Joshua Fitch and Colston’s Girls’ School

The school the Merchant Venturers never wanted...


On 11th November 2017 Colston’s Girls’ School (CGS) announced that they would not be changing the name of the school, despite its associations with Edward Colston, the Bristol merchant who both organised and profited from the transatlantic slave trade. Colston was a major investor, manager and then deputy-governor of the Royal African Company (RAC) which held a monopoly over the West African slave-trade in the seventeenth century.[1]] During Colston’s time managing and then leading the RAC, at least 84,500 enslaved men, women and children were branded and packed onto ships to be taken across the Atlantic to be sold into a life of chattel slavery in plantations in the Americas, for both them and their future generations. Around 19,300 people died on the journey, including several thousand children under the age of 10.[2]

When CGS made their announcement to the Bristol media, they published a statement which explained their actions. It was entitled “Colston’s Girls’ School and its historic connection to Edward Colston”. The opening paragraph claimed:

Colston’s Girls’ School is directly descended from Colston’s Hospital, a school which opened in 1710 for ‘100 poor boys’, funded entirely by a large financial gift from Edward Colston (1636-1721). Colston entrusted the management of the school and the care of the substantial endowment to the Society of Merchant Venturers of Bristol and in 1873, the Endowed School Commissioners proposed that a portion of the endowment should be set aside for a day school for girls. Almost two decades later, in 1891, Colston’s Girls’ School opened for 300 pupils.[3]

This apparent ‘statement of fact’ begs a number of questions:

  • Why were the governors of CGS so keen to claim a direct connection to Colston’s Hospital?
  • How could they claim a “historic connection to Edward Colston” despite the fact that their school was opened 170 years after his death?
  • What was the Endowed School Commission and what part did it have to play in the creation of CGS?
  • Why did it take “almost two decades” for CGS to be opened?
  • And how did a ‘charity’ school supposedly for ‘100 poor boys’ turn into Colston’s School, a fee paying private institution?

Using a history of CGS, the Society of Merchant Venturers (SMV) and other secondary sources it has been possible to answer these questions and at the same time uncover a hidden history of the struggle for education for girls in Bristol.

Colston’s (Hospital) School

In 1702 Edward Colston donated money to Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital (school) and three years later offered an endowment to increase the number of places in the school from 44 to 90. However, his plans were rejected by the Whig dominated Corporation probably because:

He made no secret of his hatred of Dissent, and his charitable settlements were laced with clauses requiring Anglican devotion and practice. In establishing the rules for one foundation he desired pupils ‘to be staunch sons of the Church, provided such books are procured for them as have no tincture of Whiggism’.[4]

As a result of this rebuff, in 1706 he turned to the more Tory-oriented SMV with a new plan for them to administer a school for “fifty poor boys”. A year later Colston purchased a site on St Augustine’s Back for £1,300. After several years of “negotiations with the Society [SMV] over complex financial and management arrangements” in July 1710 Colston’s Hospital (school) was opened with an expanded remit for ‘100 poor boys’. However, this was not a school for just any ‘poor boy’ as Morgan explains:

As an opponent of Catholicism, Dissent and Whiggism, he insisted that the boys should be Anglicans, be in good health, and prepared for apprenticeships.

In 1717, after criticising how the SMV ran the new school, Colston requested:

the Merchant Venturers to ensure that none of the boys were educated other than according to the doctrines of the established church, and that none were placed as apprentices to men from the communion who were dissenters.[5]

These increasingly restrictive rules over the selection which ‘poor boys’ could attend the school, how they were taught and who they could work for when they left were a reflection of Colston’s bigoted political and religious views. He made it very clear that his charitable endeavours were primarily aimed at reviving the “the primitive zeal for the Church government” and making sure the selected ‘poor boys’ would be “bred up in the doctrines of the Church of England” rather than providing schooling for the poor in general.[6]

Despite the noble intentions of educating ‘100 poor boys’, albeit under the draconian theological rules of Colston, the project was plagued with financial issues, mainly related to the tight-fisted benefactors and administrators. After the death of Colston in 1721, it took almost 50 years and eventually legal action to force Colston’s executors to produce all the money that he had bequeathed to the project. In 1842, the SMV was in court again when it was caught skimming Colston’s endowments to the school. After six years and a legal battle the Society were forced to pay the money they had taken back to the trust that ran the school.[7]

Joshua Fitch

The SMV was faced with more serious problems in 1870 when the Liberal government began a series of educational reforms. These were aimed at giving every child the opportunity of attending school, particularly those from the ‘labouring classes’. One of these reforms was the Endowed Schools Act (1869) which was aimed at examining the income of endowed schools to see if the money could be put to better use in expanding educational provision, particularly for girls. The Endowed Schools Commission began operating in January 1870 and was given powers to reorganise schools within its remit and to reallocate endowments for this purpose. It also encouraged commissioners to alter or abolish “out of date and inappropriate rules laid down by long dead benefactors” that hampered the education of the pupils.[8]

