The thread about Asa Wass & Son; the rags-to-riches rag-and-bone men of 19th century Edinburgh – were they always as they was?

This thread was originally written and published in January 2020. It has been lightly edited and corrected as applicable for this post.

There was for many years a Steptoe-like institution in Fountainbridge by the name of Asa Wass & Son Ltd. Asa is a biblical Hebrew name, Wass an ancient Anglo-Norman name, most common at this time in the Midlands of England.

ASA WASS & SON Ltd. Licensed. Registered.
ASA WASS & SON Ltd. Licensed. Registered.

Asa Wass was born in Morley, Yorkshire in 1833 to Judith and Stephen Wass, a carpenter and moulder. According to the 1851 census, when he was 18, Asa was trained in his father’s trade. He Married Hannah Hirst in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, in 1858 when he was 25 and she 24. They moved to Edinburgh and their first daughter, Elizabeth, was born here in 1859 within the year. More children followed; Judith Ann (Judith was the name of both Asa and Hannah’s mothers) in 1861; Clara in 1866; Thomas Henry in 1868; John Arthur in 1871; Sarah Hannah in 1874.

The “Mapping Jewish life in Edinburgh” publication by the The Research Network in
Jewish Studies at Edinburgh University lists the Wasses as Jewish. However, Asa’s mother was baptised into the Wesleyan Methodist Church; he and his siblings were baptised into the Church of England and Asa and Hannah were married in a civil ceremony, so I am not sure on the basis for this assertion. Asa Wass and his family are buried under a Celtic cross but I suppose that might just be fashion!

In 1861, the family was resident in the humble surroundings of the Old Town at 235 Cowgate (at the foot of Blair Street), with Asa’s occupation being rag merchant. They are first advertised in Edinburgh in the 1863 Post Office Directory as being at 4 St. Leonard Street, which was the family home, and the shop and yard were now at 260 Cowgate. so we can make an assumption that they are not living and trading in the same place. The entry in the PO Directory is also a symbol of success as it means that they can afford to pay for the listing.

In 1871 the Wass family residence and the business itself are moved to 63 Fountainbridge, where they are listing themselves as “woollen rag merchants”. This is on the corner of Lothian Road and Early Grey Street, so a prime position to trade from. In 1878, Asa Wass (“Broker, Fountainbridge”) his wife and his manager James Erskine were found guilty at the Burgh Court of contravening the “Brokers Act” for purchasing “three small quantities of old hair without being in possession of the necessary licence”. Each was fined £1 with the option of 3 days imprisonment instead.

Despite this curious brush with the law they obviously prosper, as within ten years the business has moved to a much larger premises in a yard at 161 Fountainbridge and the family are at Spyfield Cottage in Colinton. They have a shop at 153-159 and at 163 Fountainbridge, in between which is the pend given access to the yard.

1944 OS Town Plan showing 161 Fountainbridge through the pend. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland
1944 OS Town Plan showing 161 Fountainbridge through the pend. WM = Weighing Machine. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

The same census that places them here also records only 12 Wasses in Scotland, all in Midlothian and 9 of them being Asa, his wife and his children. They are still in Colinton in the 1891 in the census, by which time there are an entire 16 Wasses in Scotland. Asa’s occupation is still recorded as being the humble-sounding “Rag, Rope, Paper and Metal Merchant”. However we begin to get a real sense of his success in business; the family had a live-in servant, Margaret Catcher, with them in Colinton and the PO Directory lists a house in town at 17 Leamington Terrace, as good a neighbourhood then as it is now. In 1893, Asa Wass was given permission by the Dean of Guild Court to erect stores at his yard at 161 Fountainbridge.

The photograph that I have found of Asa Wass shows a dignified, respectable-looking Victorian gentleman, clearly somebody who was doing relatively well in life. Edinburgh had a big glue & gelatine industry near Fountainbride at Cox’s in Gorgie; and both the Esk and Water of Leith supported a big paper industry who made use of linen rags in their process. A central “clearing house”, the General Rag Warehouse, had been established in the city as early as 1793 to act as a middle-man between the paper makers and the individual collectors of rags. Rags would be sorted into one of five different categories; Superfine, Fine, Blue, Second and Grey, before being sold, and there was a big premium for the better quality. There was a ready demand in the city for Asa’s skins, bones and rags and he obviously prospered out of these.

