The Mystery of the Williamson Tunnels
Beneath the Edge Hill neighborhood in east-central Liverpool lies a sprawling network of arching bricked tunnels that lead nowhere and serve no obvious purpose. They are known as the Williamson Tunnels, in honor of their financial sponsor Joseph Williamson, a prosperous 19th century merchant and developer who spent the final 30 years of his life overseeing this ambitious creative project.
Forgotten and neglected for 150 years after Mr. Williamson’s death in 1840, the tunnels have now been cleaned, cleared, and resurrected. They are quickly emerging as one of Liverpool’s top tourist attractions.
Joseph Williamson was never forthcoming about the reasons why he built his tunnels. He left no diaries or written correspondence explaining himself, and his final will and testament contained no instructions for how the tunnels might be used.
Williamson’s pet project seemed to emerge organically from his activities as a builder and designer of new homes and gardens in the Edge Hill area. But he never explained to anyone (or at least, anyone who talked) why he chose to extend his architectural endeavors in a downward direction.
The Life and Times of Joseph Williamson
Little Joe Williamson left home at a young age to look for work on the docks of Liverpool. He was soon hired by Richard Tate, the owner of a successful tobacco import business.
Previously, it had been reported that Williamson migrated to Liverpool because his family was poor and couldn’t afford to raise him. But later research discovered a connection between the Williamson and Tate families.
In the late 18th century, the Tate family ran a large glassworks in Gawber, an area in Barnsley in South Yorkshire, where Richard Tate worked as a glassmaker alongside Joseph Williamson’s father and uncle. Seeking to make it on his own, Tate eventually moved to Liverpool and found fame and fortune in the tobacco importing business. When little Joe Williamson left for the big city, it seems likely that some type of arrangement had already been made to ensure he would be employed and watched over by Mr. Tate.
In any event, Joseph Williamson achieved great success with the Tate tobacco company. He solidified his standing in the business—and in the Tate family—when he married Richard Tate’s daughter Elizabeth in 1802, when he was 33. Shortly thereafter Williamson purchased the controlling interest in the tobacco company, which he combined with his own separate business interests to form one of Liverpool’s more prosperous conglomerates.
Joseph Williamson, creator of the Williamson Tunnels. (Peter I. Vardy / Public Domain)
To celebrate their success, Joseph and Elizabeth moved to a mansion in Liverpool’s pricey Edge Hill neighborhood in 1805. At this time Edge Hill was still sparsely populated and Williamson saw an opportunity to increase his wealth through land speculation and real estate development. He bought numerous Edge Hill lots, where he constructed elaborate homes with extensive gardens to attract more well-heeled Liverpudlians to the area.
At some point, for reasons that remain obscure, Williamson decided to add an underground dimension to his land development projects. He hired scores of diggers, bricklayers, carpenters, and various support staff to construct a vast network of soaring arched tunnels directly below the new houses that he had commissioned.
Why Williamson’s thoughts turned in this direction is anyone’s guess. But once they did his interest in burrowing into the bowels of the earth became an unquenchable obsession.
For three decades he continued to fund this project, building tunnels that branched off in every direction, his efforts terminated only by his death in 1840. To this day, no one knows how far the Williamson Tunnels extend, or how far Williamson would have extended them if he’d lived a few more years.
Williamson Tunnels: Theories and Speculation
There has been much speculation about why Joseph Williamson chose to invest a substantial portion of his personal fortune into an ever-expanding tunnel project. No one knows for sure what motivated his efforts, since he never made any public declarations to explain himself. But that hasn’t stopped people from trying to figure it out on their own.
Here are some of the theories that have been put forward.
The Williamson Tunnels Were Built as a Shelter in Anticipation of the End Times
The United Kingdom at the turn of the 18th century was a hotbed of religious fervor, which created fertile ground for millenarian or apocalyptic cults. Often inspired by a literal interpretation of the Book of Revelations, these sects frequently predicted that the End Times were right around the corner. They planned strategies to survive the earthquakes, fires, floods, and cosmic thunderbolts that would soon turn the earth to ashes.
