The collection contains foundation, membership, administrative and financial records of the society itself, as well as records relating to its work through charities, education, estates, trade, and clubs and societies, as detailed in the 'arrangement' section
The term 'Merchant Venturer' or 'Merchant Adventurer' was first used in a general way to describe individuals trading beyond the seas but was gradually applied to organised groups of merchants. In London, Newcastle, York and Hull, for example, there were societies of Merchant Adventurers related to and in some measure under the control of, the Merchant Adventurers of England. However, the Society of Merchant Venturers of Bristol is an independent organisation, a 'one-off' with no connection at all to the Merchant Adventurers of England.
The history of the Bristol Merchant Venturers begins in 1552 with a Royal Grant from Edward VI to a number of merchants incorporating them as the 'Master, Wardens and Commonalty of Merchant Venturers of the City of Bristol' with the Master sworn in each year by the Mayor. In 1569 the Society and the City were each granted a Coat of Arms and there are many other links between the history of the Society and the history of Bristol.
Subsequent monarchs granted new charters and the present constitution was set out in the charter of 1639 granted by Charles I, by which the Master and Wardens were given 10 Assistants. This formed a Standing Committee which only increased from 13 to 15 members in 1989 by a charter from Queen Elizabeth II. This still forms the executive body of the Society and in accordance with the charter, is elected annually on the 10 November by all the members without recourse to the Mayor and Aldermen. The Merchant Venturers thereby achieved independent corporate status, and as such it has much in common with the London Livery Companies like for example, the Vintners' Company.
Individual members of the Society backed various voyages of exploration in the 16th century and these increased in the early 17th century. The voyages to Newfoundland, however, were a particular Society project and the first Governor of the colony, John Guy, was Master in 1622. Later, another Merchant Venturer, Thomas James, led a successful expedition to the Hudson Bay area. Both Thomas James and John Guy were Aldermen of the City.
From the beginning of the 17th century until 1848, the Society controlled the city docks through a succession of wharfage leases with the city council. They were, in effect, the port authority responsible for keeping the River Avon navigable, extending the quays as trade increased and controlling the pilots. As a result, the 18th century, during which trade with the West Indies and Africa grew, was a particularly active period in its history while Bristol at this time was second only to London in importance.
When its commercial influence waned the Society turned its attention to promoting education through the Colston's schools and the Merchant Venturers' Technical College in which after 1909 they provided the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Bristol. They also continued to care for the elderly in the Merchants' and other almshouses, as well as by becoming endowment trustees in the 1920s of the St. Monica Trust founded by Henry Herbert Wills.
From the 1830s the Society developed the Manor of Clifton acquired in the late 17th century and in 1861 presented the Downs to the people of Bristol 'in perpetuity'. They were also involved in setting up the Great Western Railway Company and with the building of the Clifton Suspension Bridge.
In the 20th century the Society of Merchant Venturers is responsible for the management of considerable trusts with an emphasis on youth, while many Bristol projects like the SS Great Britain and the Children's Hospital have benefited from their largesse.
The original Merchants' Hall was on King Street but suffered two serious hits during World War II, with two wings of the Merchants Almshouses being all that now remain of a much larger complex. The records were safely stored in the cellar of the hall and moved with the society to the new Merchants Hall on The Promenade, Clifton. This Merchants Hall was built in 1868 and comprised Fern House and Auckland House, which were combined to form the new hall in 1953.
The records of the society have been arranged to reflect the various aspects of their work over the course of its existence.
SMV/1 Foundation & Membership
This includes records relating to the foundation of the society, such as charters, the grant of arms, and ordinances, and records relating to membership of the society including apprentices, admissions, lists of members and honorary members, and some other related records.
Administrative records include the proceedings of the hall such as hall books (minute books) and calendars of records.
These include accounts, vouchers and investment records.
The administrative records of the Merchants' Almshouse, Colston's Almshouse, Hill's Almshouse, St Nicholas Almshouse, the Almshouse charity, St Monica Home, and other related records. There is also a good series of vouchers for Colston's charity.
Financial, legal and administrative records of Colston's Hospital, Coston's Hospital Trust, Merchants' Hall Marine School, Trade and Mining school, Merchant Venturers' Technical College, and the University of Bristol. These include records of candidates for Colston Hospital (school).
SMV/6 Estates management
Administrative records of the property of the society including deeds, leases, rentals, valuations and surveys, maps and plans, sales, accounts, development and war damage. Properties include various Bristol properties, the Manor of Clifton, Hotwells, and several Somerset manors and properties.
Port and Docks
The records of the administration and development of the port and docks, including pilotage, imports and exports, accounts, wharfage and cranage records and related material.
Records relating to trade with Africa and the West Indies, America, Ireland, customs and excise duties and various legal matters.
Local trade and development
These include Acts of Parliament, canals, lighthouses, and the Great Western Railway.
SMV/8 Associated clubs and societies
Records relating to the Dolphin Society, the Steadfast Society, and the West India Association.
SMV/9 Seaman's Hospital Fund
Administrative, financial and legal records including deeds, minutes, and hospital accounts, ships' musters, and records of pensioners - such as seamens' petitions or certificates, and hospital orders.
There are indexes relating to members which include CVs; to pupils in Colston's Hospital (School); to almshouse residents; to ships and their captains. The indexes to the Hall or Minute Books of the Merchant Venturers are divided into various headings, e.g. Trade and public affairs, the school under the hall, and Manor of Clifton.