COLSTON, Edward II (1636-1721), of Mortlake, Surr.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1710 - 1713

Family and Education

b. 2 Nov. 1636, 1st s. of William Colston, merchant, of Bristol, sheriff of Bristol 1643, by Sarah, da. of Edward Batten of the Inner Temple.  educ. ?Christ’s Hosp. unmsuc. fa. 1681.

Offices Held

Appr. Mercers’ Co. 1654–62, freeman 1673; freeman, Bristol 1683; freeman, Merchant Venturers’ Soc., Bristol 1683; hon. guardian, Bristol corporation of the poor 1696.

Member, R. African Co. 1680, asst. 1681–3, 1696–8, 1691, dep. gov. 1689–90; commr. taking subscriptions to S. Sea Co. 1711.1.

Gov. Christ’s Hosp. 1681–?d.

Member, SPG 1704.


Colston is celebrated in his native city as a philanthropist par excellence. In his day he was revered by Bristol’s corporation as ‘the highest example of Christian liberality that this age has produced, both for the extensiveness of his charities and the prudent regulation of them’. Stories about Colston’s life and good deeds abound, many of them seemingly apocryphal, but beneath the eulogy was an austere man of unbending High Church principles whose charitable ventures were initiated and pursued with the same tough, businesslike vigour with which he made his fortune. Though Bristol became the primary focus for his attention in later years, he never made his home in or near the city, and was disdainful of the factious local politics in which his charitable activities inevitably involved him. None the less, it gratified him to devote the power of his wealth to the larger interests of Church and state, and his influence in Bristol was strongly felt.2

The Colston family had flourished in Bristol since the late 13th century. Several of Colston’s more immediate forebears had been prosperous merchants with a firm footing in the city’s civic life. His father, a pillar of the Merchant Venturers’ Society, had been a staunch Royalist who was installed as a councillor and sheriff in 1643, when the city was taken by Prince Rupert, but deprived of his local offices by Parliament in 1645. Much uncertainty surrounds Colston’s early years and his rise to fortune, although the outlines of his career are available from official and mercantile records. The family’s insecure position during the Interregnum would account for his being educated in London, possibly as a private pupil at Christ’s Hospital (of which he was later a governor), and then in 1654 apprenticed in the Mercers’ Company. After the Restoration his father resumed civic office in Bristol while Colston himself, having finished his apprenticeship, seems to have spent some time abroad, possibly looking after his father’s interests in Spain, although there is no evidence to support claims that he amassed a vast fortune there.3

By 1672 Colston had resettled in England and established himself in London as a merchant. From 1680 he became heavily involved in the slave trade, from which he made the bulk of his fortune, and was an active member of the Royal African Company, becoming deputy-governor briefly during 1689–90. At the time of his admission to the Merchant Venturers’ Society in 1683 he was also described as a West Indian merchant. The 1680s were undoubtedly his most lucrative years in business, and according to one account he was said to have owned over 40 ships. For a few years after the death of his brother Thomas in 1684, he ran his father’s mercantile business in Bristol, though continuing to reside in London. By 1682 he was using profits from the slave trade for money-lending. In addition to a loan of £500 to the government, he loaned £2,000 to Bristol corporation, the repayment of which he demanded in 1687, apparently when the corporation offended his High Church principles by accepting James II’s Declaration of Indulgence. It may have been for the same reason that he severed his trading connexion with Bristol at about this time and sold off his ships. He welcomed the Revolution of 1688 and quickly established his position with the new administration, first by advancing several loans to the new government, and second by selling King William £1,000 worth of stock in the Royal African Company. In 1689 he purchased a modest residence at Mortlake in Surrey, evidently with the intention of separating himself from the hubbub of commercial life in London, while the end of his association with the African Company in 1692 indicates that he was by then no longer engaged in the the slave trade.4

During the 1690s and 1700s he funded a series of major projects in Bristol to augment several of the city’s schools and almshouses, complementing these with a regular flow of gifts for the repair and adornment of its parish churches. His neighbourhood in Surrey and several London charities also benefited from his munificence. He made no secret of his hatred of Dissent, and his charitable settlements were laced with clauses requiring Anglican devotion and practice. In establishing the rules for one foundation he desired pupils ‘to be staunch sons of the Church, provided such books are procured for them as have no tincture of Whiggism’. In time, Colston’s overpowering High Church philanthropy irritated the Whiggish corporation of Bristol, so much so that in 1705, when he proposed an arrangement with the corporation to enlarge Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital, the main boys’ orphan school, they declined. He obtained backing for a new school from the more Tory-oriented Merchant Venturers’ Society, explaining that he had been ‘hardly censured . . . even by some of the magistrates’. However, Colston was equally concerned that a rigid Anglican message ‘which combined a catechetical purpose with a call to penitence’ be propagated among a wider parochial audience, and from 1708 he funded a yearly series of ‘Lent sermons’ preached in turn by members of the city’s clergy. The force of his pious temperament and devotion to the Church of England emerges strongly from a grand jury speech he delivered in May 1710:

My intentions of doing what I have done there [Bristol] were only for the public good; and chiefly, by the Lent sermons, to revive the primitive zeal for the Church government as by law established; and since I understand, to my unspeakable comfort, that it hath the success I aimed at, I bless God for inclining my heart thereto, and shall pray to him to increase daily, more and more, the spirit of piety (that at present seems to be among you) and zeal for the best of churches, I mean that of England, as now established by law, whose holy doctrines, if we follow, will teach us obedience to our governors, as well civil as ecclesiastical, and to support the rights of both, to which that God will incline us all.

