How It Began – Cockenzie, Port Seton

We occasionally recount the story of an assembly’s beginnings, because the varied methods of God are always a lesson to faith. Read how seed sown in the Shetlands took root hundreds of miles south on the coast of East Lothian.

Standing one beautiful October evening on the Shore Road with a Christian fisherman, the writer remarked on the solid appearance of the assembly hall. “It ought to be solid,” he said with a twinkle in his eye, “Part of the foundations are deep down in the Firth.”

From the steps of the hall one can look not only out over the broad waters of the Firth of Forth, but down into the little harbour, and watch the smart modem motor-trawlers making for the open sea in their quest for fish. Engines throb with a measured sense of power, electric lights twinkle aboard, above the wheel-house stretches the radio aerial with its promise of constant contact not only with the shore but even with the skipper’s home. Nowadays the trawlerman can rely on elaborate charts and sounding apparatus, and can be guided by radio broadcasts from the Ministry of Fishing, but it was a very different tale 70 years ago. At the beginning of summer, loved ones watched with mixed feelings as a little group of small fishing smacks hoisted sail and gradually disappeared into the unknown. Weeks later it might be possible to post a letter if they put into some port away up north to land a catch, but otherwise they would be swallowed up in silence until at the end of the summer the ships would be sighted again, making course for the old harbour. But they did not always return at the expected time; anxious mothers and wives could only hope and pray, and sometimes hope had to be abandoned.

These were the conditions when in 1884 a little fleet of Cockenzie ships, fishing off the Shetlands, put in for a week-end at Lerwick. In those days no entertainments were available, and sailors ashore had to choose between the tavern and some religious service, according to their taste. Back on board at night they would retail their experiences. One God-fearing and Truth-seeking man, who afterwards came to recognize the place he had visited as an assembly, had had a good time and enthusiastically announced to his shipmates, “I think I’ve found the richt plaice noo.” Here he had heard the plain and simple gospel and had learned something about baptism and the breaking of bread. Thirteen of his friends were keen to know more, and so the assembly at Lerwick became their resort as often as they could put into that port during the fishing season, and before it ended some of them had been baptized.

The Lord gave them all a safe passage home, and back in Cockenzie these 13, and another who, remarkably enough had had the same experience in the assembly at Peterhead, commenced to break bread in a house in Lorimer Place. A leading man among them was Peter Thomson, a giant of a man known to his mates as Big Pete. He became a giant in soul, and an earnest gospeller whose powerful voice was often heard in the fishing stations from the Shetlands down to Yarmouth.

Although the local folk at first thought that these men had picked up some strange ideas in the Shetlands, their simple testimony bore fruit and the Lord so added to their numbers that before the winter was over the house was getting too small for the company. They were compelled to make a fresh venture, and a small hall was built in Garners Close. To us the cost (^63) seems ridiculously low, but to them it meant a considerable sum, and my informant was able to recall the impression made on the company when it was found that the first and only collection taken for the building fund provided the very sum required.

Meetings flourished during, the winters when fishing in the small boats of that day was out of the question, but when the fleet was away in the summer the meetings were practically denuded of men. The sisters did the best they could in the circumstances, but brethren from Edinburgh (particularly Mr. Peter Manson and Mr. Balfour) rendered help which is still remembered with gratitude by some of the old folk. Transport was not what it is today, and it is probable that the journey was taken by pony and trap along poor roads.

A turning point occurred in 1890 when, owing to shortage of work in the coalfields in the West of Scotland, several miners crossed to East Lothian to try their fortunes there. Among them were some keen Christians who settled at Tranant about two miles from Cockenzie, and became a tower of strength to the assembly, especially when the fishermen had to be away. Another event which advanced the work was the arrival from Bothwell in 1901 of Mr. William Grey, a man of unusual character and zeal. He was the means of bringing into the district Mr. James Lees (who went to Sweden in 1910) and these two did a great deal of gospel work in the area with tent meetings and other means, which the Lord greatly blessed.

In 1905 Mr, Peter Thomson was taken seriously ill and Mr. Lees remembers calling to see him when on his way to preach in a nearby village. Although very weak Mr. Thomson commended him very heartily to the Lord and when Mr. Lees returned to Cockenzie that night it was to learn that the Lord had called His servant home. Soon afterwards the Lord granted blessing among the young people, and one of them was the 16-year-old daughter of Mr. Thomson, who returned to the hall one night after a gospel-meeting with tears in her eyes. “Your father’s prayers are going to be answered tonight, Jeenie,” said Mr. Lees, and so they were. Some years later she went to India as a missionary, where the Lord has used her a great deal.

With the steady increase in numbers it became evident that another and a bigger hall would be necessary, and when a miners’ strike rendered many of the brethren idle it was decided to take advantage of the opportunity to erect a hall with voluntary labour.

Transport of cement by road from Leith was expensive, and so perhaps it was natural that among mariners the idea arose that it could be brought much more cheaply by sea. A trawler-owner gave the use of his vessel and one of the fisher-men brethren in the meeting was put in charge and he set off for the cement works at Leith across the waters of the Firth, with a number of miners to load and unload. The miners quite enjoyed the novel experience and as they had shown great interest in the Inch Keith Island, the skipper kindly decided that on the way back he would take them as close in to the Island as possible, to give them a better view. He knew the channel well but it would seem that he did not make sufficient allowance for the boat being lower in the water than usual by reason of its heavier freight, with the result that they ran aground on some submerged rocks. Other efforts failing, the concrete destined for the hall’s foundations had to be dumped overboard to get the ship afloat again. A shamefaced crew sailed into Cockenzie harbour, minus the concrete they had paid for, and plus a repair bill to be paid. The remaining concrete was brought by road.

Undeterred by this misfortune the brethren, with the assistance of only one ‘journeyman,’ settled down to the job, and with thanksgivings and rejoicings a splendid hall seating 300 was opened, overlooking the very harbour from which the unsuspecting founders had sailed nearly 40 years before.

The assembly has had its trials, particularly when trade depression in the’ twenties’ induced a number to emigrate. This temporarily weakened the assembly a good deal, but the believers went steadfastly on and the Lord has given constant encouragement.

How many who visit {he assembly now, realize that it really began away north in the stormy Shetlands, whence the Lord had sent a few simple-hearted fishermen to learn His will?


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