Back to the All seeing eye

some merchant venturers outside St Mary Redcliffe ChurchWho are the Merchant Venturers?

by Rich Cookson - originally printed in Venue magazine

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They exert an awful lot of influence over Bristol, yet nobody seems to know much about them at all. In an exclusive Venue investigation, Rich Cookson names the rich, white, middle-aged men who probably won't be inviting you to dinner.

A rare glimpse

It's an overcast day in mid-November. Some 60 distinguished-looking men, all of them white and over 40, are gathered outside Bristol Cathedral. They look impressive in their morning dress - people passing by on College Green shoot glances at them and wonder who they are. After several minutes, one of them checks his watch and marshals them into a line. Single-file, they solemnly process inside - members of perhaps the most influential organisation in Venueland completely disappearing from public view until they gather here again for a few brief minutes next year.

Meanwhile, at a multi-million pound mansion on the Promenade, one of the most expensive streets in Clifton, chefs, cleaners and waiting staff are preparing one of the most exclusive dinners in Bristol. If you're one of the 20 or so guests, you're truly among Bristol's elite - most people know absolutely nothing about it. Before the guests sit down to dinner, they'll no doubt spend some time admiring the treasures on display here: more than 20 expensive oil paintings, some antique furniture, several priceless objects once owned by royalty, and a clock that belonged to Captain James Cook.

The date is November 10, the most important day of the year for what may be the most powerful organisation in Bristol, the Society Of Merchant Venturers. After the invitation-only service in the Cathedral, its members - all prominent businessmen, lawyers, politicians, clergymen, aristocrats and army officers - return to Merchants Hall to discuss their future plans for Bristol. After a few hours they gather for drinks with the hand-picked guests. Then they process into the dining hall, pray, and settle down for a truly sumptuous meal. What's said behind those closed doors has always been a carefully guarded secret.

Why all the fuss about a bunch of strangely-dressed men?

In October last year Venue thought it had a major exclusive. During the research for a feature on who runs Bristol and Bath, we talked to Andrew Densham, master of the Merchant Venturers. During the interview we were offered a scoop: Densham said he had "no objection" to publishing a full list of Merchants - something that has never been done in the organisation's 450-year history. He said the organisation was making efforts to become more modern, and he would just have to put it to all the members at their next meeting.

Six months, and many, many requests later, the Society's official spokesman D'Arcy Parkes told us that we couldn't have a list after all. He said that the data protection act prevented them from giving us members' details - which is true only if the members have not given their consent to their details being made public. "It's a private organisation and not obliged to give you a list," he added, tersely - end of story.

But it's not. Over the past few weeks, we've been investigating this exclusive and powerful club. We have identified 47 of its 67 members - the most comprehensive list of Merchants ever published. We've discovered an inner circle of Merchants that runs the organisation, and unravelled some of the ties that bind them together: the schools, businesses and public appointments that members share. We've found out how much land and property they own. We've tried to establish how far their influence spreads. We've also uncovered details of multi-million pound shareholdings which they have held in recent years in companies accused of human rights abuses, smuggling and trading with some of the most brutal regimes on earth.

So what is the Society of Merchant Venturers?

The Society's origins are unclear, but it seems to have emerged from a 14th century cabal of powerful traders in Bristol - probably the same people that financed John Cabot's voyage across the Atlantic to 'discover' Newfoundland. The Society was officially established in 1552 to control, protect and promote trade in the city. During the 18th century its members made huge profits and amassed enormous fortunes from slavery, playing a key role in the trade that brought up to 20 million Africans across the Atlantic in conditions so cramped and unhygienic that half of a boat's human cargo often died en route.

The Merchants' impact on the city was enormous: they set up Bristol University (which named its recently-finished Faculty Of Engineering Building in their honour), a navigation school which eventually became UWE, and Bristol's first water supply company. They donated half of the Downs to the city, paid for the Suspension Bridge to be built, and financed the Great Western Railway. "It ran Bristol," says Parkes. Writing in the Merchants' newsletter, Densham, who retired as the Society's master last year, states: "We have much of which we are rightly proud in our history and in the exploits of our predecessors. Not only did they enjoy the monopoly of the trade with the New World but, until the mid-19th century they also effectively ran the city of Bristol as well. So the prestige we now enjoy is attributable to their achievements."