The Commissioners knew that the powerful interests in Bristol that controlled the endowed schools were going to present significant resistance to the reforms, and they were not wrong. The first reaction of the SMV was to ask the Endowed Schools Commission for special exemption from the Act, a somewhat arrogant as well as naïve request, which was immediately refused. They were soon faced by the Assistant Commissioner, Joshua Fitch, who was assigned to investigate the endowed schools in Bristol. Fitch had lots of experience at several levels of teaching and was a recognised authority on secondary education. Dunn describes his demeanour:

Fitch was sharp tongued and immensely hard-working, and was relentless in his advocacy of the highest possible standards. He was not a member of the Establishment…He was not afraid of innovation, and infinitely preferred genuine reform to the status quo. One of his particular interests was the education of girls, and he was a helpful friend to several of the leading women educationalists of the time, among them Emily Davies, the founder of Girton College, Cambridge. Unlike the vast majority of his contemporaries he believed the mental powers of men and women were the same. There were some clever women and some not so clever, just as there were clever men. ‘Intellect’, he said, ‘has no sex.’[9]

Fitch after careful study of the curricula, methods, staffing, social class of the pupils and finances of endowed schools in Bristol produced a report in which he recommended:

 …the practical abolition of Colston’s and of Queen Elizabeth’s Hospitals and of Whitson’s Red Maids’ School, all old schools with their own traditions and associations with the past. These foundations were to be “scrapped” and their endowments to be applied in the establishment of a series of first, second and third grade schools.[10]

In his investigations Fitch had uncovered the lie that Colston’s school was for ‘poor boys’ as the SMV had claimed, instead it was based on a system of patronage where they and the so-called ‘Colston Nominees’ chose the pupils leading to a “school filled with middle-class boys”.[11] Furthermore, and most worrying for the SMV, central to Fitch’s recommendations was the immediate establishment in Bristol of schools to provide more accessible and better education for girls.

Colston’s Girls’ School

Fitch’s report stunned the SMV trustees. They had been caught red-handed and faced dissolution of their privileged educational empire, the loss of control over Edward Colston’s endowment and as some suggested in the press, the loss of his name from the school.[12] They immediately stymied attempts to debate the report in the public domain, whilst launching a propaganda campaign both behind the scenes and in the newspapers. Dunn points out that their main arguments against the proposed reforms to the Colston Hospital School were that:

Colston had intended his charity to benefit poor boys and not any other group of people, and that he had insisted that the boys be instructed in the doctrines of the Church of England by teachers who were practicing Anglicans: it was in effect a denominational school.[13]

Clearly the SMV trustees believed that the endowment was not for females and that Edward Colston would never have countenanced such a thing. Also, despite the fact that the ‘poor boys’ façade had been rumbled by Fitch’s research the SMV trustees continued to argue they were somehow helping the ‘poor’ and that the reorganisation of the schools would halt this. Fitch responded to this by stating:

May I remind you of the one cardinal point on which I sought to insist so strongly at our meeting: that a rich endowment can be far more advantageously used, if instead of giving a gratuitous education to a few – and those not necessarily the poorest or most deserving – it is made the means of cheapening and ennobling the education of ten times that number.

He also continued to point out ‘the elephant in the room’ in that the “benefits of the Bristol Hospital Schools were not confined to the poorest classes”.[14]

Over nearly four years the SMV trustees truculently argued, stalled and refused to implement Fitch’s measures. Negotiations between the trustees and the Commissioners were fraught, often breaking down for months at a time. Eventually a watered down plan was agreed in October 1873. The trustees decided to deal with the financial issues created by the agreement by making the boys’ school mostly fee-paying, an ironic deviation from Colston’s supposed institution for ‘100 poor boys’. In addition, they were forced to agree to the creation of a Girls’ School, something they were clearly reluctant to do. It was not the reform that the Commission wanted, but after four years of struggle against powerful opponents, Fitch had achieved a significant step forward for the education of girls in Bristol.