Were the Williamson Tunnels built for the End Times? (Friends of Williamson’s Tunnels / Facebook)
Williamson regularly attended services at St. Thomas Church in Liverpool, openly observing the traditional Church of England faith. But he could have secretly belonged to a millenarian sect, some have asserted, while choosing to keep that hidden to protect his reputation as a hard-headed businessman.
Or, he may have simply believed that the End Times might come soon and that it made sense to be cautious. Either way, Williamson may have been attempting to create an underground safe haven where friends, family members, and fellow believers could hunker down while all hell was breaking loose on the surface.
The Tunnel Project was Williamson’s Personal Economic Stimulus Package
Williamson once boasted to an observer that his tunnel was responsible for putting more people in Liverpool to work than any other business. And indeed, nearly half of all able-bodied males in the Edge Hill area were involved in the construction of the Williamson Tunnels at some point. This highlights how much the project helped stimulate the local economy that struggled to find employment for everyone, following the recession England experienced after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1816.
Given the lack of any obvious purpose for the tunnels, some have theorized that helping the local economy was Williamson’s ultimate motivation. Perhaps Williamson was truly interested in creating underground spaces for some practical reason at first but continued to spend money on the project when he realized the positive benefits workers were enjoying because of his profligate spending.
The Tunnels Were a Reflection of Williamson’s Obsessive-Compulsive Personality
There was no such thing as an obsessive-compulsive disorder diagnosis in the early 19th century. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist and who’s to say Williamson didn’t have it.
Men and women with obsessive-compulsive disorder have an uncontrollable need to repeat certain actions over and over again, no matter how illogical or pointless their activities might seem to others. Williamson’s relentless tunnel construction could fit the definition of such behavior, especially given his lack of clear statements about what the tunnels were actually for.
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Were the Williamson Tunnels a reflection of Williamson’s obsessive-compulsive personality? (Friends of Williamson’s Tunnels / Facebook)
One characteristic of obsessive-compulsive behavior is its capacity to be triggered by stressful circumstances. Joseph Williamson’s tunnel building seemed to pick up steam after his wife Elizabeth passed away in 1822, and his absorption in this project could have been a coping mechanism that helped him deal with the pain and sense of loss.
Williamson Was Aiming to Build His Own Underground City
Civilizations have been building underground cities since antiquity. Countries that faced frequent invasion would often construct settlements beneath the surface of the earth, as a way to hide from foreign conquerors.
At the time Williamson began his tunnels, the United Kingdom was still embroiled in the Napoleonic Wars. Looking into the future, perhaps Williamson feared an outside invasion, if not from France then from some other conquering power. If he was worried about the sanctity and safety of Liverpool, he might have wanted to create a vast underground space that could be occupied for an extended period of time in case of an emergency.
The Williamson Tunnels could have served as an unground city. (Cheekablue / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Alternatively, Williamson may have wanted to build his own underground city simply because he thought it was an exciting thing to do. The continuous nature of the project would have been necessary to scale up his tunnel system to the proper size, if his underground city were someday to be home to thousands of people.
Joseph Williamson Was Looking for Hidden Caches or Buried Treasure
This of course is pure speculation. But what if Williamson had some reason to believe there was treasure hidden somewhere beneath the city of Liverpool?
As a seaport Liverpool could have been visited by pirates looking for a place to stash their loot at some time in the past. Somehow, Williamson may have come into possession of a map that revealed the presence of such a bounty somewhere beneath the surface of Edge Hill.
Or, perhaps Williamson heard rumors that the Knights Templar had stopped by Liverpool on their way to Scotland and buried their treasure there, and not beneath Rossyln Chapel as has been previously postulated by various writers and researchers (most famously by Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code). It’s also possible that Williamson was searching for artifacts left by the Romans or the Celts in more ancient times.
Such notions may seem fanciful. But to an apparently obsessed eccentric like Williamson, a single whispered rumor or clandestine discovery might have been enough to set him off, frantically and without any apparent aim or purpose.
