Silas Told on Edward Colson

Edward Colston (here without the ‘t’) is one of the great figures in Bristol history, a hugely generous benefactor to the city, founding one of its earliest charity schools, and giving vast sums of money to the poor both of his home city and of London. He never married, spending his final years at Mortlake, Surrey, but his funeral was a huge event with a procession from Lawfod’s Gate to his burial in All Saints church in the middle of a downpour at midnight.
But in Bristol he is largely demonised for his involvement in the slave trade, with people calling for the renaming of Colson Hall (on the site of the school) and the removal of his statue in the city centre. what I find particularly interesting is that the official histories claim he was a merchant, possibly apprenticed in Portugal, whereas Told claims he was a ships captain.

“He was the son of Edward Colson, a journeyman soap-boiler, whose wages did not exceed 10 shillings per week. He had 10 children then living of whome Edward was the eldest, who, when he had arrived at an age fit to be put an apprentice, was bound to a Virginia Captain, about the time that the colonists were transported to North America. This proved his first rise, as his behaviour and humble readiness to obey his superiors moved many of the merchants, who first settled there , to make Edward, the cabin-boy, many presents; insomuch, that before his ship departed from America for England he had acquired the sum of £50; and being of an exceeding liberal disposition, on his arrival at Bristol, he hastened with the £50, and dispersed every farthing thereof to the prisoners at Newgate. Shortly after, he sailed again to Virginia, where, through the kind providence of God, he gathered among his former friends twice the money of the preceding voyage, and disposed of the whole after the same manner.

A the age of 40 years he became a very eminent East-India merchant, prior to the incorporation of he East-India Company, and had 40 sail of ships of his own, with immense riches flowing in upon him. He still remained uniform in his charitable disposition, distributing many thousands of pounds to various charities in and about London, besides private gifts in many parts of the kingdom. In the year 1708 he instituted a very magnificent school on St Augustine’s Back, in Bristol which cost him £11,000 in the building; and endowed the same with between 17 and £1800 p, for ever. He likewise gave £10 for apprenticing every boy; and for 12 years after his death, £10 to put them into business He maintained religious economy in the school, such as prayers 3 times a day, performed by one of the senior boys He also caused to be erected a very grant almshouse, with an elegant chapel situated in the front thereof, at St Michaels-Hill, Bristol, for 24 old men, with a handsome allowance for every individual, and a clergyman to attend them weekly.

He founded a large free-school in Temple street, Bristol, which was set apart for the education and clothing of 40 boys; and likewise provide for 10 old men in the city almshouse. I do not recollect any church throughout that city where a memorandum of his donations to several useful charities is not recorded. I have been likewise informed that he built, at his own expense, the whole church and town of All-Saints, near the Tolsey, Bristol; together with many other public charities now extant in that city.

It has been frequently reported that his private charities far exceeded those in public. I have heard that one of his ships, trading to the East Indies, had been missing upwards of 3 years, and was supposed to be destroyed at sea but at length she arrived, richly laden. When his principal clerk brought him the report of her arrival, and of the riches on board, he said, as she was totally given up for lost, he would by no means claim any right to her: therefore he ordered the ship and merchandises to be sold, and the produce therof to be applied toward the relief of the needy; which directions were immediately carried into execution.

Another singular instance of his tender consciousness for charity was at the age of 40, when he entertained some thoughts of changing his condition. He paid his addresses to a lady; but being very timorous lest he should be hindered in his pious and charitable designs, he was determined to make a Christian trial of her temper and disposition, and, therefore, one morning filled his pockets full of gold and silver, in order that if any object presented itself in the curse of their tour over London Bridge, he might satisfy his intentions. While they were walking near st Agnes’ church, a woman in extreme misery, with twins in her lap, sat begging; and as he and his intended lady were arm in arm, he beheld the wretched object, put his hand in his pocket, and took out a handful of gold and silver, casting it into the poor woman’s lap. The lady being greatly alarmed at such a profuse generosity, coloured prodigiously; so that when they were gone a little farther towards the bridge foot, she turned to him, and said, “Sir, do you know what you did a few minutes ago?” “Madam”, replied Mr Colson, “I never let my right hand know what my left hand doeth.” He then took leave of her and for this reason never married to the day of his death, although he lived to the age of 83.

In the year 1721 he died at Mortlake, up the river Thames, having left many considerable legacies to charitable uses. Providentially I was in the school at the time of his death, when orders were given for all the children to be learned by heart the 90th Psalm, to sing before the corpse as it entered the city, which was at Lawford’s gate, where we joined the hearse, and sung before it the space of 5 hours amidst a most numerous and crowded audience. It is impossible to describe in what manner the houses and streets were lined with all ranks of people; and although the rain descended in torrents, none paid any regard thereto; but the whole multitude seemed determined to see the last of so eminent a man. We came at last to All Saints’s church, were he was interred under the communion-table. The day of his birth, and also of his death, are commemorated to this day throughout the city of Bristol. His many donations to the poor are, by his executors, faithfully upheld still.”

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