It could be claimed that there are four Sites of Belonging in Newhaven; places with such strong emotional connections that they help to define the Bow-Tow, as Newhaveners are called. Of the four – St Andrew’s Church, the Harbour, the old Victoria School, and here – this is arguably the most important. For it was the presence of the Free Fishermen’s Society that differentiated this village from all the other fishing communities on the east coast of Scotland.
It was decided that a meeting hall would be beneficial to Society members, both to aid its smooth running and to provide a gathering space for social and political events, neither of which would be appropriate for church halls. Built at a cost of £1600, it opened to great ceremony with a soiree attended by both Newhaven’s ministers, representatives of Edinburgh Council, and the people of Newhaven. Everyone enjoyed the speeches, feasting and dancing that lasted well into the night.
Originally there were two shops, one either side of the Main St entrance. On the left was a newsagent, and on the right a butcher. Three houses were built at the rear, on Pier Place, one of which later became a bank. From the outset the Free Fishermen’s Hall was well used.
In his book ‘Newhaven-on-Forth, My story of the living village’, Jim Park remembers as a laddie in the 1930s going through the double doors at the foot of the stairs which led up to the hall, which was furnished with backed wooden benches facing a raised dais.
On one wall was a Rechabite scroll. The Rechabites were a temperance society that used the hall and held meetings to promote abstinence. Here the children would be entertained with a Magic Lantern show warning about the perils of the demon drink or, better still, pictures of wild animals of Africa and India. The images were projected onto a white sheet on the wall. The incentive to attend was tea and a bun at the end of the lecture.
Many soirees and social events took place in the Hall. For example, the Co-operative Society’s Women’s Guild met each week. This was an important opportunity for the hard-working ladies of Newhaven to come together for a blether, with tea and cakes at the end of the meeting. In his book about his Newhaven childhood in the 20s and 30s, Jim Park recalls that children were allowed to witness these goings-on so long as they behaved themselves. He says they did – for they, too, wanted their share of the refreshments!
Due to falling membership and rising costs, the building – Hall, shops, and the houses on Main St through to Pier Place – were sold in the mid-70s to the Port of Leith Motor Boat Club. It is now a domestic property.