— #18 Free Fishermen's Hall
The actual date of the foundation of the Society of Free Fishermen of Newhaven is now unknown but tradition indicates that it must be before 1450 that the first meeting of the Society was convened. There is no doubt that Newhaven was one of the earliest of the fishing villages on the Firth of Forth and it was important enough to attract the attention of the able King of Scots, James IV, when he determined Scotland should have a navy powerful enough to match that of any other nation in Europe. Prior to this king’s reign there was no regular naval force.
The original records were lost sometime before 1631 when Newhaven become part of North Leith parish. The Society was a charitable organisation founded to provide aid in times of trouble and sickness. When Edinburgh Town Council was sold the feudal rights to Newhaven by James IV, their jealousy of the patronage the village had received from the king caused them to neglect the people and the harbour. During the ensuing years the Society became more and more responsible for the running of the village, as the Edinburgh Council took little interest and showed little concern for the small community of fisher folks.
Each November, an election would take place to select a Preses (President), a Boxmaster (Treasurer) and a Committee to attend to the Society’s affairs. Prior to 1631, when Newhaven became attached to the parish of North Leith, most of the records were lost. However, after that date the parish minister and a few elders from North Leith Church were in attendance and all cash transactions and statements were ,ntered in a minute book. This arrangement continued until 1850 when a statement of accounts was printed and a copy given to each member.
The Society’s income came from oyster fishing, membership fees, feus from its grounds in Newhaven, and rents from properties. Every fisherman was expected to take his turn to stand at the foot of Whale Brae holding a large pewter plate in front of him, beside a notice saying ‘Please remember the poor of Newhaven’.
Membership was open to any male in Newhaven over the age of 14 but also to anyone who came into Newhaven wishing to become a fisherman. By the 1820s the influx of these outsiders — “blaggart strangers” as they were called — caused a problem with a massive increase in the membership. In 1821 a new rule was made under which no one was allowed to become a member unless they were “the lawful sons of fishermen whose names were clear on the Society books”. This put a stop to any “blaggart strangers” becoming members.
Apart from giving succour to the poor, the Society’s function was to protect the interests of its members and, as a consequence, it had significant expenditure in the form of legal costs – much of the effort being a vain attempt to protect the oyster scalps (beds).
By 1875, membership was 345 out of the 400 fishermen in the village. Newhaven now had its own Harbour. With the decline of line fishing and the end of the oyster beds, herring was now the main fish stock caught. In 1896, an enclosed Fishmarket was opened, together with improvements to the harbour and pier. Until that time, most of the boats had been open-decked and propelled by sail and oar. However, as the men were having to voyage further offshore to follow the shoals of herring, the boats became ever bigger, decked over, and now had a cabin in which there would be a fire, beds and other comforts. Just before the Great War, powered fishing yawls were becoming commonplace in the harbour.
The Free Fishermen’s Society was now devoted to looking after its members and families. This took the form of an allowance in sickness, infirmity and old age. Grants of funeral allowances, and grants to the widows of members (which were continued so long as the widow did not marry again) were also provided. Simple charity had been the essence of the intentions which originally brought the Society into existence. In the course of time, this purpose came to be far exceeded, as the Society became more and more responsible for the conduct of theaffairs of the whole of the community in Newhaven.
It was the provision of funeral grants which enlarged the scope of the Society’s work when it was faced with the necessity of procuring suitable burial ground. This was duly obtained and was used by them for hundreds of years before 1848 when burials were transferred to Leith and Edinburgh. The ownership of the cemetery brought with it added responsibilities and the Society had to accept so many public duties that it became the ruling body in Newhaven, with all the cares of a Town Council. The Society took on the care of the streets, the laying and maintenance of causeways, scavenging and sale of dung, which was a valuable commodity in those days. In addition to these public duties the Society also gave financial assistance when illness or injury prevented a member going to sea. In 1912, The Society of Free Fishermen registered under the Friendly Societies Act.
When the Trawlermen’s Trade Union was founded, the Society became more of a social club for the men when they were ashore, organising monthly meetings, outings and a dance at Christmas. The membership was now down to about 200 and continuing to decline. Very few of the younger generation were keen to go to sea on the trawlers or become share fishermen on the herring boats with the accompanying hardships they would have to experience. In 1988, it became compulsory to join Life Assurance and Unit Trust Regulatory Organisation (LAUTRO) under the Financial Services Act 1986 with its concomitant burden of significant financial costs and obligations. The Boxmaster, W. Logan Wilson, wrote to each of the remaining 147 members asking them to vote whether the Society be dissolved or not. With heavy hearts, their vote was for Dissolution.