At the termination of the alignment from Sir William Draper’s obelisk on Clifton Down to All Saints Church, just over a mile away, lies the marble tomb of Edward Colston. A full-size sculpture of the man lies on a metre-high pedestal. He is framed by a large inscription recording his charities and the foundations he was involved with, from around 1691 until close to his death in his 85th year, on 10th October 1721. Hospitals, alms houses, schools and churches all benefitted from his philanthropy. At least £70,000 of a fortune, estimated to be £300,000, was given away and much of it in Bristol, the city of his birth. His fortune would be in the billions in today’s money. By any measure, Edward Colston was seriously rich.
Even so, there is not a lot of documented information about his life. The definitive biography: ‘Edward Colston His Life and Times’ was published in 1852. It is a laborious read; the author was evidently paid by the word. A whole host of tributes are paid to this ‘great and pious man,’ and at times, reading the litany feels like wading through treacle. Other than that book, there are there are a couple from the early 20th Century, plus a handful of leaflets and the occasional local news article. But Colston is not a popular subject; his links to the slave trade inhibit all but the most daring of modern historians. And yet his life spanned one of the most eventful periods in British history and the uber-wealthy Colston would certainly have had his fingers in a lot of pies.
What I found so interesting was why didn’t he show up more in the historical records? Other than those two or three biographies, court records and some occasional custom receipts, not much can be found about him. He may well have been the richest man in Britain at the turn of the 18th Century, but between 1636 and his death in 1721, his name was absent from almost all social and court announcements. There was extraordinarily little in the way of newspaper articles or contemporary records. His financial might appears to have been barely acknowledged throughout the historically dramatic period from the 1680s to 1720s.
Knights Templar connection
What I gleaned was that Edward was the first of 11 children born to parents William and Sarah. He came into the world on 2nd November 1636 in the house of his maternal grandparents in Temple Fee. A few days later, he was baptised in the ancient font of the nearby Temple Church, the site of the original round Knights Templar church and encampment.
Members of the Colston family had held the highest civic offices in Bristol since their arrival in the city in the 14th Century. Edward’s father, William, had been a member of that most exclusive of Bristol’s commercial fraternities, The Merchant Venturers, since 1634.
The Society of Merchant Venturers goes right back to 1497, when it helped fund John Cabot’s expedition to Newfoundland. Since then, prominent people – even outside of Bristol – have been affiliated to it. Current members include Prince Charles and George Cary; less recently: Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill.
William was also member of the Corporation of the City, a Sheriff, and Treasurer of the Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital School in Bristol. A staunch Royalist, he was to become a marked man and ultimately stripped of his office by Cromwell in 1645. Having reacquired his status in the Restoration of 1661, he became an Alderman and then Deputy Lieutenant of the Corporation of Bristol shortly afterwards. He died in 1681 and like many other members of his family, was buried in All Saints Church. The building probably adjoined his ancestral home in Corn Street, now long-since replaced by St Nicholas Market.
Edward’s birth in November resulted in his being sent out to be nursed in the healthier atmosphere of the family estate of Chaunters Place. This was in Hambrook, in the Parish of Winterbourne; a small hilltop village about 10 miles north of the City. The estate has long-since disappeared, but its location is signalled by the presence of a ‘Colston Close’ situated at the end of a country lane bearing the intriguing name of Green Dragon Way. Records are scant, but it looks likely that he was educated at Christ’s Hospital School in London after his parents fled Bristol at the time of Cromwell’s protectorate.