East Lothian’s coastal communities were once home to four ‘Sailors Societies’, each of a slightly differing nature but united by a common purpose.
The societies’ main objective was to provide a fund that could contribute to the maintenance of widows and dependants of the membership. The means whereby they achieved this end varied from place to place. Subscriptions, backed up by compulsion, were the mainstay but a tax (‘impost’) on imports and exports through their port might also be levied. Fines for improper behaviour and irregularities brought in more and surplus cash might be invested in land (then leased for rent) or put out to loan for interest. Although Dunbar’s Society was formally wound up and Prestonpans’ withered away the others still maintain a presence, however diffuse.
The Society of Sailors of Dunbar was old when it was reorganised in 1726. After a spell in administration, with the supervision of the town council, it survived into the twentieth century when its assets were put into trust for the benefit of local education. The society was open to merchants, masters and mariners as well as their support trades, the boatbuilders, coopers, sail and rope makers, and chandlers of Dunbar. Fishermen could also join but were not compelled. The society was supported by a port tax as well as subscriptions and its age is such that it could well have taken the place of incorporations in Dunbar – the only indication that the burgh had any others is the intriguing placename Bakers Croft. An 18th century minute book is on display in the John Gray Centre Museum.
Records of Fisherrow Sailors’ Society survive from 1669 but it’s clear that the Society evolved over time. It was later to be found as the (United) Fisherrow Fishermen’s Friendly Society and sometimes the Fisherrow Fishermen’s Box Society. It became a tradition that the society and community paraded with banners and strongbox every September, followed by sports and parties: this helped to keep it in the public eye – a walk was held as late as 1979. The society was led by the Boxmaster who held one of the keys of the society’s deed box: others were retained by other committee members and all were needed to open the box, a simple security procedure.
The printed rules of the Incorporation of Sailors at Prestonpans survive from 1798 but fragmentary lists from 1711 (membership) and 1743 (minutes) show that it was much older. Also known as the Sailors’ Benefit Society just as at Fisherrow it became better known as the Prestonpans Fishermen’s Society; it was still around to be recorded under that name in the Third Statistical Account of 1953. Its walk was once celebrated in September but it and the Potters’ Walk were outlasted by the local Miners’ Gala.
The Cockenzie and Port Seton Fishermen’s Society was established in 1813. By 1953 it was known as the Friendly Society of Fishermen of Cockenzie and Port Seton but still celebrated its Annual Walk on the 3rd Friday of September, with bonfires and fireworks at the Boat Shore the night before.
The significance of the September Walks is related to the course of a season’s fishing – beginning in the north in the late spring, the fishermen followed shoals of herring all the way south to the coast of East Anglia only returning home in September.
If you would like to add to our account of the Sailors’ Societies please use our simple template and send it to us. Or simply write a piece in Your Stories. If you’d to carry out any of your own research on this topic, please contact the local history centre at the JGC.