Nowadays, the Society says it is only interested in charitable works. It has recently given money to Bristol Cathedral, the Exploratory, the Matthew, Bristol Old Vic, the SS Great Britain, the Greater Bristol Foundation and the Bristol 2008 bid. The Merchant Venturers' own charity has almost £4 million in the bank, but the members administer numerous charitable trusts, worth "hundreds of millions of pounds", according to Parkes. That makes them the one of the biggest spenders in the city. But its emphasis on charity is puzzling: Densham told us that only 20 of the 67 members are seriously involved in charity work - one third are too old and another third are too busy running their own companies. So why are they involved in the Society, and what do they all do?

How do you join?

You have to be asked - but if you're black or female, you appear to stand little chance. There are no non-white Merchants, and Margaret Thatcher is the only female member. "There's nothing in the rules that precludes women or people who are from an ethnic minority, it's just that no-one has yet met the selection criteria," says Parkes, who adds that the all-white, all-male membership is "more an indictment of society as a whole rather than of the Merchants". You have to be wealthy: only people with a proven track record of charitable giving are considered.

The selection process is secret, although Parkes says a committee is always "looking out for new Merchants". But you don't know that you're being considered for membership until you've been nominated by an existing member, discussed at a meeting and put to the vote. Only then are you told and invited to join.

The Society has three executive officers: a junior warden, a senior warden and a master. They preside over the organisation's lavish dinners, held every four months in its Clifton mansion. The Merchants 'elect' new officers every November 10. (The junior warden always becomes senior warden, and the senior warden always becomes the master). Louis Sherwood is currently the senior warden, so he'll replace present master Roger Smedley as master this November. Consultant Denis Burn is the junior master, so he'll be boss in 2004.

The ties that bind

Several clubs, business and public appointments bind the Merchants together. Many of them went to public school - a few to the same schools - and a good number have served in the military. Most are members of the Clifton Club, at 22 The Mall, a posh pub for businessmen. Many are also members of other obscure and elitist Bristol clubs such as the Bristol Savages and the Antient Society Of St Stephens Ringers (whose annual meeting involves a bizarre procession with a stuffed fox and a model of Queen Elizabeth I's death mask).

Three local firms (Bristol Water, Wessex Water, and Bristol And West) have provided a good number of Merchants over the years - at one point half of B&W's board were Merchants. Three members (John Burke, Geoff Matthews and Lord Waldegrave) are currently non-executive directors of B&W. They join a host of other Merchants who are past directors of the firm, including Christopher Thomas, George McWatters, and the now-dead Andrew Breach, who presided over the company's growth for more than 40 years.

Some of them have also been involved with Bristol Chamber of Commerce. John Burke is its current president; Douglas Claisse, Colin Green, Louis Sherwood and Robert Mckinlay are ex-presidents.

Many have served as Sheriffs of Bristol, including Christopher Thomas, Sir George White, Francis Greenacre, Jay Tidmarsh and George Ferguson; and many have also been JPs.

Connections with royals

The Society has always had close ties with that bastion of privilege, wealth and power, the royal family. It was given a royal charter by Edward VI in 1552, which was renewed by Elizabeth I, Charles I, Charles II and, most recently, Elizabeth II. It counts Prince Charles and Prince Phillip among its members. Prince Edward visited in February last year; Princess Alexandra dropped in a few months earlier. The Society's Treasurer, Brigadier Hugh Pye, was a pallbearer at the Queen Mother's funeral. Many Merchants have also received honours from the Queen.

On March 8 last year Prince Phillip visited the Merchants to celebrate their 450th anniversary, his third visit to the Society. When he was greeted by Densham, he remarked that the last time he visited, in 1975, it was Densham's father, Tim, who welcomed him. That's the kind of society this is.