Unfortunately, in 1874 the Liberal government fell and the Conservatives came into office. The Tories and their new Prime Minister Disraeli were not concerned with social reform and consequently the Endowed Schools Commission was transferred to the far less powerful Charity Commission. This could have ended the educational reforms in Bristol, and the hard-fought scheme for a girls’ school. However, Fitch’s plan for Bristol went into law in February 1875 with a clause that stated:

Within three years from the date of this scheme, the Governors (of Colston’s Boys’ Boarding School), with the sanction of the Endowed Schools Commissioners, if then acting, or, if not, of the Charity Commissioners, shall provide, on some convenient site, or sites, in Bristol, School buildings and accommodation, whereof the sites, plans, estimates shall be subject to the same sanction, sufficient and suitable for a Day School for about 200 girls…

As Dunn points out, this statement contained an implicit threat:

If the Governors did not build a Girls’ School within three years, the Commission would use Colston’s Hospital Trust money to do it for them.[15]

However, over the next 15 years the SMV trustees variously ignored, delayed and then hoped the legal requirement for the girls’ school would be forgotten. Dunn points out that someone had a long memory and acted on it:

There is a persistent rumour…that in 1886 someone from Bristol complained to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Education that neither the Red Maids’ School nor the Colston Trustees had opened the new girls’ schools they were required to.[16]

Finally, in 1891, more than twenty years after Joshua Fitch arrived in Bristol to champion the education of girls, Colston’s Girls’ School was established on Cheltenham Road. The school may currently bear the name of the SMV icon, Edward Colston but, in keeping with his archaic views, it was actually an unwanted child of progress forced upon the reluctant Merchant Venturers by a reforming educationalist.

Conclusion (and a suggestion)

2017 was a year of change concerning the celebration, commemoration and memorialisation of the slave-trader Edward Colston. The Bristol Music Trust decided to drop ‘Colston’ (or as they described it, the “toxic brand”) from the name of the city’s main concert hall.[17] The clergy at St Stephens Church in central Bristol made it clear that they did not want to hold the annual thanksgiving service to Colston which had been a ritual for hundreds of years.[18] The state school Colston Primary, after extensive consultations with hundreds of parents and pupils, dropped the name.[19] And when students from each year group of CGS were consulted over the content of the annual Commemoration Day service at Bristol Cathedral they went well beyond the concessions of the clergy, who merely wanted to balance mentions of Colston’s philanthropy with references to the slave trade. Instead the CGS students wanted all reference to Edward Colston removed from the service and to not have to wear Colston’s symbol, the chrysanthemum, which was normally worn in his memory. The governors and the principal of CGS, John Whitehead, acceded to these demands.[20] However, in the light of this result, when it came to making a decision about changing the name of the school, consultation with the students was far too risky for the governors of CGS.[21] In fact consultation with anyone seems to have been reduced by the governors to “we have listened carefully to views on both sides” before they made the executive decision that it “would not be appropriate to rename the school”.[22]

While many of the city’s institutions were distancing themselves from the “toxic brand” of Edward Colston it appears that the governors of CGS were trying to tie their school closer to the slave-trader. In the CGS ‘renaming statement’ quoted at the start of this article the governors claimed a “historic connection” with Edward Colston and a “direct” descent from Colston’s Hospital school. This tenuous, contrived and perhaps desperate attempt to connect their school with the Colston legacy, and by implication with Edward Colston, was to enhance the feeling of an inalienable tradition in order to resist change. As we have seen from the evidence in this article there is no direct connection with Edward Colston or the school for poor ‘boys’. Colston never bequeathed any money for this girls’ school and died nearly 150 years before the proposal even arose. Neither was the idea countenanced by the SMV trustees of his endowment until they were forced by central government to build a girls’ school they apparently never wanted. The point is, as the SMV trustees stated in the 1870s, Colston wouldn’t have wanted a girls’ school and neither did they. Without the efforts of progressive social reformer Joshua Fitch, armed with the modernising powers of central government and zeal for the education of girls, the SMV trustees would never have created CGS. Fitch of course has largely disappeared into the shadows of history whilst the girls’ school continues to champion the name of a reactionary man who helped organise the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The ironic punchline to this story is the fact that the SMV have no difficulties in changing the name of other schools they have taken over in the city, without consultation and regardless of their ‘traditions’ or the feelings of those who had attended them. For example, in 2008 the SMV educational arm took over Withywood School in south Bristol and renamed it in their own image as the ‘Merchants Academy’. The suspicion is of course, as far as the SMV trustees are concerned, their ‘history’ represented by the Colston brand requires protection whilst that of working class Bristolians remains disposable. More recently, in 2012, they named ‘their’ new primary school in Montpelier the Dolphin School, a symbolic reference to Edward Colston. So the SMV trustees are certainly not frightened of naming schools after slave-traders or of changing their names, but apparently the (toxic) brand of Colston must be protected at all costs.

Looking on the bright side, the students, teachers and governors of CGS have a great opportunity to put things right, not only to remember those who did something progressive but to consign the dead weight of memorialising slave trader Edward Colston to the dustbin of history. How about changing the name of CGS to The Joshua Fitch School for Girls; thereby recognising the efforts of someone who fought for the school and women’s education, rather than continuing to honour the icon of those who never wanted the school or its like to exist in the first place. I am sure Joshua Fitch would have been humbled by such a suggestion and I expect he would have thought it more appropriate to name the girls’ school after a female reformer instead.[23] However, either change would be significant step forward in ridding this city of this embarrassing and disturbing ‘cult of Colston’.


