Edward Colston the Merchant

It was beginning to feel like I was being stalked by Edward Colston’s ghost. His hold on me prompted me to delve deeper into his story. Even when I tried to take a break from him, little nuggets of information would fall my way that would rekindle my curiosity. Repeatedly popping up, like some weird game of whack-the-mole, were the numbers 33 and 72.

Colston’s Will

Colston’s will (33 pages) was a dense but quite revealing read, thanks to the insights it provided into the mind and character of the man shortly before his death. His testament was that of a serious, careful man, but with a twist of the mysterious.

I discovered that he lived for so long that by the time he died, he had no close surviving relatives. He never married and had outlived his immediate family. A major beneficiary was his grand-niece, Sarah Colston. But she would only receive his bounty ‘if the man she marries would be of sufficiently amenable personality as to alter his surname within six months of marriage to that of Colston – immutably, so that all progeny would carry forward the name of their benefactor.’ This seemed not so much a will as a bid for immortality, from a man who possibly felt isolated at the end of an unusually long life.

Stourhead Estate

The Trust that managed the major part of his immense wealth ‘to the use of them and their Heirs for ever’ consisted of five individuals. Thomas Edwards, the Elder of Bristol, an old family friend and solicitor, and his son Thomas Edwards the Younger. This would have kept the legal management of his funds within one family for a long time. Then, Francis Colston, who is referred to as his kinsman, without specifying in what way they were related, and Robert Carr, a silk merchant from Ludgate Hill in London. This was probably the same Robert Carr who was a close confident of the then Duke of York, an incredibly significant member of the Establishment. The final member of the Trust seemed to have been the recipient of the bulk of the money. Henry Hoare was a banker, whose father, Sir Richard, the former Lord Mayor of London, had founded one of the earliest private banks, C Hoare and Co, in 1672. I was surprised to discover it still exists, with just two surviving branches.

Henry was known as ‘Good Henry’ because of his philanthropy, funding several churches in London. He purchased the impressive Stourhead Estate in Wiltshire in 1717. This was also the same year as the ‘official’ foundation of English Freemasonry in London. The Estate certainly took on a very Masonic appearance. His son, Henry, inherited within a year of its purchase. He decorated the Estate with elaborate garden ornaments, lakes, temples and one exceptionally large obelisk. At some point, the original medieval Bristol High Cross, a seven-metre-high, heavily carved monument, ended up in the grounds. It had once stood within a few feet of Colston’s tomb.


During his lifetime, Colston lent out considerable sums, acting as a banker to other merchants. And yet with all this wealth he chose to rent his home. In the Spring of 1689, he acquired the lease on a relatively modest three-story property in Mortlake, Surrey, and remained there until his death in 1721. The interior of the house was reputedly austere, and he lived modestly with just four servants: his carriage driver and gardener, Arthur and John; a housekeeper, Alice and a female simply listed as ‘Black Mary.’

The Slave Trade

It would have been natural for Colston to have followed his father into membership of the exclusive ‘Royal Africa Company’. The RAC had the licence to trade with the West Coast of Africa and this included its market in slaves. Colston became a member in 1680 and regularly attended meetings for the next ten years, but beyond 1692 there was no longer any mention of him in the minutes. During his active years, he rose to the position of Deputy Chair and was able to ‘put William, Prince of Orange, on to a good thing,’ by gifting him £1,000 of stock in 1689. This would have poured quite a lot of cement between him and the Crown, and yet, interestingly, there were no records of any court visits that I could find. Had Colston been deliberately keeping a low profile?

The traffic in human beings was a staple revenue stream for Bristol merchants for centuries, and was declared by the Mayor, in 1713, ‘to be one of the great supports of our people.’ By 1755 there were 155 Bristol merchants engaged in the trade. But the city could not make its mind up about Edward Colston. There was no denying that amongst other ventures, he had been a successful slaver whose political and religious views verged on outright bigotry. Flip the coin and on the other side he was a major philanthropist who would pay off the debts of total strangers incarcerated in the debtor’s prison. To this day, his name is writ large across the city and no visitor can escape his presence. A large statue of the man leaning on a walking stick or maybe a surveyor’s rod, yet again looking down to the ground, is positioned on Colston Avenue, the busiest intersection in the city.

He probably earned a fortune but gave significant sums away. In 1709, during a period of intense food scarcity, when staples had risen to twice their usual price, Colston gave £20,000 to the London Committee for the relief of the poor. A vast sum at the time. He donated large amounts to both Christchurch and Bartholomew’s Hospitals in London.

All Saints Church

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.

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.