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Sun, 05.01.1442

The Society of Merchant Ventures Founded

*The Society of Merchant Ventures is celebrated on this date in 1442. They are a British charitable organization in the English city of Bristol.

The society can be traced back to a 13th-century guild that funded the voyage of John Cabot to Canada. The society its first Royal Charter in 1552 and for centuries had almost been synonymous with the government of Bristol, especially Bristol Harbor. In recent times, society's activities have centered on charitable agendas. The Society played a part in the development of Bristol. 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. Since the British involvement in slavery through the Middle Passage, society has enabled the progress of that industry.

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. The society in its current form was established by Edward VI granting the society a monopoly on Bristol's sea trade. The society remained in effective control of Bristol's harbor until 1809. Further charters were granted by Charles I, Charles II, and Elizabeth II. The society's members were active in the English colonization of North America, helping to establish the Bristol's Hope and Cuper's Cove settlements in Newfoundland. 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.

In the sixteenth century, the Society had maintained a free school for mariners' children under the Merchants' Hall in King Street. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Society took on Edward Colston's 'Colston's Hospital', a school for 100 boys. This moved to Stapleton in 1861, becoming co-educational in 1991. 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. The mariner expansion of the British channel shows 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.

In 1733 the Society of Merchant Venturers of Bristol petitioned the General Lighthouse Authority, Trinity House, for an actual lighthouse, but the petition failed but negotiations resumed in 1736 when 60 soldiers drowned after their vessel crashed on the Wolves rocks near Flat Holm. The construction of the tower finished in 1737 and it began operating on March 25, 1738. In the 19th century, the Society helped to fund the building of the 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.

Society has managed Colston's Almshouses 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 a 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. Other deeds and estate papers relating to the Society's interests in Somerset and Dorset are available at Somerset Heritage Centre.

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 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 no non-white members until 2020 when Marti Burgess, a partner at Bevan Brittan, was appointed.  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 defense contracting, tobacco, genetically modified agriculture, and the petroleum industry.

Merchant Venturers serve on the boards of many local charitable and cultural organizations 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".

On June 7, 2020, during international Black Lives Matter demonstrations provoked by the killing of George Floyd, a group of protestors in Bristol pulled down the 1895 statue of Edward Colston that stood in Magpie Park in The Centre, Bristol, objecting to the veneration of Edward Colston, a slave-trader, and pushed it into the harbor. During the ensuing debate over the legitimacy of this act, the Society of Merchant Venturers was accused of having used its influence to block previous attempts to remove the statue legally. In response to the statue's removal, a spokesperson for the Merchant Venturers promised the society would "continue to educate itself about systemic racism".

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