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The Mole of Edge Hill

Williamson  Tunnels

The Mole of Edge Hill

The Williamson Tunnels consist of a labyrinth of tunnels in the Edge Hill area of Liverpool, which were built under the direction of the eccentric businessman Joseph Williamson.

For many years it was thought that Joseph Williamson was born in Warrington, However, research by staff and volunteers of the Williamson Tunnels Heritage Centre has shown that he was born in Yorkshire and that his father was a glassmaker in a small village near Barnsley and that his family moved to Warrington. In 1780,

Williamson was later to be employed in the tobacco and snuff business of Richard Tate.  He gained promotion within the business and also developed his own merchant's business in partnership with Joseph Leigh. In 1787 Richard Tate died and control of the business passed to his son, Thomas Moss Tate. Williamson married Thomas' sister, Elizabeth, in 1802. The following year Williamson purchased the business from Thomas Moss Tate and from this, together with his other business enterprises, he amassed a considerable fortune.

In 1805 Williamson bought an area known as the Long Broom Field on, Edge Hill, which was a largely undeveloped outcrop of sandstone and around this time moved into a house on Mason Street.  He then began to build more houses which appeared not to have been built to any specific plans. The land behind the houses dropped sharply for about 20 feet.  As it was fashionable at the time to have large gardens and often orchards behind them, he built brick arches onto which the gardens could be extended. Following this he continued to employ his workmen, and recruited more, to perform tasks, some of which appeared to be useless, such as moving materials from one place to another and then back again. He also used the men to build a labyrinth of underground halls and brick-arched tunnels.  Labour was plentiful at the time and with the ending of the Napoleonic wars in 1816, there were even more unemployed men in Liverpool. The tunnels were built at depths between 10 feet and 50 feet and they stretched for several miles. Between the early 19th century and 1840 they remained derelict, filled with rubble and refuse, until archaeological investigations were carried out in 1995. Since then excavations have been carried out and part of the labyrinth of tunnels has been opened to the public as a heritage centre.

Plates, some of the large numbers of items found as a result of the tunnels 
being used as a Victorian rubbish tip after Williamson's death in the Williamson's Tunnels

Previously unknown Williamson tunnels have been unearthed during archaeological work at the old Stable Yard site on Smithdown Lane. Also uncovered were foundations and cellar structures of the old Stable Yard buildings which were unfortunately demolished in 2001.

Volunteers  removed tonnes of soil, rubble and 160 years of
rubbish out of the tunnels
Joseph Williamson

Between 1805 and his death in 1840, Williamson employed thousands of men digging out a network underneath land that he owned in Edge Hill. It seems to have started logically enough - a few cellars and ground level arches behind the mansions that he was building so that the back gardens could be extended despite the sloping terrain. But while these constructions had a purpose, the next are a puzzle. Williamson set his gangs of men burrowing in all directions but most of the tunnels lead nowhere. Some just come to an abrupt halt, others intersect another part of the labyrinth. There are even tunnels within tunnels.

The lack of documentary evidence has prompted endless speculation about why the tunnels were built. One popular theory is that he was pricked by social conscience. In the early 19th century, men who had been fighting the Napoleonic wars were flooding back to Britain - and were in need of jobs.

Williamson, it is said, responded to the poverty around him by creating work, whether it really needed doing or not. Another story puts the tycoon as a member of an extreme religious sect that believed that Armageddon was on the way. The tunnels therefore were a place of sanctuary for Williamson and for fellow believers to flee to and emerge from to start a new city once God had wreaked his vengeance on the world. A more prosaic image is of a man obsessed by his project, who, when his wife died in 1822, withdrew ever deeper into his subterranean empire, even building living rooms and a banqueting hall down there.

The Williamson Tunnels Heritage Centre is owned and operated by the Joseph Williamson Society. Opened in 2002 the Williamson Tunnels Heritage Centre has welcomed more than 100,000 visitors into the fascinating underground world created beneath the streets of the Edge Hill district of Liverpool. Visitors to the Williamson Tunnels Heritage Centre can 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.

You can find more information about the Heritage Centre by visiting their website below

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