Asa Wass, from
Asa Wass, from

He passed away aged 66 in on November 10th 1898 at the family home at 11 Morningside Park, a very respectable address. His funeral was held on Monday 14th at 3PM at the Dean Cemetery – not where you expect to find a “rag-and-bone man” to be buried – with friends asked to “Kindly accept this intimation and invitation. (No Flowers).” Asa Wass left an estate worth about £160,000 in today’s money. All the evidence points to him having done very well out of the trade in rags, skins, bones, rope, scrap metal and of course human hair. Hannah Wass continued to live at Morningside Park and died there in 1911.

Wass family gravestone in the Dean Cemetery in Edinburgh

On the death of Asa his eldest son, Thomas Henry, takes over the running of the business, although the properties are is in his mother’s name and it remains known as Asa Wass & Son. However the following year the entire business is listed for sale, and the year after a shop that they used in Rose Street is also sold. By the 1915 valuation rolls the business and proprietor of 161 Fountainbridge are Asa Wass & Son Ltd, with Thomas Henry in charge. He lived in a pleasant house at 6 Merchiston Grove and died in 1922 at an even larger and more pleasant one at 3 Midmar Avenue, leaving an estate worth at least £400k in today’s money. His son was also Thomas Henry, known as Harry, but I am not clear if he took over from his father. There is a photo of the Wass nag and cart in 1925, by which point Asa has not been around for nearly a quarter of a century, his son too has died, but it still trades under their name and reputation.

Wass Horse & Cart in 1925. Thomas Henry would have been 57 at this time. I wonder if this was him? CC-By-NC Edinburgh Collected
Wass Horse & Cart in 1925. CC-By-NC Edinburgh Collected

In 1941, Asa Wass & Son Ltd. occupies 161, 169 and 177 Fountainbridge, tel. 21544. By this time, they are the only bone merchants “in the book” (listed in the PO directory) in Edinburgh. The are also listed under rag merchants and metal merchants and have taken out a not insubstantial advert. Business is clearly still prosperous and the local paper and glue industries still have a use for the wares of Asa Wass & Son Ltd.

Asa Wass & Son advert in the 1940-41 PO Directory
Asa Wass & Son advert in the 1940-41 PO Directory

The business ceased trading and was abandoned in the early 1960s, by this time it had traded for longer under the Asa Wass & Son name for longer than either Asa himself was involved. The yard became a haunt for local children to play in and there are some photos from this period here; The whole area was very run down and was swept away in the early 1970s when Scottish & Newcastle relocated the Fountain Brewery there (from over the road) .

According to my Dad, who grew up in Dalry in the 1960s, the correct local pronounciation of Asa Wass is “Azzy Woz“. There is an old Edinburgh tongue-twister which goes;

Izzy Azzy A’ways Iz, or Izzy Azzy Woz?

(Is He as He Always is, or is He As He Was / Asa Wass?)

Asa Wass tongue-twister, source

Asa and Hannah’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth, moved to Devonshire on her marriage and when she died in 1934 was recorded as living at a house called Dunedin Crediton, one wonders if this was some sort of family joke about the source of the family’s wealth. Her younger brother, John Arthur Wass, was confined to the Crichton Institution for Lunatics in Dumfries in June 1890 around the age of 19, far from home. This is another indication of the family’s wealth; this was the best sort of place money could afford to send somebody with a mental health condition at this time. He was discharged around a year later, but is admitted to the Aberdeen Royal Asylum in 1895. In 1899 he is transferred to the Dundee Asylum, from where he escapes in November of that year.

John Arthur Wass's admission to Dundee Asylum in 1899. NRS MC2/478
John Arthur Wass’s admission to Dundee Asylum in 1899. NRS MC2/478

John Arthur was a private patient (i.e. he or his family were wealthy enough to pay), and was suffering from moral insanity (“madness consisting in a morbid perversion of the natural feelings, affections, inclinations, temper, habits, moral dispositions, and natural impulses, without any remarkable disorder or defect of the interest or knowing and reasoning faculties, and particularly without any insane illusion or hallucinations“) according to his Notice of Admission to Dundee in 1899. After his escape he emigrates to the US in 1901 (I am not clear if he was ever “recaptured”) and here he settles down, marries and becomes a poultryman, in Monmouth, New Jersey. By 1915 he was living in New York as a landscape gardener and by 1920 was a sculptor. I sincerely hope he found peace here after the torment of his years in Victorian asylums.

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