The Banqueting Hall chamber beneath Joseph Williamson's house.
|Location||Edge Hill, Liverpool|
|Restored by||Friends Of Williamson's Tunnels|
Joseph Williamson Society
The Williamson Tunnels are a series of extensive subterranean excavations, of unknown purpose, in the Edge Hill area of Liverpool, England. They were created under the direction of tobacco merchant, landowner and philanthropist Joseph Williamson between 1810 and 1840. Although popularly described as "tunnels", the majority comprise brick or stone vaulting over excavations in the underlying sandstone. The purpose of the works remains unclear and remains a subject of heavy speculation; suggestions include commercial quarrying, a philanthropic desire to provide employment, and Williamson's own eccentric interests.
They remained derelict, inaccessible and filled with rubble and spoil, until archaeological investigations were carried out in 1995. Since then volunteers have re-discovered and excavated an extensive network of tunnels across several sites, with sections open to the public. Guided tours are available at the Williamson Tunnels Heritage Centre and the Friends Of Williamson's Tunnels, and excavation continues as volunteers continue to uncover new sections.
- 1 History
- 2 Early investigations and archaeology
- 3 The Joseph Williamson Society and Heritage Centre
- 4 The Friends of Williamson's Tunnels (FoWT)
- 5 The tunnels
- 6 Purpose of the tunnels
- 7 References
- 8 Further reading
- 9 External links
In 1805, wealthy businessman Joseph Williamson acquired an area of land in Mason Street, Edge Hill, Liverpool, which was then a largely undeveloped outcrop of sandstone with a scattering of scars from small-scale quarrying. The land was held under a lease from the West Derby Waste Commissioners, who retained rights to the minerals under it. He started to build houses on the site.
According to the account of a 19th century Liverpool antiquarian, James Stonehouse, these houses were eccentric in design and "of the strangest description" without any rational plans. The ground behind the houses dropped sharply and in order to provide large gardens Williamson built arched terraces over which the gardens could be extended. When these were complete he continued to employ his workmen: according to Stonehouse this was sometimes to carry out apparently pointless tasks, such as moving rubble from one place to another, then back again. Williamson took on many more labourers, recruiting from among the poor and needy of the area, including soldiers left unemployed at the end of the Napoleonic War. The many buildings erected by Williamson included a large house in Mason Street occupied by himself and his wife.
Williamson's major project was to excavate an extensive series of brick-arched tunnels in various directions and depths within the sandstone to the limits of, and possibly beyond, the land owned by him. Stonehouse, who traversed parts of the tunnels in 1845, described the excavations as a labyrinth of "vaulted passages [...] pits deep, and yawning chasms", including a "fearful opening" beneath Grinfield Street with two "complete four-roomed houses" in the side of it connected by a spiral passage. This apparent tunnel-building activity continued until Williamson's death in 1840. In August 1867 the Liverpool Porcupine described the tunnels as being "a great nuisance" because drains ran straight into them, in one place creating a cess pool full of offensive water 15 feet (5 m) deep, and they were being used for dumping refuse, including down chutes built into the buildings above for the purpose. In the later 19th century the Corporation of Liverpool began backfilling the tunnels with rubble and other waste from building demolition, a process that sporadically continued into the 20th century. Little information about the excavations had been recorded and nearly all knowledge of them, and of Williamson's life, was derived from the writing of James Stonehouse. His account was not published at the time, but was referenced in his later works and was finally reprinted in full by Charles Hand as part of a 1916 article, "Joseph Williamson, the King of Edge Hill", published in the Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Historical Society.
Early investigations and archaeology
In 1881, the North Staffordshire Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers conducted a field trip to Liverpool during which they surveyed some of the surviving excavations, producing a plan and dog-leg section of the main parts of the site.
In the early 20th century soldiers from the West Lancashire Territorial Forces Association explored the tunnels. Their drill hall in Mason Street stood on top of one of the tunnels. In 1907 the Association produced a map of the tunnels, which was incomplete because many of them were filled with rubble. The map also showed the course of the London and North Western Railway cutting between Edge Hill and Lime Street stations which ran through the area of the Williamson tunnels. However, public interest in the tunnels waned through much of the 20th century and many of the sites were further buried or destroyed by new construction. However from the 1990s onwards there has been a steadily-increasing interest, leading to the formation of the two major societies and, eventually, excavation of tunnels across several sites. In 1995 a geology student from Liverpool University carried out a micro-gravity survey of the site. Some of his findings were ambiguous, perhaps due to rubble filling the tunnels. and not all of his findings seemed to corresponded with those of the Forces Association's 1907 map. Later that year a professional firm, Parkman, carried out a survey on behalf of the Joseph Williamson Society.
