Twig Cottage

Postcard by WWG Newport - Living The Simple Life At Twig Cottage Bassaleg Road Newport
Postcard by WWC Newport - "Living The Simple Life At Twig Cottage Bassaleg Road Newport".

It seemed unlikely that we would ever know who the man in the picture was. But thanks to a visitor to the Newport Past Website, who also was intrigued by this photo, we now know his name and quite a bit about his life.

David Sexton, a local historian with an interest in the Rhiwderin, Bassaleg and Rogerstone areas, found a newspaper report from 1907 about "Twig Cottage" and it's resident on the website: WELSH NEWSPAPERS ONLINE.

We can now confidently say that the man pictured is John Wallace who was born in Youghal, Ireland in 1852. He moved to Newport when very young with his father, mother brother and sister, and lived in Canal Parade. At a young age he followed his father and worked as a labourer on the river wharfs. In 1877 he enlisted with the Royal Monmouthshire Engineers (Militia) - Regimental number:4617/5984 - and also enlisted in 1881 and 1885. Later, due to a shoulder injury, he was no longer able to work as a labourer (this may have been as a result of a fight with a professional boxer in 1887). He spent some time in Newport Workhouse before living rough as in the photo above. Later he continued to try to live by his own means sleeping in among other places a hay loft and brick kiln and spent some time in prison for vagrancy.

Below you will find transcripts of the original newspaper report and other documents we have found which have opened a window on John Wallace's life. Please note there was a misspelling of the name - it should have been "Wallace" not "Wallis".

The Weeky Mail     Saturday 23 February 1907



Just outside the borough of Newport, and within a stone's throw of the higher road to Bassaleg, there lives a “simple life” exponent of an extraordinary kind.

One may pass along the Bassaleg-road a hundred times and never see his house. The scavenging heap in the midst of which the dwelling is pitched is visible enough, but “Twig Cottage,” as John Wallis, its frugal occupier, calls it, is sheltered under the sloping embankment which not only hides it from the ken of the curious, but protects it from the north and the east winds.


The house, half a cave and half an erection, is on the Nantcoch Farm, which Mr. Charles D. Phillips, J.P., rents from Lord Tredegar. Knowing that Mr. Wallis was “at home” on Monday, a “Weekly Mail” representative was invited by Mr. Phillips to pay him a visit and see the wonders of the place. Taking the path from the road down the field adjoining the cemetery extension, one only gets a view of “Twig Cottage” after bearing Bassalegwards for a distance of 60 or 80 yards, and dipping into a hollow which the town scavenging refuse is apparently intended to fill. A fine assortment of old bottles neatly washed and placed out to dry and of a right angular line of drying clothes were the first signs of industry. Presently the little stove-pipe came into view, and then a toy flag which had been hoisted on a beanstick.


Flanking the field, one comes to the open door and beholds the wonderful habitation. Except for the little kennel outside the house and the crib for the cat, it is all contained in an area of something like 8ft. by 5ft. A look round shows that the place might not inaptly be described as an inverted coracle, except that it is one size larger than that usually carried on the backs of fishermen. More depth is obtained by delving into the earth for a distance of a foot or so. Otherwise the structure is not unlike those portable boats seen on the rivers of South Wales.

Wallis is a happy man. He is nearly 60, but does not look it. He has had a big battle with life, but has come out smiling, and is more content with his lot than ninety-nine people out of every hundred.

One must carefully bow one's head on entering at the door, and a spare seat or two may be found inside the cottage. Here ensconsed, the “Weekly Mail” representative elicited the story of the place where, rent free, rates free, taxes free, everything free, a happy man has dwelt for more than six months and has also given shelter to a “pal” down on his luck.

“Yes, I built the place all myself from the stuff I got out of the scavenging heap,” said Wallis. “Everything that is here except that little clock came off the scavenging carts.” He pointed to a little timepiece. “I call it ‘Twig Cottage' because it was built in the first place with twigs and bits of trees. Then I trenched it round and made it dry, and I covered the twigs over with as many tins and things like that and as much oilcloth and cocoanut matting as I could find. I lashed it with cord to stakes in the ground, and made it as secure as anything. It hasn't been hurt at all all this winter, and it's as dry and warm as anything can be.


