In a report in the Bristol Post of Wednesday 26 January 2022, the Society of Merchant Venturers [SMVs] hit back at critics who want them to give up their half of the Downs and their role in managing the public common.
The article, Downs row – Merchants hit back over criticism, was based upon the outcome of a meeting of the Downs Committee that was held on Monday 24th Jan, where campaigners in the ‘Downs for People’ [DfP] pressure group, backed by a Green councillor, demanded that the ancient trading organisation give Clifton Down back to the city of Bristol and be removed by the statutory committee set up by the Downs Act of 1861.
The Act requires the SMVs and Bristol City Council [BCC], which owns Durdham Down, to contribute seven members each to the Downs Committee which includes the current Lord Mayor of Bristol (who acts as chair) and the Master Merchant (who acts as vice-chair). Their task is to keep the Downs “for the public resort and recreation of the citizens and inhabitants of Bristol”.
The campaign group say that the Merchants have been “exercising power without responsibility for too long”.
Master Merchant David Freed defended the society by saying its members originally bought Clifton Down to protect it from housing and get “absolutely no benefit” from their continued involvement. “The fact is the Merchants, under the terms of the 1861 Act, committed Clifton Down, which they owned, irrevocably to be kept as open space for the benefit of the people of Bristol, at a time when others were making a fortune out of developing houses all around,” he said.
“In fact they bought the land specifically to stop that from happening and have sought throughout the history of the Downs to protect it. As a result of that commitment, any income received from any activity on Clifton Down
has always gone to the Downs Committee. The Merchants put a great deal of time and effort into the Downs, care about it deeply, and gain absolutely no benefit from their involvement. There’s a very positive collaborative
relationship with the councillors on the committee, who I believe find our involvement very beneficial”.
Committee chair, Bristol’s Lord Mayor Steve Smith, agreed Mr Freed’s assertion by saying “I’ve found that the Merchants make a really positive and helpful contribution. They bring skills and experience, not to mention a
great deal of time and effort for which they’re not rewarded”. Money to maintain the Downs comes from renting out space on the land for events, even so, the council underwrites any debt.
DfP have long accused the Downs Committee of ‘secrecy’ and are fighting for information regarding the Committee’s unsuccessful attempt to defend a legal challenge brought by the campaigners over zoo parking on the Downs. The
group were awarded £72,000 in an out-of-court settlement, but an estimated £360,000 of public money was spent by the Committee and BCC on said defence.
Susan Carter, a DfP member leading the charge for the removal of the SMVs from the Downs Committee, told the meeting “Council tax payers have a right to know how much of their money was squandered on a hopeless court case”. Mr Freed responded by accusing the DfP of ‘needlessly’ driving up the case by pursuing the court case ‘unnecessarily’.
The following night’s Post had another article under Downs – Residents asked for views on governance, where it stated Bristolians will get to have their say on how decisions about the Downs are made in a “full, open public
consultation”, according to the Lord Mayor of Bristol Cllr Steve Smith. He was then reported to have said:
Of course we recognise that the governance of the Downs can be improved – that’s why we’re doing a review and that’s why we want to hear from people. I think we all understand that if we were designing a governance structure today we wouldn’t design it the way we did.
DfP had accused the Committee of becoming increasingly ‘secretive’ and are pressing for a legislative change to remove the Merchant Venturers from the Downs Committee. Committee member and Green Councillor Paula O’Rourke said the committee would remain ‘dysfunctional’ without legislative change, so the consultation should ask citizens whether they wanted to pursue it. Cllr Smith said he thought that would be “perfectly reasonable”.
Research from Bristol Radical History Group has shown that in the past, in a far cry from the SMVs wanting to keep the Downs safe from development, the actual history tells a different story.
To start with the 412 acre Downs are comprised of two distinct entities; Durdham Downs to the north and east, bought by Bristol Corporation (the forerunner of BCC) in 1861 from the Lords of the Manor of Henbury for £15,000 (via an Act of Parliament – the owners were Sir John Greville Smyth and the trustees of the late Mrs Colston of Roundway in Wiltshire), and the adjacent Clifton Down to the south. Separated by Stoke Road, the 202 acre Clifton Down was bought by the SMVs in two tranches from the manor of Clifton in 1676 and 1686, and this they apparently surrendered in 1861 to the people of Bristol – apart from the turf or minerals of Clifton Down.
It was a plum deal; records show that as well as prime building land, it contained quarries and mines that were rich in lucrative resources such as lead, manganese, iron and calamine as well as claypits and building stone that paid the SMVs handsomely for their extraction. The same was true for specimen trees and even gorse was gathered for the Bristol Brass Company.
It was no coincidence that the building land also attracted the SMVs, mansions – including Clifton Hill and Goldney Houses – were augmented by spacious villas and glorious terraces tumbling down the verdant hills. Squares, crescents and the Clifton zoological gardens vied for space with Merchants Hall and BCCs Mansion House. And no coincidence again that they wanted to pull up the drawbridge to ‘encroachment’ in 1861 once Clifton’s leafy suburb was created and the ores and minerals were exhausted.
Most of these facts come from a comprehensive pamphlet which was published to celebrate the centenary of the 1861 Act. It was entitled The Downs: Clifton and Durdham Downs, 1861-1961 by the Downs Committee and was sponsored jointly by BCC and the SMVs. A contextualised history going back to the Iron Age, and coming forward in chronological order, the pamphlet highlighted many dark episodes from the area’s past.
These dark episodes include Prince Rupert burning to the ground the whole of Clifton and part of Westbury, when the Royalists retreated from Bristol in 1645; and in the 1720s and 30s the Kingswood miners “made desperate by
poverty and the appalling conditions in which they lived and worked” attacking the tollgate roads and turnpikes that had been put across the Downs, dressed as “Daughters of Rebecca” like their South Wales counterparts.
One episode glossed over though, are the commons clearances or Enclosure, undertaken by the SMVs on Clifton Down from the 1770s. One famous victim of such was the radical poet and anti-slavery campaigner Ann Yearsley, known rather derisorily as ‘Lactilla – the milkmaid poet’. Here’s an extract illustrating this in From Wulfstan to Colston: –
She was ‘discovered’ by [Hannah] More when delivering milk to her house; Hannah realised her literary talent and had her poems published. Ann at this time was impoverished because her family had been made destitute by enclosures in Clifton perpetuated by the Merchant Venturers. Unfortunately Yearsley and More fell out over money that had been placed in a trust. More felt that Yearsley was incapable of running her own financial affairs, but Ann needed the money to try and enhance her children’s education. More publically denounced Yearsley for her ingratitude and Ann promptly lost the majority of her patrons…. Friends of Ann Yearsley had helped her set-up a radical circulating library in Hotwells in 1793.
The unelected business club that is the Society of Merchant Venturers, runs through Bristol’s power base like letters in a stick of rock, and the Downs Committee is yet another example. Surely it’s time to acknowledge that times
have changed and that in the interests of transparency and democracy the party is over.
Also, while change is in the air, can more be done please to acknowledge the tremendous contributions that Bristol women like Ann Yearsley have made to the city and country?”