It can be traced back to a 13th century guild, which went on to fund John Cabot's voyage to Newfoundland,Canada before receiving its first Royal Charter in 1552. For centuries, it was almost synonymous with the government of Bristol, especially its port. In recent times, the society's activities have centred on charitable agendas.
The Society played a part in the development of Bristol, including the building of Clifton Suspension Bridge and the Great Western Railway. It also influenced the development of Bristol's educational institutions, including the University of Bristol, the University of the West of England and City of Bristol College.
A Guild of Merchants was founded in Bristol by the 13th century, and swiftly became active in civic life. It funded John Cabot's voyage of discovery to Newfoundland in 1497. The society in its current form was established by a 1552 Royal Charter from Edward VI granting the society a monopoly on Bristol's sea trade. The society remained in effective control of Bristol's harbour until 1809. Further charters were granted by Charles I, Charles II and Elizabeth II. The society's members were active in the English colonisation of North America, helping to establish the Bristol's Hope and Cuper's Cove settlements in Newfoundland.
In 1694, the Merchant Venturers Society petitioned parliament against the monopoly held by the Royal African Company in the slave trade, leading to the ending of this monopoly in 1698. During the eighteenth century one quarter of the individual members of the Society were to be directly involved in the slave trade.
The first light on the island of Flat Holm was a simple brazier mounted on a wooden frame, which stood on the high eastern part of the island. In 1733 the Society of Merchant Venturers of Bristol found the brazier to be unreliable and petitioned the General Lighthouse Authority, Trinity House, for an actual lighthouse, but the petition failed. In 1735 Mr. William Crispe of Bristol submitted a proposal to build a lighthouse at his own expense. This initial proposal also failed but negotiations resumed in 1736 when 60 soldiers drowned after their vessel crashed on the Wolves rocks near Flat Holm. Following this disaster, the Society of Merchant Venturers supported William Crispe's proposal. Crispe agreed to pay £800 (£110,552, $220,241 in 2008) for the construction of the tower as well as the fees permits. The construction of the tower finished in 1737 and it began operating on 25 March 1738.