As interest in the tunnels grew, both societies eventually acquired the rights to begin digging, and over time a considerable portion of Williamson's legacy has been rediscovered and cleared of the last two centuries' accumulated spoil and rubble. In the course of excavation, a substantial amount of artefacts have been found - some dating back as far as the 1830s - including bottles, plates and other crockery, pipes, vintage signs, military items and other items, much of which was likely refuse dumped in the tunnels. Many of these finds have been cleaned and returned to display in the tunnels. It is now possible for members of the public to visit the tunnels on guided tours at several sites.
The Joseph Williamson Society and Heritage Centre
The Joseph Williamson Society was founded in 1989. It was incorporated as a private limited company in 1996 and acquired charitable status in 1997. Its aim is to promote interest in the life and philanthropic achievements of Joseph Williamson and takes the form of talks, tours, publications and educational visits. In autumn 2002, after much excavation, removal of rubble and renovation, one of the three sections of the site, the Stable Yard section, was opened to the public as the Williamson Tunnels Heritage Centre ( ) under the trusteeship of the Joseph Williamson Society. Visitors are taken on a guided tour which includes the south tunnel and the double tunnel and various artefacts are on view including some of the items which have been uncovered in the excavations. A programme of events and entertainments is organised on the site. The entry to the heritage centre was formerly part of the Lord Mayor's Stable Yard which closed in 1993. The stable became the home for a horse again when Pop arrived in 2003.
The Heritage Centre allows visitors to see a substantial section of the underground tunnels, including the impressive Double Tunnel. They are open Tuesday-Sunday during the summer months (Thursday-Sunday in Winter) with no advance booking required. The Centre is also used as a unique venue for live music and events, as well as being available for use as location for filming and training.
The Friends of Williamson's Tunnels (FoWT)
The Friends of Williamson's Tunnels (FoWT) is a registered charity and one of the largest local history societies in the UK, committed to exploring, excavating and preserving the tunnels. They currently offer free-of-charge guided tours to the general public across two sites, which led to them being presented with the 'Hidden Gem' award at Liverpool Tourism Awards 2019. It is a registered charity managed by a Board Of Trustees, with all excavation work, guided tours and other activities undertaken by volunteers.
FoWT's main base on Mason Street is the site of Joseph Williamson's house, largely demolished except for a section of the facade which remains standing. However, excavations there have uncovered an extensive portion of the site below ground level, as well as numerous tunnels branching off in various directions at different depths. Much of this has now been cleared and is accessible, though for the purposes of safety and insurance visitors must be registered FoWT members to access the house site. Beneath the basement area is a large chamber known as the Banqueting Hall. This area - now accessed via a narrow descending channel known as the Gash - gained its nickname from oft-repeated stories of Williamson holding lavish banquets for his most loyal friends, though it is highly unlikely the space was ever used for this purpose. As of the 2019 the Banqueting Hall has been completely cleared of spoil, but excavations continue in newly-discovered tunnels leading off from the main chamber.
A second section of tunnels is accessed from the Paddington site. The tunneling here has a small surface footprint and consists of a series of underground galleries on several levels, leading to a large vaulted chamber approximately 40ft high from floor to ceiling. The floor of this chamber, referred to as Level 4, is approximately 60ft below ground level. The chamber was cleared in 2016 after several years of excavation. Other suspected tunnels have been discovered branching away from the site, but are yet to be cleared as they would fall outside the current boundaries of the FoWT site. The general public can access this section of tunnels with free guided tours on Wednesdays and Sundays.
In The Media
The tunnels have gained popularity as a filming location for TV and film, alongside documentary features studying the tunnels and volunteers. Historian and broadcaster Dan Snow highlighted the tunnels in an episode of the History Hit podcast, recorded live on site. Australian actor Alan Fletcher photographed the tunnels for travel/photography show Photo Number 6. The group has featured in various news reports, including domestic TV channels like the BBC and ITV as well as film crews from across the globe.
Public visits to the site are free of charge, and run on Wednesdays and Sundays. These pre-booked tours, typically taking around an hour, start at the house site on Mason St and cover the Paddington tunnels. Tours below ground at the house site covering the Wine Bins, Banqueting Hall and other areas are for Trust members only, though membership can be taken out on the day. Membership allows a holder to volunteer for digging and other activities, visit all areas of the sites (where practical), and attend monthly meetings with free guest speakers.
