On a very wet Saturday afternoon I ventured into Liverpool’s famous Williamson tunnels in the Edge Hill district of the city.
The Williamson Tunnels were built under the direction of a local businessman Joseph Williamson between 1805 and 1840. Williamson was a wealthy tobacco merchant.
The tunnels remained derelict, filled with centuries’ old rubble and refuse, until archaeological investigations and excavations were carried out in 1995. Since then part of the tunnel system has been opened to the public from the heritage centre in the Old Stable Yard on Smithdown Lane. The Williamson Tunnels Heritage Centre is owned and operated by the Joseph Williamson Society which is an independent charity that relies almost entirely on visitor income to maintain and develop the heritage centre.
Various reasons have been cited for the building of the tunnels. One theory is that Williamson was a member of religious sect fearing that the end of the world was nigh and that the tunnels were built to provide refuge for themselves and their families. However the most widely accepted view is that it was Williamson’s attempt to help the unemployed following the Crimean War as he stated 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”.
The tunnels are in the Edge Hill 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 not known and many of them are still blocked by rubble. They vary in size from the “banqueting hall”, which is about 70 feet (21 m) long and around 25 feet (8 m) wide and 20 feet (6 m) high whilst the lesser tunnels are as small as 4 feet (1 m) wide and 6 feet (2 m) high.
In 1805 Joseph Williamson acquired the land in Mason Street in Edge Hill. It was then on the edge of the city and was a largely undeveloped outcrop of sandstone with a scattering of small-scale quarrying. He started to build houses on the site from around this time. The houses were an eccentric design and built without any detailed plans. The ground behind the houses dropped sharply and in order to provide the large gardens that were the fashion of the time, Williamson built arches over the quarrying on which the gardens could be extended. When these were complete he continued to employ his workmen, sometimes to carry out apparently pointless tasks, such as moving rubble from one place to another, then back again. His major project was to build the labyrinth of brick-arched tunnels in various directions and over various lengths within the Edge Hill sandstone. This tunnel-building continued until Williamson’s death in 1840.
However by August 1867 the ‘Liverpool Porcupine’ newspaper 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 deep. They were also used for dumping refuse and remained derelict for many years. The houses have long since gone and the light industry sites in the area are derelict.
The Williamson Tunnels Heritage Centre opened in 2002 and has been visited by over 100,000 visitors. Visitors to the Heritage Centre are able to take a guided tour through a section of the network of tunnels and view exhibits and displays which depict the life and times of one of Liverpool’s most eccentric characters.