The Merchants run a large number of charities. We haven't been able to track down all of them, but understand they run 12 charities and control 40 trust funds. Those we have discovered spend more than £7.5m a year in Bristol.

Their largest concern is a nursing home on the Downs, called St Monica's. It currently houses 96 elderly people but a massive building programme means it will be responsible for 580 by the end of this year. The St Monica's Trust is by far the largest Merchant-run charity we discovered. Its annual income was £7.3 million in 2001, and it spent £6.4 million - which is broadly in line with its finances since 1997. The facilities are impressive, with state-of-the-art rehabilitation care for people with chronic illnesses, but don't rush to get your granny signed up: she'll have to be a baptised member of the Church Of England and from a 'professional' background to be eligible.

The Society Of Merchant Venturers Almshouses Charity spends about £80,000 a year running accommodation for old mariners and clergymen. The Merchant Venturers Charity, which can spend money on anything the trustees see fit, has some £3.7 million in the bank and spent more than £300,000 in 2001-2. The Society also runs The Merchant Venturers Charities Investment Pool, which earns anything between £237,000 a year (1996) and £912,000 (1999). In 2001-2 it earned £433,000 and spent £249,000. It also runs the Cote Charity (which spent just short of £0.5m in 2002).

Substantial amounts of money and time go to supporting private education - Clifton College, QEH, Colston's School and Colston's Girls' School - although the Society has also given money to some projects for state schools (for instance, £10,000 to South Bristol's education action zone and £5,000 to Brislington School).

The Merchants have also donated money and buildings to several homelessness projects in Bristol, including the Cold Weather Shelter, a youth housing scheme and The Big Issue South West.

Fair trade?

Venue has discovered that the Merchants run a company called SMV Investments that owns properties and trades shares. Most of the people we identify in the Society's inner circle are directors of the firm.

SMV Investments - worth just over £7 million - is an unlimited company, meaning that it does not have to file accounts or an annual report at Companies House, the official register or UK companies. However, it did send Companies House an annual report in March 2001 which contains detailed information about the financial year that ended on 10 November 2000. Although it is now two and a half years old, it is the most up-to-date information about the firm on public record. Parkes claims that SMV no longer files accounts with Companies House because it isn't run as a company any more.

In 2001, SMV Investments had £564,000 invested in property. It included land behind properties on Redland Road, a building in Kingsholme Road in Southmead, land between York Place and Richmond Terrace in Clifton, properties at 146 and 150 Whiteladies Road, and the Artillery Ground, home to the Territorial Army, also on Whiteladies.

But it is believed the Society's holdings stretch far beyond Bristol. At the beginning of 2002, its agricultural portfolio consisted of 21,323 acres. The Society controls farms as far away as Basingstoke, a nursery, a canal longboat marina and a gravelpit in Buckinghamshire. Part of its huge Croome Estate at Defford near Worcester is home to a government surveillance and communications station.

According to its 2001 accounts, SMV also had £6.7 million invested in 33 companies. As you'd expect, most of the shares are in investment trusts, banks and major firms. But SMV had money with some firms engaged in what many would call highly questionable activities. It had:

· £41,000 with BAe Systems. Now the world's biggest arms producer, BAe Systems makes submarines, warships, warplanes and missiles. It has sold arms to some of the most repressive regimes in the world, including Indonesia and Saudi Arabia.

· £203,000 in Marconi, a communications firm, part owned by BAe, also heavily involved in military contracts.

· £126,000 with British American Tobacco, the UK's largest tobacco company (and a major rival to Bristol-based Imperial Tobacco). In 2000, BAT was accused of smuggling, racketeering and tax evasion. It is currently under investigation by the Department For Trade And Industry for alleged smuggling.

· £423,000 with Astrazeneca, long criticised for its huge investments in GM technology. In 2000 they were exposed for secretly developing so-called GM terminator technology, which aid agencies and charities believe will allow multi-nationals to hold Third World farmers to ransom.

