Edward Colston, the Dolphin Society and over 270 years of letter-writing…History / Background

Dolphin, Grateful and Anchor Societies

With a long history dating back to the 1700s, the Dolphin, Grateful and Anchor Societies are probably the city’s oldest, continually active philanthropic organisations.  Originally founded by people in Bristol who were keen to replicate the financial support shown by Bristol-born Edward Colston in the 1600s, the three Societies today focus their efforts on the city’s elderly population with a major fund-raising initiative in early November involving the President of each Society writing many hundreds of personal letters to potential donors.  This usually provides over £250,000 per annum for initiatives and individuals in need across the city.  

The three Societies provide relief for example by supplying telephones, alarm systems and customised wheel chairs and through the provision of specialist electrical appliances to help the elderly remain in their own homes.  The annual collections enable the Societies to respond quickly and directly, free of red tape. They hold a significant place in the care of the elderly in Bristol, based on the generosity of local people.

Edward Colston 

Born in 1636 into one of the most prominent merchant families in Bristol, Edward Colston was a renowned and respected philanthropist, giving immense sums to causes in and around Bristol.  Said to have been strongly motivated by the responsibility of wealthy people to support the less fortunate, Colston is attributed with founding almshouses in Bristol, donating money to Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital School, founding Colston’s Hospital as a boarding school for 100 boys, and funding other schools and churches

The extent of his charity was immense, exceptional and nationally recognised. When his portrait was published in London a year after his death in 1721, the engraved description described him as “the brightest Example of Christian Liberality that this Age has produced both for the extensiveness of his Charities and for the prudent Regulation of them.” For two hundred years Colston was revered and repeatedly memorialised in Bristol.

Edward Colston had been trading in cloth, oil, wine, sherry and fruit with Spain, Portugal, Italy and North Africa for many years when he joined London’s Royal Africa Company in 1680 at the age of 44. He was already a very wealthy man. He became closely involved in the management of the company over the next eleven years and was its Deputy Governor for two years.  Colston will have benefited financially from his membership and was actively involved in decisions concerning the transportation of many thousands of enslaved Africans.  During the time that he was associated with the Company it is estimated that around 80,000 slaves were embarked onto ships and around 20% of them died on the passage across the Atlantic.  In 1698 the company’s monopoly ended and the slave trade was opened up to all British ports, including Bristol and Liverpool. In the following century perhaps as many as half a million Africans were transported to the Americas in Bristol ships.

At this time the slave trade was promoted by the King and pursued by other European trading countries as a legitimate trade.  It was some 30 years after Colston’s death before the abolition movement started and it was not until 1833 that the Abolition of Slavery Act officially banned slavery.  

The founding of the Societies was inspired by the charitable endeavours of Edward Colston, although the founders themselves were never Colston's contemporaries nor did the Societies receive any of his wealth.  Nevertheless, we are sensitive to these links and to the evils of slavery, both in the days of Colston and in the appalling levels of modern day slavery.  We recognize also that black and minority ethnic citizens in Bristol today can suffer disadvantage in terms of education, employment and housing for reasons that connect back to the days of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The Societies Today

The motivation to create these ancient Societies is entirely relevant to today’s world – giving selflessly for the benefit of others.  What is remarkable is that the Societies have survived for over 250 years and this is partly due to a friendly rivalry as the Societies seek to maximize their fund-raising efforts each November, and also to the sense of tradition as each President strives to live up to the example of so many predecessors.

The continuing inspiration for the three Societies is that there remain so many people in and around Bristol that are in need of help and that there are also people willing to give money and time to help support others who are less fortunate than themselves.