On this day in history : 10th March 1769 – The birth of the eccentric businessman and philanthropist Joseph Williamson – best known for the construction of the Williamson Tunnels underneath Liverpool….

Image : SomeDriftwood via Flickr

Born in the West Riding of Yorkshire, Williamson was the son of a glassmaker…. While he was still very young his family moved to Warrington and then in 1780, at the age of 11 he went to work for Richard Tate at his tobacco and snuff company…. He worked hard and did well, working his way up through the business – eventually also starting his own venture with partner Joseph Leigh….

Richard Tate died in 1787, leaving the business to his son, Thomas Moss Tate…. Williamson married Richard’s daughter, Elizabeth, in 1802 – and the following year bought the Tate business from Thomas…. He was set to become a very, very wealthy man….

Joseph Williamson – Public domain

In 1805 he bought a large area of Edge Hill, Liverpool – a part known as Long Broom Hill, on Mason Street and moved into a mansion house there…. It was an underdeveloped part of Liverpool at the time, little more than a sandstone hill…. He began to build grand, elaborate houses, eccentric in style ‘of the strangest description’…. It is thought he wished to attract Liverpool’s wealthy to live in the area….

His construction project provided much needed employment…. Labour work was scarce at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, so the work he created would have been welcomed…. When the buildings were complete he turned his attention to transforming the land around them into gardens, involving structures of elaborate brick arches, as the ground at the back of the properties dropped sharply away…. In fact some of the work he created seemed to have very little point….Then at some stage he came up with the idea of a vast labyrinth of underground tunnels beneath the houses he had built…. A network of tunnels and chambers, some enormous in size, others much smaller, all beautifully constructed and brick-arched – at varying depths in the sandstone…. But nobody knew why he was building them….

Williamson retired from his business in 1818 and after Elizabeth’s death in 1822 he became even more eccentric and devoted most of his time to his tunnels…. He died at his home in Mason Street in 1840, aged 71…. He left no known descendants – and in his passing he took with him his reason for the tunnels – and so construction of them ceased…. Gradually they became forgotten; some were destroyed, being a nuisance for drainage and other underground works…. Most were filled in, chiefly with refuse and rubble from future development works….

However, in in 1989 the Joseph Williamson Society was formed and in the late 1990s excavation work began…. A proportion of Williamson’s Tunnels are now accessible, guided tours into what is know as the South Tunnel and the Double Tunnel are given and exhibits of artefacts found in the excavation are shown…. The discoveries have been extensive – bottles, plates, crockery, signs, pipes, even military equipment have all been found- dating to Georgian and Victorian times….

The full extent of the tunnels and vaults remaining to be discovered is still unknown, many are still blocked by rubble and are waiting to be unearthed…. One of the largest vaults to be found so far is the ‘Banqueting Hall’, which is around 80ft long and up to 27ft high – but waiting to be rediscovered is the ‘Great Tunnel’ – which is even larger…. The tunnels, which are now also a unique venue for live music and events, have become an important tourist attraction…. But still nobody knows what they were originally intended for….and there has been much speculation….

The ‘Banqueting Hall’, April 2019 – Kyle J May – own work CC BY-SA 4.0

Was Williamson trying to build an underground city? It was not long after the Napoleonic Wars – did he fear an invasion and wanted a safe place for the people of Liverpool? Or, on the same train of thought, could it have been a shelter in case of the Apocalypse? During these times predictions that ‘the end of the world is nigh’ were commonplace…. Many people remark that the tunnels have a ‘cathedral-like’ quality…. Perhaps this was his aim, to build an underground place of worship…. Or was he looking for buried treasure? Such as pirates’ hoards – or had he heard the tales of the Knights Templar passing through Liverpool on their way to Scotland? Was he looking for the Holy Grail? Maybe he was suffering from some kind of obsessive compulsive disorder….

Volunteers digging in a newly discovered section of tunnel, May 2019 – Image : CaptainBiscuitBread – own work – CC BY-SA 4.0

But perhaps the most plausible reason is that he was simply creating employment to help the local economy…. To give work to the poor, so they could earn a weekly wage, without feeling they were depending on charity and so retaining their self-respect…. Nearly half of the male working population in the area had some involvement in the construction of the tunnels at some time or other…. For many the new skills they learned helped them to find work in the new up and coming railway construction projects…. Perhaps Williamson’s Tunnels were just philanthropy at its best….

Tunneller – Own work – CC BY-SA 3.0

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