When the Society came into existence is not properly known. 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. It fell to the Society to become responsible for the running of the village.
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. Oyster fishing was a major source of the Society’s income although much of its income was from membership fees, feus from the Society’s grounds in Newhaven, rents from properties. Every fishermen was expected to take turns to stand at the foot of the Whale Brae with a large pewter plate in front of him, and a notice beside the plate ---“Please remember the poor of Newhaven”.
So many strangers wanted to become members in order to get a licence to fish that, in 1821, the Society implemented a new rule which stated that no one was allowed to become a member unless they were “the lawful sons of fishermen whose names were clear on the Society books”. The Society’s function, apart from giving succour to the poor, was to protect the interest of their members and, as a consequence, had significant expenditure for legal costs.
By 1875, membership was 345 fishermen out of the 400 fishermen in the village. Newhaven now had its own harbour. With the decline in line fishing and the end of the oyster beds, herring was the main fish stock caught. In 1896, an enclosed Fishmarket was opened with improvements to the harbour and pier. Most of the boats until now had only been open decked and propelled by sail and oar. However, as the men were having to travel further afield to follow the shoals of herrings, the boats became ever bigger and eventually decked with a cabin in which there was 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 their members and families. It gave financial assistance when there was illness or injury that prevented the member going to sea, or needed assistance with funeral expenses. 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 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. 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.
ABOVE The Free Fishermen’s Society of Newhaven Immemorial in 1965