“I got the idea from the time when I was in the Engineer Militia. I was in it for over eighteen years, and, of course, we were taught to make shelters when there was no other protection for ourselves. I am not quite a native of Newport, but I was brought here when I was only twelve months old by my parents, who left Youghal, in Ireland, when the famine was there so bad. I worked about the wharves, and I have done a lot of deal carrying. But I hurt my shoulder, and couldn't work at that sort of job. Last winter I was in the workhouse for twelve weeks, but I thought if I could scrape at all for myself I would rather do it than be beholden to the workhouse, and, you know, the poor-rates are very high. So, with the chap I give a shelter to - his name is George Williams – I left the workhouse, and I haven't been there since. Williams is out looking for a job now. If he doesn't get one he'll come back here and share this place with me.”

“How do you manage about food and clothes?”

“Oh, I get enough out of the tips. I sell bottles and old iron and things like that. I get threepence a dozen for some of the bottles, sixpence for others, and twopence a dozen for jars. I make a penny a pound for old zinc. I let a few poor old people come here sometimes to pick a few things, but the most of it comes to me. Then, when I am not working here I go out tubbing.”


“Tubbing! What's tubbing?”

“Well, you see this hook” (an iron bar 18in. long, with a hook on the end of it). “I go out to the ash-tubs before they are hove up on the carts, and search for what I can find, if I did not do that the boys who throw the tubs up or the fellows up in the carts would pick the best of the stuff, and I should only get the rough stuff that is brought there. But when I get the rough stuff out here, such as wet rags, I can do a bit with them. I wash them and put them out to dry. Well, I can make enough that way to get bread and cheese and tea and sugar, and a few scraps of meat sometimes, but, mind you, no luxuries - a bit of ‘bacca’ perhaps sometimes, but no beer – or maybe only half-a-pint once in a chance.”

“And what about fuel for your fire here?”

“Oh, I get enough for fire out of the scavenging. I made the stove myself out of a few bricks sunk in the ground, and for firebars I got some handles off buckets here on the tips, and here in the back I have got a couple of pokers I found here. I get plenty of boots. See this pair I have got on (pointing to a strong pair of quite respectable boots); well, I found them here. Of course, they weren’t like they are now. I bought two penn’orth of leather and a ha'p'orth of sprigs, and I fixed them up. But for a long time I had no boot-iron. I have got this fish hammer now that does nicely.”


“And did you find your kettle and boiler and teapot here as well?”

“Yes, everything. This teapot had been thrown away by somebody because it was cracked down the side, but I got some wire and mended it, and it is all right now. I found my knife and fork here in the tip, and, look here! here's a splendid, big table-knife - thrown away, I suppose, by some servant. I have got my salt-cup and my mustard-pot. Look at this mustard spoon - best electroplate. See that picture of General Buller there on that wall? I found that here, and I found the frame that it would fit afterwards.”

The Kitchen Range, "Twig Cottage" Bassaleg Road, Newport.

There were no chairs and no tables in the dining-room, but substitutes were provided by recessed places in the earth, covered, as was also the floor, with small strips of oilcloth, which searchings of the ash heaps had yielded.

“Where do you sleep?”

“Oh, I go upstairs to bed,” responded the simple life exponent, as he pointed to a recess half concealed with simple drapery. He drew aside the curtain and showed a cavity about 7ft. by 4ft., which sloped upwards from a couple of steps fashioned cut of Mother Earth at one corner of the dining-room. The ground or floor was thickly strewn with cardboard and oilcloth, upon which cocoanut matting had been spread. There was a good deal of ingenuity about it. By its formation the designer allowed Nature to do, perhaps, better than Art does for the more luxurious. The slope of the ground allows his head and shoulders to recline several inches above the level of the lower parts of the body.


