Then, in 1713, he contributed towards the cost of rebuilding, to his own design, the tower of All Saints Church in Bristol. The tower is one of the most unusual ecclesiastical motifs in the country. It rises in two steps to over 25 metres and is capped by a stone dome, possibly emulating the Dome of the Spirits in Jerusalem. This cap is surmounted by no less than eight flaming vessels, with a further four marking out the corners of the square tower four metres below.
The Colston Fleet
Colston amassed a fleet of at least 40 ships, but during his career never once insured a vessel. Fortunately, he never lost one either. There is an astonishing account of one of his ships, which, punctured in the bow, had the hole plugged by a dolphin that had been drawn in by suction. As a result, the crew were saved. Another ship was lost at sea for three years and then amazingly, returned with crew and hold intact. Colston’s response to this miraculous reappearance was to instruct both the ship and its contents to be sold for the exclusive benefit of retired seamen.
By 1708, at the age of 72, he was ‘inclined to retire from business’ becoming a recluse at his home in Mortlake. But maybe the most extraordinary aspect of Colston’s life was discovered 122 years after his death and can be found in a footnote on the very last page of his biography ‘…the Life and Times.’
‘In the year 1843, while the Churchwardens were making some improvements in All Saints Church, Francis Edward Colston, the then descendant and representative of the family, expressed an anxiety that they should avail themselves of the opportunity, and endeavour to ascertain the exact spot where the remains of his Philanthropic ancestor were deposited. This was done, and the lid of the coffin was removed, in the presence of the Treasurer, Vicar and Churchwardens, and Mr. Henry Penton, from whose Memorandum we quote, ‘The immortal Colston himself, lying in all the apparent tranquillity of sleep. The features were so perfect, as to be readily recognised; so much so, that it is not improbable that a cast of his head was taken for the celebrated monument of him in the church, – sculptured by Rysbeck. The face was covered with a sheet, quite strong and perfect, and a diaper cap or napkin on his head; his cravat and shirt exactly of the make and form of those sewn on the same admirable monument in front of the vault. The whole was sacredly and immediately closed and replaced; a leaden plate being soldered on, inscribed – Edward Colston, 1721.’
The Immortal Colston
After 122 years, Colston’s mortal body should have been reduced to bone and dust, but instead, his features were readily recognised. Colston may have achieved the immortality he craved, not only through the extravagant use of his name throughout the city but at a corporeal level as well – through the immaculate preservation of his bodily remains.
The immortal Colston?
Colston’s only confirmed home outside of Bristol was Mortlake, in what is now a suburb of south west London. He lived there from 1689 until his death in 1721. I was nurturing the hope that maybe something of that era had survived and might provide another clue for my jigsaw.