Traditionally, Edward Colston has been honoured in elite circles in Bristol as a great philanthropist, through a series of annual ceremonies each November. Since 1720, at the Thanksgiving Service of the Colston Societies, members of the Grateful Society, the Dolphin Society and the Colston Society have paraded to St Stephens to have a service in honour of Colston. ‘Colston Buns’ have been given out at the Merchant Venturers’ Charter Day service every year in honour of his charity. And Colston’s Girls’ School has held annual Commemoration Day services at the Bristol Cathedral, at which students have read passages of Colston’s will, heard sermons on the Good Samaritan and worn Colston’s favourite flower, the bronze chrysanthemum.
Countering Colston has campaigned against these ceremonies. We have argued that celebrating Colston as a great philanthropist is wrong. It does not express respect for the lives of the enslaved, and downplays the harms suffered by tens of thousands of people whose enslavement Colston helped to organize. It also reflects a lack of awareness of the ongoing harmful legacies of slavery today.
In 2017, major progress was made. St Stephens church refused to host the Thanksgiving Service for the first time in 300 years. And in 2017, following lobbying from the ‘Diversity Group’ of students, Colston’s Girls’ School agreed to remove references to Colston from their service, and to stop requiring students to wear his favourite flower. Instead, students celebrated their diverse community and heard inspiring speeches about social justice today, from Peaches Golding and the Head Girl.
These changes followed a long campaign, and we are proud of the changes that have been made.
Charter Day Nov 2014
Bishop of Bristol Mike Hall talks of ‘speculation’ surrounding Edward Colston’s business roots to hundreds of school children at the annual private ‘Charter Day’ ceremony held in Bristol Cathedral. After this Christian religious ceremony, the Merchant Venturers make their way to Merchants Hall in Clifton for their annual dinner where they appoint their new master for the coming year.
This video was captured by independent journalist Tony Gosling host of the Politics Show on BCFM radio during this private ceremony.
Once the video was shared on social media it gained local press coverage and the Bishop wrote a blog where he says his words were ‘seized upon’.
Bishop Mike was invited to appear on the BCFM One Love Breakfast Show, not only did he not appear on the show, he did not respond to the invitation.
The following year a small group of like-minded locals staged a protest outside of the Cathedral, handing out leaflets providing historical information regarding Colston’s ‘business roots’.
Headteacher of Colston’s Girls’ School, Alistair Perry, wrote a letter to parents about how ‘celebrations and events commemorating the life of Edward Colston sometimes provoke strong reactions from some members of the community of Bristol’.
A couple of the protesters responded to this spin.
“The Bristolian” commented on the actions of Alistair Perry and published a copy of the leaflet protestors handed out.
Open democracy published an article by Christine Townsend regarding the ‘celebrations and events commemorating the life of Edward Colston’.
A group tried to contact the Merchant Venturers to discuss the issue but received no reponse. Several individuals wrote requesting a meeting with representatives of CGS and the Cathedral to discuss the ceremonies. Both CGS and the Cathedral wrote back declining a meeting. A larger group then sent a second letter to the Dean of Bristol Cathedral. In his reply, he stated that “we give you an assurance that no service in the cathedral will ‘celebrate’ the life of Edward Colston”. However, on 4th November, Colston’s Girls’ School commemoration day ceremony was held in the cathedral as normal. As is custom, they were provided with chrysanthemums to wear; Colston’s favourite flower. The service also included a statement confirming that the first purpose of the event was to remember and give thanks to Edward Colston. Protesters stood with placards and chalked messages outside the cathedral.
On 7th November, the campaign issued this press release.
On 10th November, Merchant Venturers’ Charter Day service took place at Bristol Cathedral. As in previous years, buns were distributed to schoolchildren, following a tradition in memory of Edward Colston. Protesters again held placards and chalked messages outside. A historian confronted a Merchant Venturer with some inconvenient facts about Edward Colston, and this exchange was recorded (audio).
On 14th November, a service was held at St Stephen’s Church, marking Colston’s birthday. Protesters brought posters and placards, chalked messages and debated with the clergy and attendees to the service. The protest was reported by the Bristol Cable and BCfm.
Colston’s Girls’ School issues a statement that it will not change its name, claiming that doing so would obscure its financial history. However, it agrees to stop requiring students to wear Colston’s favourite flower or read passages from his will, and also chooses to remove references to Colston from the ceremony.