Williamson Built the Tunnels as a Shrine to God
People who have visited the Williamson Tunnels frequently comment on its cathedral-like atmosphere. Like other religious iconography, the tunnels were clearly constructed with great care and with an eye on architectural precision and detail, which has led some to suggest they were intended to be used for sacred ceremonies or holy observances.
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Massive stone archways in the Williamson Tunnels. Credit: Friends of Williamson’s Tunnels
Holders of this theory note that Williamson was deeply religious, that he attended services every Sunday and was both married and buried at St. Thomas Church in Liverpool. In contrast to those who suspect Williamson secretly belonged to an millenarian cult, proponents of the shrine hypothesis assume his overt religious practices were sincere and heartfelt and not a cover for something more apocalyptic.
They see his grand underground construction project as a natural outgrowth of his desire to leave something profound and inspiring behind, to create a space for contemplation where visitors could feel closer to God and the creative energies of the universe.
Williamson Tunnels Rediscovery and Redevelopment
After Joseph Williamson died, work on the Williamson Tunnels was discontinued. Over the decades, some of his tunnels were destroyed while many more were filled in with discarded materials from old buildings that were torn down to make way for new construction projects. Development in Edge Hill proceeded at an impressive clip in the 19th and 20th centuries, converting the Williamson Tunnels into an anachronism.
But while historical memory may be repressed, it never really dies. In the late 20th century, there was a renewed interest in the tunnels—they were now perceived as a unique architectural achievement that represented a colorful chapter in Liverpool’s history, which made them worthy of respect and salvation.
Initial explorations of the tunnels began in 1995, when a local geology student launched an archaeological dig to discover what might be hidden beneath the detritus and rubble. Eventually, responsibility for excavation work was taken over by the Joseph Williamson Society, which was formed to publicize and rehabilitate this neglected architectural marvel. The society hired a surveying company, called Parkman, to clear out as many tunnels as could be found, starting a process that has continued to the present day.
FoWT volunteers digging in a newly-discovered section of the Williamson Tunnels, May 2019. (CaptainBiscuitbeard / CC BY-SA 4.0)
So far, about 5,000 tons of debris have been removed from the tunnel. During these excavations a bounty of material goods and artifacts have been removed, dated from the time of tunnel construction in some cases and revealing the remains of old, destroyed buildings that were dumped in the tunnels in other cases. Items found have included a vast assortment of bottles, jars, bowls, clay pipes, bed warmers, chamber pots, ceramic dolls, children’s toys, and other intriguing objects dating from the Georgian and Victorian ages.
Artifacts such as a vast assortment of bottles have been excavated from the Williamson Tunnels. (Cheekablue / CC BY-SA 2.0)
As excavations have continued so have efforts at restoration. A 984 foot (300 meter) square section of underground space containing many branches of the Williamson Tunnels is now open to visitors, thanks to the efforts of the Friends of the Williamson Tunnels and the Joseph Williamson Society to keep them clean and well-maintained and safe to explore. Haunted tours in search of ghosts are sometimes organized on weekend nights, although tourists are welcome to search for spirits anytime they choose to visit.
Visitors to the Williamson Tunnels have reported odd odors, strange shadows, and even a mysterious man in a long coat who will follow along on tours only to inexplicably vanish at the end. Could this be the spirit of Joseph Williamson himself, prowling through the tunnels he dedicated so many years of his life to building?
Whether Williamson is still around or not, after more than 150 years his amazing creation is finally receiving the attention it deserves. The Williamson Tunnels are a testament to what can be accomplished when human beings follow their dreams and visions, no matter how impenetrable or obscure they might appear to others. There is a certain majesty in such an uninhibited approach to living, and the soaring majesty of Joe Williamson’s Tunnels is what accounts for their rising popularity as a must-see tourist destination.
Top image: The 'banqueting hall' chamber beneath Joseph Williamson's house, excavated by Friends Of The Williamson's Tunnels. Credit: Friends of Williamson’s Tunnels.
By Nathan Falde
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