayrell was Master in 1989.

* Mark Pitman is a farmer in Somerset.

* Terrence Mordaunt, chairman of First Corporate Shipping Ltd which owns Avonmouth and Royal Portbury Docks, and David Ord, 55, its managing director. Mordaunt and Ord bought and privatized the port in 1991, meaning they now control all trade through it, just as the original Merchants did when they ran the port of Bristol 450 years ago.

* David Telling, 64, is the founder and executive chairman of the Wrington-based MITIE group. The company, which has over 70 subsidiaries, provides a massive array of services including building management and construction equipment hire. Its turnover was 566m last year. Its clients include the Palace Of Westminster, Rolls Royce, the British Army and Shell. He has appointed two men who are also Merchants to help him run the firm: Callum McAlpine (see above) and David Ord (see above).

* Roderick Davidson, 64, a member of the Downs Committee, the half-councillor, half-Merchant group that controls the Downs. He is a typical Merchant: educated at Clifton College, he has been High Sheriff of Avon, is a member of the Clifton, the Colston Research Society and the Antient Society Of St Stephens Ringers. He is the only Merchant uncovered so far who has been a city councillor. He's a stockbroker by profession, and is now chairman of the Company Close Brothers Development VCT PLC, and a director of Close Brothers Venture Capital Trust PLC.

* John Andrew Southerden Burn, chief engineer at Imperial Tobacco from 1962-82. He's held a string of charitable positions, including Vice President of the SS Great Britain, Chairman of the Clifton Suspension Bridge Trust and Chairman of the governors at Colston's Girls' School.