Curating a sense of belonging
Standing proudly facing Newhaven harbour is a 3-storey building with a clock mounted into its pediment. The building has been a familiar part of this streetscape for over 180 years. The address is now 4 Pier Place, but at one time it was referred to as ‘The Clock Building’ and prior to that ‘The Customs House’. Built around 1840 by the Free Fishermen’s Society of Newhaven, it used to contain six households, with one of the houses set aside for a customs officer and his family.
It is an interesting building in its own right. In the left-hand corner of the front elevation is a stone casing, which once contained a barometer supplied and maintained by the Free Fishermen’s Society of Newhaven.
Next to that, a small notice board on which was published weather forecasts for the bene fit of the fishermen about to put to sea. This stone casing had been re-sited from its original position on a round building at the pierhead, on St Andrew’s Square (now Fishmarket Square), and moved here in the late 19th century to facilitate the trams turning the corners of the Square.
On the gable end of the building, around the corner from the barometer case, you can see the marks of a staircase and another building. The stairs led up to a small room overlooking the old burial ground, which lies immediately behind this landmark building. The adjoining building was a watch house for Free Fishermen volunteers to use to ensure recent graves remained inviolate immediately after an interment,
4 Pier Place was compulsorily purchased, like most of Newhaven, by Edinburgh Council in the 1970s at the time of the village’s redevelopment.
The two top storeys were modernised by combining both houses on each landing into a single dwelling to provide an inside bathroom and a kitchen. Because of the passageway on the ground floor, both the lower houses became one-roomed ‘studio apartments’ with the back rooms sacrificed to provide full modern facilities.
Following the introduction of the Housing (Scotland) Act in 1987 the right to buy council homes was extended to tenants in Scotland until its repeal in 2014. The tenants of the upper floors exercised this right but those on the ground floor didn’t.
One of these two lower flats has been vacant since December 2021. The opposite flat, in turn, became unoccupied a year later. Following the closure of the popular Community Museum located within the Fishmarket, Newhaven Heritage was founded in 2009 as a charitable organisation with a mandate to preserve, protect and promote Newhaven’s rich heritage.
It has since made representations to acquire both flats on the basis of a Community Asset Transfer (CAT). The plan is to have an educational facility with office space in one house in which to house Newhaven Heritage’s growing archives, and a memorial to the lost local fishermen by creating a replica of a Newhaven home in October 1881 in the other. This date commemorates the Eyemouth Fishing Disaster in which 17 Newhaven fishermen lost their lives, leaving 50 children fatherless.
The 1881 home, together with the substantial archives built up by the group, would be used as a source for local primary and secondary school pupils and scholars of social history to understand the support mechanisms and social mores that helped to sustain the widows and their families, thereby nurturing the feelings of belonging in the young people of today, and build/rebuild a sense of community.
Newhaven Heritage had recently learned that the Council was considering selling these flats to raise revenue in order to buy back a former council home (or homes) within a local block in which it was already a majority owner. This would simplify its responsibility for the care and maintenance of the whole block.
Newhaven Heritage lodged an Expression of Interest under the Community Empowerment Act 2015 for the purchase of these two former dwellings. This particular Act was devised “to empower community bodies through the ownership or control of land and buildings, and by strengthening their voices in decisions about public services.” What could be a better site than right at the very centre of the harbourside?
Their hope is that Newhaveners will benefit from this thoughtful tribute to the past, giving locals, young and more mature, an understanding of how self-supporting the community once was, thus helping to build pride of place and future resilience.
Newhaven now waits to see what the future will bring. ■
Info: Follow the progress of this project on NewhavenHeritageCentre’s facebook page or subscribe to their digital newsletter, The Bow-Tow, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org Alternatively you will find members at the old harbourside police box every Saturday morning, 10am to 1pm.
4 Pier Place and its barometer casing. Photograph: Gavin Booth