The author would like to thank Christine Townsend for help with the sources, Sarah Dunn for capturing the history of the origins of CGS in her book Colston’s Girls’ School: The First Hundred Years and the actions of the student ‘Diversity Group’ at CGS for the inspiration to research and write this article.

  1. [1]Ball, R. Edward Colston Research Paper #2: The Royal African Company and Edward Colston (1680-92). Bristol: Bristol Radical History Group, 2017. Retrieved from
  2. [2]Ball, R. Edward Colston Research Paper #1: Calculating the number of enslaved Africans transported by the Royal African Company during Edward Colston’s involvement (1680-92). Bristol: Bristol Radical History Group, 2017. Retrieved from [Back...]
  3. [3]This author’s emphasis in bold. Yong, M. “This is why Colston’s Girls’ School will not be removing the slave trader’s name” Bristol Post November 2, 2017. Accessed March 2018. [Back...]
  4. [4]Hanham, A. A. “COLSTON, Edward II (1636-1721), of Mortlake, Surr.” in The History of Parliament: The House of Commons 1690-1715, eds. Hayton, D., Cruickshanks, E. and Handley, S. (London: Boydell and Brewer, 2002). Accessed 2017. [Back...]
  5. [5][5] Morgan, K. Edward Colston and Bristol (Bristol: Bristol Branch of the Historical Association, 1999) pp. 9-10. [Back...]
  6. [6]Hanham, “COLSTON, Edward II”; Latimer, J. The history of the Society of Merchant Venturers of the City of Bristol; with some account of the anterior Merchants’ Guilds (Bristol: Arrowsmith, 1903) p. 287. [Back...]
  7. [7]Dunn, S. Colston’s Girls’ School: The First Hundred Years (Bristol: Redcliffe, 1991) pp. 4-5. [Back...]
  8. [8]Ibid pp. 4-5. [Back...]
  9. [9]Ibid p. 6. [Back...]
  10. [10]Clarke, C. C. The Society of Merchant Venturers of Bristol – by Charles Cyril Clarke (Master 1920-21) being a Lecture given at the Royal Colonial Institute, Bristol, on Jan 2nd, 1922 (Bristol: J. W. Arrowsmith, 1922) pp. 51-53. [Back...]
  11. [11]The ‘Colston Nominees’ were originally chosen by Edward Colston but became a self-selecting organisation after his death. Dunn, Colston’s Girls’ School p. 12. [Back...]
  12. [12]Ibid p. 10. [Back...]
  13. [13]Ibid p. 11. [Back...]
  14. [14]Ibid pp. 11-12. [Back...]
  15. [15]Ibid pp. 15-16. [Back...]
  16. [16]Ibid p. 19. [Back...]
  17. [17]Yong, M. “Colston Hall name change was a ‘moral decision’ not a financial one, as bosses gear up for backlash”. Bristol Post April 27th, 2017. Accessed March 2018. [Back...]
  18. [18]Cork, T. “Bristol church refuses to host most important thanksgiving service to honour slave trader Edward Colston for the first time in almost 300 years” Bristol Post November 15, 2017. Accessed March 2018. [Back...]
  19. [19]Yong, M. “Colston’s Primary School makes decision on removing controversial slave trader’s name” Bristol Post December 1, 2017. Accessed March 2018. [Back...]
  20. [20]Cork, T. “Colston’s Girls’ School Commemoration Day will not mention Edward Colston – but will remember slavery” Bristol Post October 16, 2017. Accessed March 2018. [Back...]
  21. [21]The Venturers Trust (VT) which governs CGS was formed in 2017 through the amalgamation of the CGS Trust and Merchants’ Academy Trust. The VT is ‘sponsored’ by the Society of Merchant Venturers (SMV) and the University of Bristol (UoB) and is ultimately controlled by four members of the SMV (Denis Burn, Chris Curling, David Marsh and Tim Ross) and Judith Squires (UoB). As ‘members’ these five people appoint, remove and replace trustees of the board of the VT. The board currently consists of 14 members, of which ten are from the SMV (including Caroline Duckworth the CEO of the SMV), two from UoB and two others co-opted and agreed by members. The VT governs eight ‘academy’ schools only four of which were existing state schools, of these three are currently rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted (2018).
  22. [22]Yong, “This is why Colston’s Girls’ School will not be removing the slave trader’s name”. [Back...]
  23. [23] For example, how about renaming Colston’s Girls’ School after Malala Yousafzai the young Pakistani women who was shot in the head by the Taliban for campaigning for female education in 2012. Yousafzai now resident in the UK, is the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize and continues to campaign, as a UN messenger, for children’s education and rights around the world. [Back...]

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