Remembering legendary Edinburgh rag and bone merchants Asa Wass and Son

They were the real life Steptoe and Sons, purveyors of Edinburgh's "metal" scene, who went from rags to riches trading in scrap items in the city's working class districts.

By David Mclean
Monday, 28th September 2020, 5:27 pm
Updated Monday, 28th September 2020, 6:02 pm

For generations, Fountainbridge rag and bone merchants Asa Wass and Son traded in everything from old horse shoes to waste rubber.

They were the place to go for those looking to score a few shillings for their woollen cast-offs or children hoping to source a spare part for their guider or bike.

Founder Asa Wass was born in England and came to Edinburgh as a young man in the 1850s, setting up his first rag merchants business in the Cowgate and later at 161 Fountainbridge.

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The Wasses worked their socks off over the next few decades, generating enough income from trading scrap to earn city-wide fame and fortune.

At the time of Asa's death in 1898, records show the family owned property in upmarket Morningside, Bruntsfield and George Square - a world away from the relative dirt and squalor of his place of work.

The value of Asa’s estate, which was passed on to his wife and son, came to £1246 15s 10d - more than £163,000 when adjusted for inflation.

While the surname Wass bears Norman roots, locals adopted a very specific pronunciation for the name Asa Wass, as Roy Lindsay recalls.

Children playing outside the gates of Asa Wass 'Rag Skin & Metal Merchants in Fountainbridge in April 1969.

Roy, who now lives in Australia, but grew up in the Edinburgh suburb Carrick Knowe, often took the bus up to Asa Wass to hunt for bike parts in the 1960s.

"I remember Asa Wass from the very early days of cycle speedway," recalls Roy, 73. "They were a prime source for bike parts. We would buy bits of bikes or whole, complete bikes, that were often wrecked, and rebuild them into cycle speedway bikes.

"When I was even younger, I actually thought the yard was an antique shop called 'As I Was', because that's how you said it."

Following Asa's death, the scrap business was passed on to his son Thomas H. Wass, who kept things ticking over during the early part of the 20th century.

Rob Johnstone, 67, remembers taking scrap down to the Asa Wass yard for a bit of pocket money in the early '60s.

He says his final visit there was aged 9 or 10 following a rather traumatic experience involving a dead cat.

Rob recalls: "My father worked on various building sites and used to give me my pocket money in scrap, which I took down to Asa Wass' and then Dalton's. He'd have had a fit if he'd discovered how much I was getting - I was a fairly rich kid for a while.

"One time I went up, I was around 9 or 10, probably too young to be going rummaging around scrappies on my own, but these were different days

"Inside the building was dark and dismal. There was no artificial lighting and very little natural light getting through any windows, so I wasn't getting a good view of what was up there.

"I sort of trod on something that was a bit soft. So I poked it over with my toe and there was just enough light to tell that this was the corpse of a cat and it was crawling with maggots.

"I never went back again."

While it seems the Wass family were far from being classed as paupers, their yard was never exactly associated with the finer things in life.

Rob adds: "You could slag people off by saying, 'you get your stuff out of Asa Wass's', or 'yer house is like Asa Wass' yard'.

"It had a reputation, kind of down market, down at heel. The kind of thing that was prevalent in those days."

Closing down in the 1960s, the Asa Wass yard was eventually cleared the following decade along with neighbouring tenements and streets to make way for an expansion to McEwan's Fountainbridge brewery.

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