The fishing villages of Cockenzie and Port Seton have long been referred to as God-fearing religious communities with the constant threat of danger as the men of the village ventured out to sea in often inadequate boats. It is true that at the beginning of the period under consideration there was a high incidence of church attendance and also three well-attended Brethren Halls, a Methodist Church and a Fisherman’s Bethel. As the threat of war receded and the villagers became more affluent, church and other religious denominations began to show signs of diminishing numbers in spite of the village expanding rapidly. All of the housing to the south of Links Road from Inglis Avenue east to the cottage and the housing to the south of and including South Seton Park was built in this period. Several hundred houses and a few thousand people were added to the congregations of the two Church of Scotland parish churches in the village, Cockenzie Old Church and Chalmers Memorial Church.
The Cockenzie Old Parish Church during this time had the latter years of the ministry of the Rev Thomas Osborne, which began in 1923 and terminated in 1955. The Rev John L. Smellie was called to the church in 1956 and served until 1976. During these periods the church was extensively redecorated and a new pulpit installed while the hall was clad in rendered blockwork in place of the corrugated iron originally used. We have on record in the centenary booklet by the Rev John Smellie that the communion roll of Cockenzie Old Parish Church as in 1956 was 340; in 1964 – 500; in 1973 – 500; and in 1976 – 526.
Mr Smellie was followed by the Rev Iain Penman who was placed there as an assistant to the Rev G.H. Underwood, minister of neighbouring Chalmers Memorial Church, for a period of three years to try and prepare for a union or some other arrangement between the two churches. At the end of this trial period, the Rev S.J. Knox was appointed to the Cockenzie Old Parish Church by Presbytery as the congregation had voted against a union of the churches. The retirement of the Rev Knox led to the appointment of the Rev James Cowan on a terminable appointment. This was put into effect at the end of 1992 when the Rev Underwood retired from Chalmers Memorial Church.
About this time, a large area of farming land to the south of the village was rezoned for residential use and as a result of this, the parish boundary between the two churches was altered. As a result, some 400 acres of housing land between Fishers Road and Avenue Road were allocated to the parish of Cockenzie Old Church. Some 300 houses have since been built on this site. As a result of this increase in parish population, both churches were permitted to call a minister, having resisted attempts by presbytery to a union. Chalmers called Rev Ian Wiseman in 1993 and Cockenzie Old called the Rev Ronald Stitt in the same year. Mr Stitt was called to Hamilton in 1999 leaving Cockenzie Old vacant. In 2000 it was still vacant with the possibility of union again under discussion.
Chalmers Memorial Church, Gosford Road, Port Seton
Chalmers Memorial Church had continued to expand its activities and increase its membership in 1950 under the ministry of the Rev Henry Lawson. The Rev Robert Brownlee who ministered until his untimely death in 1957, replaced him in 1951. During that era a new hall was constructed, in part by voluntary labour from the congregation. Miss Cadell laid the foundation stone in 1954 and the hall was officially opened and dedicated on the 31 August 1957. The original hall in School Lane, which had been the church building following the Disruption (1843), was then surplus to requirements and sold to a local potato merchant.
The Chalmers Manse, Winton House and its extensive grounds were sold to the local council for town council offices and future development on 29 August 1956 for the sum of £2,000. The site extended from Winton Park in the west to Osborne Terrace in the east, Edinburgh Road in the north and the primary school site in the south. It did not include the narrow Belfield property at Osborne Terrace. The proceeds of this sale allowed the church to purchase the present Manse ‘Braemar Villa’ at No 2 Links Road for the sum of £2,250.
The Rev David Wright was inducted to the charge in 1957 until 1964 and was followed by the Rev Geoffrey Underwood from 1964 until his retirement from the ministry in 1992. During this ministry, the enthusiasm of the minister and congregation had seen the membership grow to a peak of about 560 members plus adherents in 1975, from about 490 members in 1950. 1980 saw this figure drop to about 500 members while the Practice Profile compiled for the 1992 vacancy gave the membership as 450 persons with a further 15 – 20 eligible for inclusion in the electoral roll.
The Rev Ian Wiseman was called to the church in 1993 but had to resign due to ill health in 1995; the Rev Robert Glover replaced him in July 1997, who continues to attend to the needs of his 350 members. Although this number shows a considerable reduction, it does accurately reflect the true number of active members in this church, the communion roll having been purged over the last year or so.
The villages have also been very well served by enthusiastic Christian groups. In the 1950s, they shared the same religious zeal as the churches and had a membership of up to 100. They comprised the Methodists who met in their church at Edinburgh Road, Cockenzie. The London Brethren who met in the hall at South Doors they had inherited from the Fishermen’s Bethel when that organisation, formed initially by fishermen of the village, moved to its new premises in New Street in the 1890s. The Clanton Brethren met in Elcho Place Hall while the Plymouth Brethren met in Viewforth Hall.
In 1980 when the adult population of the villages was about 3000 persons, the following numbers were attributed to these meeting places: Clanton Brethren – 100; Plymouth Brethren – 60; Methodists – 40; Bethel – 20; and London Brethren – 20.
These numbers, like the Church of Scotland membership, have continued to decline with the Clanton now 60, the Plymouth now 55, the Methodists now 20. The Fishermen’s Bethel was closed and sold for conversion to a house in 1992 while the London Brethren had their last service in their South Doors meeting room on 6 December 1992. It was subsequently sold again for conversion to a house but some of the members continued to worship in the Methodist Church, which although still open now has no minister allocated to it by its controlling body.
There are obviously Roman Catholic people in the village but they worship at the Roman Catholic Chapel in Prestonpans or Tranent. The numbers are not recorded but at a time in the 1970s, Mass was regularly held in the Pond Hall with visiting priests officiating.