The Mole of Edge Hill
Beneath the streets of Edge Hill in Liverpool exist an extensive network of tunnels. This labyrinth was constructed by one Joseph Williamson who has come to be known as ‘The Mole of Edge Hill’.
Little is known of Williamson’s early life. He is thought to have been born in Warrington in 1769 and moved to Liverpool at about 11 years of age to seek his fortune. He found work with the tobacco firm of Richard Tate and having risen through the ranks, and become a successful businessman in his own right, married the boss’s daughter, Elizabeth, in 1802.
Around 1805 he built a number of properties in Mason Street, the gardens and orchards behind them supported by brick arches on the sandstone outcrop above Smithdown Lane.
He then turned his attention to extending these arches underground – an endeavour which continued until his death in 1840. Quite why he did this is unclear.
The favoured explanation is that it was a philanthropic act. Struck by the unemployment and poverty of those living in the area, in particular that experienced by the returning soldiers from the Napoleonic Wars, he sought to improve their plight by providing them with paid employment rather than charity.
A competing explanation is that Williamson, a deeply religious man, became involved with one of the extremist religious sects, common in Liverpool at the time, and constructed the labyrinth as a place in which he and his fellow believers could escape Armageddon.
Or, it may be quite simply that following the death of his wife, Elizabeth, he became obsessed with the tunnelling as it provided him with some kind of solace.
Williamson’s true motives for constructing the underground folly are presently unclear but the historical research and restoration of the tunnels being conducted by the ‘Joseph Williamson Society’ and ‘Friends of Williamson’s Tunnels’ may shed more light upon the mystery surrounding the man and his dark subterranean kingdom.
BBC News (2002), The enigma of Liverpool’s labyrinth
Friends of Williamson’s Tunnels (2002), The Story
Good post but there are a few points i'd like to clear up.
* He may not have been born in Warrington, if you look at http://www.williamsontunnels.co.uk/view.php?page=news there appears to be a distinct possibility emerging that Joseph Williamson was born in Yorkshire somewhere, although I can't see any specific details but i'm sure they will be released (maybe Cadfael can help?)
* I can't find any actual support for the idea that he built them as a hiding place from Armageddon. In fact it seems that Williamson was a pretty straight down-the-line Christian, reguarly attending a CofE church and even builidng one himself (St Judes, see: http://www.williamsontunnels.com/art...tsandstone.htm). I think this Armageddon idea is probably a fairly recent idea as non of the main Liverpool sources mention it (Stonehouse and Hand I think) and it only seems to crop up in press-releases (maybe to capitalise on the Da Vinci Code mythology thing?).
The council lost the plot over these tunnels years ago. They have always been known about yet nothing has ever been done in reality.
Had they been cleared out years ago, they would be an amazing and historic tourist attraction.
They are a tourist attraction aren't they?
They have the heritage centre open:
http://www.williamsontunnels.co.uk - where you can get a guided tour of the tunnels.
I've been there and it's a two min walk around two large tunnels - you don't actually go 'underground' as you are on the level with Smithdown Lane.
From the website, it would appear that the whole of Edge Hill is littered with em, not just the two that are open to the public at the moment.
I beg to differ, I too have been there and I was given a 40 minute guided tour, although there are a only a few tunnels open I saw that there were clearly efforts going on to clear more out, I saw the guys down there digging hard to open up more tunnels. To say that it isn't much is clearly doing all the diggers and volunteers a great disservice. I know there are a number of people on here who are deeply involved in Williamsons Tunnels and your rubbishing their hard work might not be taken well.
As for the underground bit... you were actually underground as Edge-Hill (as the name suggests) is a hill. If you walk into the side of a hill you are effectively underground.
Also as it is a tourist attraction it has to be relatively accessable to many people, I can't see families with old and young people really wanting to climb down ladders and things.
I've been a member of the Friends of Williamson Tunnels and i've been on their members visits, whilst they were really interesting they did involve climbing down steep ladders and over bits of broken pottery, glass, builidng rubble and generally all the junk that has filled these tunnels up over the years. I doubt health and safety would allow people to go down there as a general tourist attraction - thats why they have the 'special' members visits with all the first aiders and guides there.
Oh I'm not having a pop at the people that run the tunnels, without the two groups, we would have very little information to go on these days. I tip my hat to both societies and their digging (for free).
What I am saying is that if the Council wanted to open these tunnels up, they could probably do so in under a year and make an excellent attraction.
It seems that the two societies are the only groups involved - very good luck to them - but the Council would have all the money/skills and know how to open them all up in an instant, but haven't bothered.
Ah I see. I agree with what you're broadly saying. It'd be nice if a decent amount of help was put forward from some official body, it seems to me that there are a lot of people interested in Joseph Williamson but so little in the way of finance.
The fact that there are two societies involved sort of proves how important this is to some people.
I've just been browsing the net to look for some Edge Hill related material and found a site on the Stable Yard to do with Joseph Williamson:
I am surprised to see that no fewer than 5 threads now relate to the Joseph Williamson tunnels - use the search engine on this site and type in Williamson tunnels. They need merging as it seems previously mentioned items of interest have been overlooked in the recent discussion.
I do believe that that smithdownlane website may be something to do with our very own Cadfael, nice pics too.
There is a lot of fascinating material about Williamson in chapters 9 and 10 of 'Recollections of Old Liverpool by a Nonegenarian' (1863) which may be read and downloaded here-
Recollections of Old Liverpool
I just had a peep at 'Recollections of Old Liverpool by a Nonegenarian' following on from reading about the Lord Mayor's stables near Williamson's Tunnels -What a fabulous read!!! Well done for finding this one! Sometimes I wish I could travel back in time and see it all for myself..Is this age do you think?
Movie stardom beckons for Williamson Tunnels
May 30 2008
by Laura Sharpe, Liverpool Daily Post
LIVERPOOL’S underground tunnels might star in a Hollywood movie of the best-selling children’s book they inspired.
The underground world of the Williamson Tunnels in Edge Hill inspired a Liverpool author to co-write Tunnels.
Published in 2007 to critical acclaim, the book follows 14-year-old Will Burrows, who discovers a hidden underground community as he hunts for his missing father.
And yesterday, authors Brian Williams, who grew up in Edge Hill, and Roderick Gordon returned to the tunnels to recce the site for the movie.
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