Colston’s devoted local representative since the 1680s was his Bristol lawyer, Thomas Edwards. Their connexion became a family one when, in the early 1700s, Edwards’ son (Thomas*) married Colston’s niece and eventual heiress.5

By virtue of his good works and reputation in the city, Colston had become an obvious Tory choice of candidate in the election of 1710. July of that year had seen the opening amid great festivity of ‘Colston’s Hospital’, the most costly of his gifts and foundations, involving an outlay of £30,000, which provided for the education and maintenance of 100 boys. He had in fact refused to stand for election on grounds of age, being by then aged 74, but was put up in absentia by ‘some persons who were well-affected’ and who demanded a poll on his behalf. After achieving first place he arrived in Bristol a few days afterwards to attend a dinner on 2 Nov. in celebration of both his triumph and his birthday. The Tory brethren present subsequently constituted themselves into the ‘Loyal Society’ whose annual dinners were held in Colston’s honour each 2 Nov. until the death of Queen Anne. Despite his success, however, Colston had been mortified not to have had the support of his chief associate in several recent charitable projects, Rev. Arthur Bedford, vicar of Temple church whose latitudinarian views were well known, and he publicly denounced Bedford as ‘no son of the Church, but rather inclined to, and a favourer of fanaticism’. Colston was classified as a Tory in the ‘Hanover list’, and was included among the ‘worthy patriots’ who in the 1710–11 session detected the mismanagements of the previous administration. Age and infirmity seem to have prevented him from taking much part in Commons proceedings other than occasionally to present petitions on behalf of his constituency. He did not stand for re-election in 1713 and in November was too frail to attend the Loyal Society dinner, being represented instead by the Duke of Beaufort. Towards the end of 1714, a Whig pamphlet condemning the recent ‘Jacobite’ riots in Bristol sought to undermine both his political integrity and his morals:

The Tories could never have carried any point here [Bristol] but by the interest of a very great Tory and till lately, a nonjuror, Mr C[olston], who has shown how far he prefers good works to purity of life, by laying out some thousands of pounds in building hospitals here, while himself lived very much at his ease with a Tory, though of a different sex, at M[ortla]ke. The appearance of such good deeds acquired him so general a name here, that the people forgot he was a Jacobite and everyone agreed that Mr C[olston] was the best man to represent them and his countenancing the Jacobite interest, made the faction rampant in a place to which he had been so great a benefactor.

Though Colston had been listed in 1691 as one of several prominent ‘Citizens’ (i.e. of London) then ‘inclined’ towards King James, his Jacobite leanings appear to have been a thing of his distant past. He was never under government suspicion and remained on the Somerset commission of the peace after the accession of George I. The mystery lady in his life was probably none other than his housekeeper.6

Colston died at Mortlake on 11 Oct. 1721 and was buried after a grand funeral at All Saints church in Bristol. It was characteristic that his principal charitable bequest should be a large gift of £6,000 to augment Queen Anne’s Bounty, with many of the ‘poor cures’ which were to benefit being nominated by either himself or his acquaintances. His will also contained provision for small yearly payments to 18 charity schools. His main intended legatee had been the only daughter of his recently deceased nephew Edward Colston I*, but since she had died in January 1721, his niece Mary Edwards became the chief beneficiary.

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: Andrew A. Hanham


Unless otherwise stated, this biography is based on H. J. Wilkins, Edward Colston.

  • 1. Pittis, Hist. Present Parl. 349; K. G. Davies, R. African Co. 379.
  • 2. S. G. Tovey, Colston the Philanthropist (1863), 143, 145.
  • 3. Glos. N. & Q. ii. 365–6; J. Latimer, Annals of Bristol in 17th Cent. 185, 207.
  • 4. Wilkins, Edward Colston: Supplement, 9.
  • 5. W. Barrett, Hist. Brist. 443; Tovey, 85, 96; Reformation and Revival in 18th Cent. Bristol (Bristol Rec. Soc. xlv), 11–13.
  • 6. J. Latimer, Annals of Bristol in 18th Cent. 84–86; Wilkins, Supplement, 21; Westminster Diocesan archs., Old Brotherhood mss iii/3/232, memorandum by Capt. Lloyd, 23 Mar. 1691; L. K. J. Glassey, Appt. JPs, 250.