“See the skylight?” as we looked at the sleeping apartment from the outside. He pointed to a round glass insertion in the roof about three inches in diameter. That's a dead-eye.”

“A 'dead-eye'? What's that?”

“Why the bottom of a bottle.”

“Are you healthy out here, as well as happy?”

“Yes,” he replied. “Never healthier. If I find any smell about - I did once, back in the summer - I fumigate the place. See this sulphur? (holding up a tin of sulphur). I set a light to some of this and fasten up the door and go away for a few hours. It's all right after that. I have my bath every Saturday night and put on a clean shirt. It's true I am getting a bit bad off for shirts just now.”

He showed quite a nice enamel bath, and also alluded to the canal being not far away.

Noticing that he was well-groomed, the question arose how he managed about shaving.

“Oh, I shave myself. I found a couple of good razors in the heaps. And I don't get much molested. I was given this little pup (calling to him a pretty little Welsh terrier) and this kitten, and they keep me company. If it's my last penny I buy a drop of milk for the cat. This bell I put on the cat's neck I found here in the rubbish.”


One parted from the frugal friend whom Mr. Phillips has no anxiety to disturb very much impressed with his story.

Further research:

The 1861 census lists John Wallace living in Canal Parade with his parents John and Ellen and brother and sister David and Bridget - all born in Youghal,Cork, Ireland. His age is given as 8, making his year of birth 1852/1853, and his age when the newspaper article was written around 54.

In 1871 (census data) he was still living with his mother and father in Canal Parade and working as a labourer.

In 1881 (census data) he was living with his father and mother-in-law in Dolphin Street and was a wharf labourer.

We have been unable to positively locate him in the 1891 and 1901 censuses.

His statement that he was "in the Engineer Militia" is confirmed by records we have located in The Regimental Archive of the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers (Militia) ( ) :

Wallace, John, Regimental number:4617/5984
Date of attestation: 1875-02-19
Place of attestation: Monmouth
Age at enlistment: 22 years 6 months
Occupation: Labourer
Address: 18 Canal Parade, Newport
Height at enlistment: 5 feet 7½ inches
Notes: Can read and write

Wallace, John, Regimental number:5984/7759
Date of attestation: 1881-02-19
Place of attestation: Monmouth
Age at enlistment: 28
Height at enlistment: 5 feet 6 inches

Wallace, John, Regimental number:8832
Date of attestation: 1885-03-30
Place of attestation: Monmouth
Age at enlistment: 32
Occupation: Labourer
Address: 28 Nelson Street Newport
Height at enlistment: 5 feet 7½ inches

A trawl through newspaper reports netted quite a few results, but many of these related to another John Wallace, from Risca, who it seems was heavily involved with poaching. However, the following report would seem to be 'our' John Wallace and may well explain how he hurt his shoulder:

Weekly Mail 24 Sept 1887
SERIOUS FIGHT AT NEWPORT. On Monday evening a fight took place in the street at Newport between a professional boxer named Dunbar, who has been giving exhibitions of the "noble art" in a booth there for some little while past, and a man named John Wallace, who is said to be a labourer. In the course of the struggle Wallace was heavily thrown and had his collar-bone fractured. Both men were taken into custody by the police, but subsequently Wallace was taken to the Workhouse Infirmary.

However, this is probably the saddest report we came across:

Weekly Mail, 15th October, 1910
FROM TWIG COTTAGE TO HAYRICK. John Wallace (61) and Joseph Robinson (19) were sent to prison at Newport on Monday for a month for vagrancy by sleeping in a hayrick belonging to Mr. Henry Duckham at The Gaer, on Saturday night. Wallace is the man who some years ago built on Mr. Charles D. Phillips's farm a little house for himself entirely out of twigs and rubbish. His place, which was called "Twig Cottage," was destroyed about eighteen months ago.

Finally, the last trace we have found of John Wallace alive is in the 1911 census. This showed him sleeping rough with 14 other men in a brick kiln Blaendare Brick Works, Pontypool. There are two death records for a John Wallace at Newport: 1919 and 1927. The 1927 one more closely reflected his age at that time.