The known tunnels are in an area to the east of the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral in a rectangle bordered by Mason Street, Grinfield Street, Smithdown Lane and Paddington. Their full extent is unknown and many are still blocked by rubble. They encompass a range of designs and sizes, from vast chambers to spaces inaccessible by an average human. The Banqueting Hall is around 60ft long and up to 27ft high, while the largest Paddington chamber is shorter but an impressive 40ft deep. Still larger excavations, such as the vaulted "Great Tunnel" seen by James Stonehouse and Charles Hand and noted on the Army surveys, have yet to be discovered.
Purpose of the tunnels
The purpose behind the building of these tunnels is a source of widespread speculation. According to Stonehouse's contemporary account, Williamson was secretive about his motives, leading to a great deal of speculative local folklore. Upon hearing that Stonehouse planned to publish his research on Williamson's excavations, Williamson's friend, the artist Cornelius Henderson, threatened to sue Stonehouse both for libel and trespass, leading to the paper's suppression for some years.
The most commonly related explanation is that they were a philanthropic endeavour: Williamson's own explanation was reputed to be that his workers "all received a weekly wage and were thus enabled to enjoy the blessing of charity without the attendant curse of stifled self respect", his prime motive being "the employment of the poor". Certain features of the tunnels appear to support this theory; there are many architectural features that seem unnecessarily decorative, hidden deep blow the ground in chambers that would likely have been dimly lit and rarely seen. By way of example, at the Mason Street site a beautifully-constructed stone arch was recently uncovered in an otherwise plainly-constructed side chamber, deep underground, with no obvious explanation for its purpose. These features could be interpreted as Williamson helping his employees improve their skills, and it's likely that the experience in tunneling would have helped many gain employment on the groundbreaking Liverpool and Manchester Railway in the 1830s.
Another suggestion was that he was a member of an extremist religious sect fearing that the end of the world was near and that the tunnels were built to provide refuge for himself and his friends: however there is no evidence for this interpretation, which originated with a casual suggestion made on a television programme, and Williamson was a practising member of the Church of England.
Stonehouse and Hand both felt the excavations were simply the largely purposeless folly of an eccentric man: however while Stonehouse called the works "stupendously useless", Hand concluded that Williamson's philanthropic purpose was a noble one and felt he "should have been both pleased and proud to have known him". Many of Williamson's workers were said to have later found employment in railway construction with the skills they had learned.
More recent research by academics at Edge Hill University has concluded that the 'tunnels' were in fact largely an effort by Williamson to restore ground levels after quarrying. Most of the excavations are directly within a band of high-quality sandstone, and show clear signs of having been carried out using established quarrying techniques designed to produce pieces of stone suitable for building use: in addition, the cross-sections of the works produced by the 1881 survey reveal a typical stone quarry profile. The apparently aimless nature of the excavations was likely a reflection of the work following the best "seam" of stone, avoiding imperfections and master joints. The tunnels had, therefore, originally been unregulated "slot quarries" for sandstone, used for prestige buildings in the rapidly-expanding Liverpool of the Georgian era, and by subsequently vaulting them over Williamson was able to restore ground levels, facilitating his extensive housing developments on the site.
While during Williamson's lifetime it was locally rumoured that he was earning large sums from quarrying, Williamson had apparently claimed that he made little money from the stone extraction and used it largely within his own properties. It seems possible that his secrecy was at least partly driven by a need to conceal his avoidance of both large amounts of income tax and mineral rights duties due to the West Derby Waste Commission from the sale of sandstone. Knowledge of the latter dealings may have been the reason behind Henderson's threat to sue James Stonehouse. Despite retiring from the tobacco trade in 1818, Williamson left an estate valued at £40,000 - the equivalent of around £40 million in 2013 - and it appears that a large proportion of this income must have come from his excavations and subsequent property development.
- Stonehouse, in Hand, C. R. (1916), 14
- Hand, C. R. ( 1928), 88. In the 20th century this house was numbered 44.
- Stonehouse, in Hand, C. R. (1916), 6
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- Moore 1998, p. 80.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Williamson Tunnels.|
- Official Site of the Williamson Tunnels Heritage Centre
- The Official Site of the Friends of Williamson's Tunnels (FoWT)
- and audio/headlines/37868742 Digging into Liverpool's mystery tunnels - BBC News Magazine report 2016 (video)
- Liverpool's Lost Williamson Tunnels Unearthed - BBC News Magazine report 2013 (video)