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

What is the Society of Merchant Venturers?

The Society's origins are unclear, but it seems to have emerged from a 14th century cabal of powerful traders in Bristol - probably the same people that financed John Cabot's voyage across the Atlantic to 'discover' Newfoundland. The Society was officially established in 1552 to control, protect and promote trade in the city. During the 18th century its members made huge profits and amassed enormous fortunes from slavery, playing a key role in the trade that brought up to 20 million Africans across the Atlantic in conditions so cramped and unhygienic that half of a boat's human cargo often died en route.
The Merchants' impact on the city was enormous: they set up Bristol University ( which named its recently-finished Faculty Of Engineering Building in their honour), a navigation school which eventually became The University of the West Of England (, and Bristol's first water supply company. They donated half of the Downs (a large park) to the city, paid for the Suspension Bridge ( to be built, and financed the Great Western Railway. "It ran Bristol," says Parkes. Writing in the Merchants' newsletter, Densham, who retired as the Society's master in 2002, states: "We have much of which we are rightly proud in our history and in the exploits of our predecessors. Not only did they enjoy the monopoly of the trade with the New World but, until the mid-19th century they also effectively ran the city of Bristol as well. So the prestige we now enjoy is attributable to their achievements."
Nowadays, the Society says it is only interested in charitable works. It has recently given money to Bristol Cathedral (, the Exploratory(, the Matthew (, Bristol Old Vic (, the SS Great Britain (, the Greater Bristol Foundation ( and Bristol's failed bit to become European Capital of Culture in 2008 ( The Merchant Venturers' own charity has almost 4 million in the bank, but the members administer numerous charitable trusts, worth "hundreds of millions of pounds", according to Parkes. That makes them the one of the biggest spenders in the city. But its emphasis on charity is puzzling: Densham told us that only 20 of the members are seriously involved in charity work - one third are too old and another third are too busy running their own companies. So why are they involved in the Society, and what do they all do?