· £78,000 in Glaxo Wellcome, seriously criticised for allegedly putting its profits before the rights of HIV victims in the developing world to get affordable treatment.

· £901,000 in the petrol company Shell, accused of serious human rights violations in Nigeria.

The Merchants are unmoved by these criticisms. "If it's the will of the donor that the funds are invested ethically, then we will do so," says Parkes. "But the trustees have a duty to act in the best interest of this trust - it is not an ethical fund." He said the organisation "knows nothing at all" about the activities of Shell in Nigeria - even though it was front-page news at the time.

Parkes claims that income from SMV is now used "for the Society to pay its way, to pay staff and run the Merchants Hall" - SMV's accounts show that, at least historically, payments were made by SMV investments to several charities. So profits from the Shell shares were funding Bristol charities.

What's the extent of their influence?

As the membership list shows, Merchants dominate the business world in Bristol. They are also on almost every major cultural institution in the city and have enormous influence over bodies receiving public funds. Ten Merchants sit on the University Of Bristol's Court - the body that oversees the running of the University. It is alleged that the organisation originally tried to stop the University from being set up, to protect its own technical college. It failed, but insisted that Merchants sit on the University's governing body. (The University of Bristol refused to provide Venue with any information, apart from surnames and initials, of the ten current members.) Three Merchants sit on the board of the youth charity Young Bristol. Three are on the board that runs the SS Great Britain. Three more are trustees of the Greater Bristol Foundation charity. They also make up half of the committee that controls the Downs.

Their involvement in the Bristol 2008 bid demonstrates how far their presence spreads. Last year the Merchant Venturers donated £25,000 to Bristol Cultural Partnerships Development Ltd, the company behind Bristol 2008. Merchants John Burke and Louis Sherwood are on BCPD's board. Eight out of the 22 Bristol 2008 corporate supporters are organisations with links to existing Merchants. The Bristol 2008 logo is registered at the address of the Merchants' lawyers - Bristol law firm Osborne Clarke. BCPD also claims 'responsibility' for @Bristol, the £97 million tourist attraction on the harbourside. Until 2001, @Bristol's chairman was Nicholas Hood - a Merchant. Hood is still on the board, along with Louis Sherwood. More than £17 million of @Bristol's funding came from the South West Regional Development Agency, the region's uber-quango that promotes enterprise and development, which currently counts controversial Wessex Water boss Colin Skellett on its board.

Should we be worried?

"A society that is as significant as the Merchant Venturers is, I believe, cause for concern," says George Micklewright, ex-leader of Bristol City Council. "There is public concern about secret organisations and particular concerns over ones whose members are of financial means and occupy positions of power," he adds. Micklewright says he had no official contact with the Merchant Venturers during his tenure at the Council, but didn't know if individuals he was dealing with were members of the society or not. "I had no way of knowing who was and who wasn't," he says. "It's in the Merchants' interest to be much more open. Even the Freemasons have moved in that direction in recent years."

Paul Burton, senior lecturer at Bristol University's School For Policy Studies and ex-chairman of the Bristol Democracy Commission, shares Micklewright's concerns. "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," he says. "We also can't stop them doing something if we don't like it, as we can with our elected representatives. I don't know of any evidence that they represent a malign force in the city, but then we just don't know what they do represent. The problem is that we have to accept their benevolence on trust - and there's not a lot we can do about it if we don't trust them."

Parkes insists that Merchants don't use their positions to further the society's or their own interests. "Their influence is incidental to their role as Merchants," he says. "They are on these boards because of their abilities, not because they are Merchants." While that may be true of some organisations, it simply isn't true for others: ten members sit on Bristol University's Court and the six on the Downs Committee precisely because they are Merchant Venturers. Parkes also claims that Merchants are as accountable as anyone else on the boards. But how can that be true when we don't know who the Merchants are? "They are not on these bodies because they are members of the society," he repeats.

