The onset of autumn in Bristol sees several idiosyncratic ceremonies, rituals and traditions that remember the locally born slave trader Edward Colston. Whilst public display has in recent years retreated, commemoration and maintenance of a partial historical narrative focused only on philanthropic endeavours persists ‘behind closed doors’.
These closed doors are, for the rest of the year, presented to the Bristolian public as some of the most ‘open’ and ‘welcoming’, they include some of the most well-known Church of England places of worship in our city, the Bristol cathedral, the ancient St Stephen’s Church and St Mary Redcliffe. Also with closed doors is the Bristol city council owned, run and financed Red Lodge museum, the now state funded Colston Girls School and Merchants Academy alongside the always closed, unless you have the funds, Colston School.
Those involved in the ‘celebration season’ appear to consider their actions an essential element of the annual Bristolian civic and social calendar, and, as recent communications have revealed, consider their actions benign and congenial. The connective element between all these ceremonies, rituals and traditions is one organisation, Bristol’s very own Society of Merchant Venturers.
Early November sees the Colston Girls School ‘Commemoration Day’ held at Bristol cathedral. Students and staff are supplied with and expected to wear a bronze chrysanthemum, apparently, the Colston’s favourite flower, for the duration of this religious ceremony. During the event extracts of the man’s will is read aloud by a senior member of the Church of England clergy to the congregation. There are expectations of action placed on those present around philanthropic giving, emanating what Colston himself did towards the end of his life with the amassed wealth from decades of political and economic involvement in the kidnapping, enslavement and murder of fellow human beings. The Merchant Venturers have always run Colston Girls School and since 2008 this has been with the use of public money.
A week or so later the Bristol cathedral is again the venue for a religious ceremony entitled ‘Charter Day’. This ceremony is led by a Church of England Bishop preaching to a congregation made up of students and staff from the aforementioned schools. Also in attendance are the members of the Merchant Venturers and other members of the Cathedral clergy. It is at the end of this religious ceremony that attendees are given a ‘Colston bun’ ‘in memory of him’ which would have been delivered to and stored inside the Cathedral during the ceremony. Following this the Merchant Venturers retire for lunch and other rituals in their headquarters Merchant Hall, a double-fronted mansion on Clifton’s Promenade a stone’s throw from the Suspension Bridge. As the doors to this building are most definitely closed, whether the Merchant Venturers display or visit the hair and nails of Edward Colston, the ‘religious relics’ that form part of their private museum collection, will forever be a secret known only to those in attendance.
November 13th is ‘Colston Day’ (his birthday according to the new calendar of 1752) and four societies of Bristol’s elite who revere the ‘great man’ attend another religious ceremony at St Stephen’s Church in the city centre. In years gone by the Colston, Dolphin, Grateful and Anchor societies would have competed together in a race to raise the most funds on this day having come together in the now closed All Saints Church at the top of Corn Street where Colston is buried and entombed. Today however, this ceremony is closely followed by the Grateful Society’s annual dinner held behind closed doors at the Red Lodge museum on Park Row where the Merchant Venturer members observe a traditional ‘silent toast’ to Colston in the ‘Great Room’.