The Wizards Of Wood Street

By Don Macivor

During the 1930s the Pontycymmer Refuse Dump, was more commonly known as ‘The Ash Tip.’ This was located just below Park St, and the Bowling Green & Tennis club. All kinds of refuse was dumped there daily, but it was mainly ashes from all the coal fires in use at the time, people were poor and lived frugally, but few were as penniless as the widowers Mr. Herne and Mr. Rosser who were a couple of unemployed, disabled fathers with children to feed.

Mr. Herne was a deaf, short, powerful man, who limped along on one leg having ‘lost’ the other one in a mining accident. His companion, Mr. Rosser, was a thin, delicate man who suffered from breathing problems, probably due to ‘dust’ disease, a common affliction among Miners

The 1930s were tough times for many people, but these two men made the most of their time, supplementing the pittance they received for their disabilities by unofficially scavenging on the ‘Ash tip.’ by day, and seeking solace at night in the local pubs. Mr. Rosser was a very dapper man, elegant almost on his nights out. Mr. Herne however was always very scruffily turned out, never losing his rough & ready demeanour.

In the absence of full-time employment, Mr. Herne & Mr. Rosser became self-appointed ‘pickers’ on the Council Refuse Tip. There was always a ‘Council’ presence on the tip, workers & lorries were constantly coming and going dumping bring fresh ashes, and burying putrid and dangerous items, broken bottles, rusty tin cans, dead animals on occasion etc.

So. after the initial dumping, but before the waste was buried Herne & Rosser had first pick of whatever was there, any useful items that they could use or sell on. This was the way they funded their daily expenses and hopefully their nightly drinking sessions.

Both ‘pickers’ worked throughout the day but always ensured that their children went to school before setting of for ‘work.’ They carried sacks that held the best of their daily gleanings, after all it was only rubbish that someone else had discarded nevertheless this is what sustained them and their families in those tough times when financial support from the ‘State’ was even more grudgingly given than it is today. Their children were not fashionably clothed by their father’s findings, but they were always warmly dressed, clean. and well shod. Being warm & dry in those days was luxury indeed.

I used to spend hours in Wood St, which was far more interesting than Park St where I lived. I never realised what a fascinating pair Herne& Rosser were until one day I went to call on Billy Rosser, and on entering the dark and smokey house saw both men engaged in polishing something, I had only the briefest glimpse into that mysterious interior and the men looked as if they were doing something nefarious like forging documents or, even banknotes? My imagination was running wild.

It was a long time before I called for Billy again, It was Christmas and my friend Mervyn Williams, whose Mother had made ‘something’ for Mr. Rosser, who had been ill, we knocked on the door and Billy opened it and invited us into the house. Well what had once looked to me like a Robbers Den., now looked like Alladin’s cave., the living room was suffused in the pale glow of an oil lamp, and all around there were pockets of brightness lit by flickering candles that made the place gleam as if it was decorated with twinkling gems.

Sitting in one corner was a very pale looking Mr. Rosser, having a hard time breathing, but plucking a tune on an old Banjo, he ignored us but continued to play. Mervyn and I looked around the room and saw all kinds of brightly polished tin-work, there were a couple of shelves of brightly coloured Victorian glass which was sparkling in the candlelight. There was a leather belt fixed to the wall it was full of polished regimental badges, old framed sketches and prints were on the walls. The largest of these was a full size framed print of The Monarch Of The Glen. I could scarce believe my eyes when I realised all this had been found on the Ash tip, truly rubbish transformed into beauty.

Everything was new to me, I was stunned at the sheer mystery of the place which I absorbed without thinking what I was seeing. I was even unaware of time passing in this wonderfully warm place that exuded the whole the spirit of Christmas. Then, I heard Mervyn’s voice say “Come on Don, It’s time to go,” I was as if it was all a dream, as we stepped outside into a harsh Winters evening, with the lights and smells of the Ffaldau Coke Ovens below us.

Over time it gradually occurred to me, that Herne & Rosser, poverty stricken, maimed and surviving on what had been discarded by others, had carved out a personal haven in a hostile environment. If I had seen those damaged strips of rusty tin and broken glass I would have ignored it all. But these old men had gathered it all up cleaned it, and sold it on for profit, creating beauty out of what they could not make money on. Out of it all they made a Christmas for themselves and the memory of my visit to Billy Rosser’s home is a constant gift to me.


For all the daily misery suffered by this odd pair of widowers as they picked through piles of rubbish, they brought up their motherless boys. There was always something magical about that house in Wood St, they may have been regarded by some as ‘layabouts’ this pair of dispossessed outsiders but they lived remarkably secret lives. Mr. Herne had two sons Freddy, who became a Sergeant Cook in the Welsh Guards, and Bonny the youngest went on to serve in the Merchant Navy.

Mr Rosser was less fortunate with his son Billy who was born with a cleft palate. He had a serious speech defect, which in turn made him prone to angry outbursts of frustration. He was sent to Hensol Castle for treatment, becoming a Groundsman there eventually.

Mr. Herne and Mr. Rosser, worked too hard to be ‘bums’, they lacked the sanctimonious aura of saints but to me they displayed the mystery of Wizard’s, and that is how I like to remember them, my own personal ‘Merlin’s.’

One comment Add yours
  1. What an interesting topic! Having access to the 1921 census which not only gives occupations but employers details as well; I came across one family member living in Pontycmmer who was listed as a “driver of a scavenging cart for the Ogmore & Garw UDC.” Early corporate recycling project?

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