Meanwhile, back at the hall

The most recent full meeting of Merchants occurred just a few days ago, on the morning of Friday 25 April. No doubt they congratulated themselves on working so hard for the greater good in Bristol, and then tucked in to a hearty lunch. What happened behind the heavy doors of the Merchants' Hall that day is secret, as it has been for 450 years.

We know that a handful of Merchants are committed to inclusion and reform; by next time they all meet, perhaps a few more will understand why a policy of openness would be welcomed by the people of Bristol.

Inner circle

Merchant Venturers intimately involved in the running of the organisation

· Geoff Matthews: master of Merchants in 2001, Matthews went to Taunton School and was general manager at Imperial Tobacco in the 1980s. He is now a Non-Executive Director of Bristol & West and Chairman of Bristol & West Pension Trustees Limited.

· Jay Tidmarsh is Lord-Lieutenant of Bristol. He, too, went to Taunton School. He was director, and subsequently chairman, of Radio West Ltd, and in 1985 became a founding director of GWR Radio plc. He was also one of the dozen businesspeople who, immediately after the riots in Toxteth, Liverpool, set up the Bristol Initiative in 1992. Master of the Merchants in 1994-95, he was awarded an MBE in 1989.

· Brigadier H Pye: the outgoing treasurer of the Merchant Venturers, Pye is an honorary colonel of the 9th/12th Royal Lancers (Prince of Wales') regiment and was a pall bearer at the Queen Mother's funeral.

· Andrew Densham, master of the Merchants in 2002-3, is an ex-partner at the law firm Burges Salmon. A leading agricultural lawyer, he was awarded a CBE in 2000 for services to agriculture.

· Roger Smedley succeeded Densham as the master. He founded an engineering design company called SAC, later called SAC Ricardo.

· John Avery is a wine merchant and Chairman of Averys of Bristol. He was master in 1995, and is also a member of the Antient Society Of St Stephens Ringers. He was a director of SMV Investments until November 2002. He is also a member of the intriguingly named Wine Selection Committee For Government Hospitality.

· Louis Sherwood is an ex-chairman of HTV, and now Chairman of financial services firm Clerical Medical. He used to be director of Wessex Water Services Ltd.

· St John Hartnell, a valuer and surveyor, is executive chairman of surveyors Hartnell Taylor Cook and one of the best-known figures in Bristol's property scene. He was awarded an OBE for his services to the local community in 2002. An ex-director of SMV Investments, he is currently a Ringer. His brother in law Patrick Lucas is also a merchant.

· Denis Burn, a management consultant, is the youngest venturer. Appropriately, he is chairman of Soc's Youth Committee.

· John Burke is a Bristol and West boss and President of Bristol's Chamber of Commerce.

· John Moger Woolley was chief executive of specialist packaging firm DRG plc from 1985-1990. He is now non-executive chairman of Bristol Water plc.

· Sir George White is a clockmaker and horological consultant. He was high sheriff of Avon in 1989 and a JP from 1991-5.

· Nicholas Hood, ex-chairman of £96 million tourist attraction @Bristol. It signed a controversial sponsorship and concessions deal with Nestle under his tenure. He was chairman of Wessex Water until 1999, and was educated at Clifton College.

· Jim Hood is a wine merchant and Nicholas Hood's brother. Jim ran wine firm Howells of Bristol until it was taken over.

· Sir David James Vernon Wills is the fifth baronet of Blagdon. He's a major landowner and heir to the Wills tobacco fortune

· Admiral Sir James Eberle was Vice-Admiral of the UK, one of the highest military positions in the country, from 1994-7. Educated at Clifton College, he's an ex-master of the society and is Master of the Britannia Beagles hunt.

· Robert Mckinlay, CBE, was President of Bristol Chamber of Commerce 1994-7. He was also Concorde's design director while he worked at British Aerospace.

· Andrew Milton Reid was deputy chairman of tobacco firm Imperial Group from 1986-9. He's an ex-master and was high sheriff of Avon in 1991.

· Colin Skellett became chief executive of Wessex Water in 1988 and oversaw the firm's privatisation. It was then taken over by Azurix, which was owned by the fabulously corrupt firm Enron, and more recently by Malaysian company YTL Power. Skellett hit the headlines on 22 August 2002 when the City of London Police staged a high-profile dawn raid of his home and the Wessex Water offices in Bath. He was arrested over allegations that he had received a £1 million bribe to influence the £1.2 billion sale of Wessex Water to YTL. The police dropped the investigation in February this year. He is also a board member of the South West Regional Development Agency.

· Robert Bernays is a farmer and landowner.

· Tim Pearce runs property development firm Bristol and England Properties Ltd. He is part of the family that used to run the Bristol-based firm Pearce Construction.

· Cullum McAlpine, director of construction firm Sir Robert McAlpine.

· David Michael Parkes is an accountant and ex-master of the Merchants.

· Richard Johnson is a solicitor. A senior partner at Burges Salmon, he was educated at Clifton College.

· James and Dayrell McArthur are brothers. They run security fencing firm the McArthur Group Ltd, based at the Fishponds Trading Estate. Dayrell was Master in 1989.

· Mark Pitman is a farmer in Somerset.

Outer circle

Merchant Venturers with a more peripheral involvement in the society

· Lord William Waldegrave is an ex-Tory MP and now a director of Bristol and West.

· Christopher Thomas is an ex-boss of Bristol and West and Bristol Water.

· John Pontin is a developer and Chairman of the JT Group.

· George Ferguson is an architect and the owner/developer of the Tobacco Factory.

· Colin Green is a Rolls-Royce high-flyer.

· Bob Mckinley: ex-UBHT boss.

· Terrence Mordaunt is chairman of the Bristol Port Company.

· David Robert Somerset, the 11th Duke of Beaufort, is a landowner, art dealer and master of the largest hunt in Britain. Now 74, his 52,000-acre Beaufort estate in Gloucestershire is valued at £80m, and he's worth about £110m in total. Despite that, he's only the 308= richest man in Britain, according to the Sunday Times Rich List.

· Douglas Claisse worked for Clerical Medical for most of his life. He rose to become Chairman of Clerical Medical International before he retired in 1997. From 1995 until 2000 he was Chair of the Bristol Chamber of Commerce and Initiative and subsequently its President. He is still on the board of several financial services firms.

· George McWatters was the founder and ex-chairman of HTV. He was a director of Bristol And West, and a City Councillor.

· Peter Durie was awarded an MBE and the George Medal for army service in the 1940s. He was managing director of of Courage Western until he retired in 1986. He was also chairman of Bristol and Western Health Authority, chairman of United Bristol Healthcare NHS Trust, and a leading light in the Wallace and Gromit Grand Appeal. He is now one of three extremely powerful pro-Chancellors at the University of Bristol.

· Charles Clarke was a senior partner at Bristol's leading law firm Osborne Clarke. He was chairman of several local health board and authorities. He was master in 1967 and is a member of the St Stephen's Ringers.

· Francis Greenacre is the ex-curator of fine art at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.

· John Harvey has been a wine merchant since 1961. He is a director of Harveys of Bristol.

· Alan Tasker is an ex-councillor. He was a JP, master of the society in 1990 and is a member of St Stephens Ringers.

· Richard Simon Brooks trained as a chartered accountant. He is Chairman and Managing Director of Brookes Service Group plc in Aztec West.

· The fantastically-named David Cuthbert Tudway Quilter was director of Barclays Bank plc from 1971-81 and director of the Bristol Evening Post from 1982-91. He was vice Lord-Lieutenant of Somerset from 1978-96, a JP from 1956-62, Mayor Of Wells and High Sheriff of Somerset in 1974-5. He was master in 1984.

There are four honorary members:

· Prince Phillip, who has been a member for 50 years.

· Prince Charles.

· Ex-Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, now Lord Carey of Clifton.

· Margaret Thatcher, the only woman member. She has only ever attended one meeting.