The Underground Empire of Joseph Williamson
First published in Strange Attractor Journal volume three
Second as self published pamphlet to accompany the release of 800 Years of Haunted Liverpool
Third in Darklore volume four
The Underground Empire of Joseph Williamson (abridged)
“I speak of Williamson’s works from an intimate acquaintance with them during my early days. As a lad I, with a number of companions, made them the object of an almost regular Saturday afternoon expedition. Tied together, in single file, and carrying as many lighted candles as we could get, […] we traversed these strange and wonderful passages, literally in ‘fear and trembling,’ afraid yet fascinated by the eeriness of it all, dreading we knew not what, yet going on.”
Mr. Charles R. Hand wrote these words in 1926 for an article, which he read to his fellow members of the Historical Society of Lancashire and Cheshire. The essay was entitled Joseph Williamson – The King of Edge Hill.
The name of Williamson – sometimes known as the Mole of Edge Hill, occasionally the King – is inextricably linked with the history of Liverpool and yet most people seem to know little about the man and his works. There was a time not so long ago that my own knowledge on the subject stretched no further than the fact that there were some tunnels somewhere in Liverpool and that there was a pub on Wavertree Road called The Mole of Edge Hill. Williamson’s story is a fascinating one, and in a very literal sense the city of Liverpool is built upon his life’s work.
Joseph Williamson was born in Warrington on the 10th of March 1769. Little is known of his home life there but it is said that at the age of eleven he was sent to the then thriving city of Liverpool to seek his fortune. Williamson found employment at a tobacco and snuff factory on Parr street owned by the Tate family. Joseph was a hard worker with a head for business and, working his way up through the company, he gained the respect of his employers. So much so that in 1802 he married Elizabeth Tate, the sister of the firm’s owner. The following year ownership of the factory passed to Williamson. Some say that he bought the business with money that he had accumulated through other ventures whilst others claim that he inherited the firm. Soon after, Williamson purchased land and began to build houses on Mason Street in the Edge Hill district of Liverpool. Because these houses backed onto an almost sheer drop, Williamson had huge arches constructed behind each to provide his tenants with room enough for rear gardens. Joseph’s own abode was number 14 Mason Street and it was beneath his home that the first of his tunnels began. Williamson, it seems, enjoyed spending time underground; it is said that his cellar served as his sitting room and his bedroom was described as a “cave”. The tunnel beneath his residence was eventually to provide direct routes for Williamson to his local church and his favourite pub, amongst other choice locations. Soon, Joseph set men to work digging and constructing tunnels beneath the arches at the rear of his other Mason Street properties. It is completely unknown how and why Williamson developed his subterranean fascination and for what exact purpose these excavations where intended, but their construction was to obsess him for the rest of his life. Eventually, a great network of single, double and even triple layered tunnels filled with complex archways and mysterious dead ends was to riddle the ground beneath central Liverpool. Williamson even went so far as to have two full sized houses –complete with sandstone spiral staircases – carved out of the solid rock. These dwellings now lie tragically neglected and inaccessible, deep beneath the foundations of a modern tower block. Unreachable as the subterranean houses may be, their location is at least recorded unlike much of Williamson’s work which remains largely uncharted.
In 1818 Joseph retired and sold his business, devoting all of his time and effort to the construction of his labyrinth. It was a time of great poverty and mass unemployment, many men having recently returned home from the Napoleonic War to find their old jobs gone. It is estimated that Williamson employed over half the able bodied labouring population of Edge Hill, providing work and training for men who would otherwise have been living in abject poverty. Indeed, it is now generally accepted that philanthropy was the motivation for the construction of the tunnels; old Joseph giving something back to the community and to the working class from which he came. Work on the tunnels did not cease until 1840 when Joseph Williamson died at the age of seventy-one. The maze’s entrances were sealed soon after.
The mythology surrounding Williamson’s abandoned tunnels grew exponentially and in 1906 – a mere sixty six years after Joseph’s death – local newspaper the Liverpool Porcupine reported that “some three hundred years ago a rich nobleman spent a fortune in making the excavations, but with what object in view we are unable to learn!”. Rumour spread that the catacombs were haunted or that huge populations of spiders and rats, made monstrous by their perpetual interbreeding, now resided within them. Hand himself wrote of such superstitions in his paper “It is often said that in these workings are countless accumulations of spider’s hammocks and armies of rats, but I have not seen either the one or the other”.
Williamson’s story could easily have been lost in the mists of antiquity; dismissed as a mere urban legend or simply forgotten had it not been for a small group of dedicated individuals. The Friends of Williamson’s Tunnels organisation was formed in September 1995 with the intention of acting as a pressure group campaigning to prevent any developments that would jeopardise the tunnels. Today the stable yard is owned by the Joseph Williamson Society (a separate organisation to the FOWT) and is the sight of the Heritage Centre: a small area of tunnels now cleared and opened to the public, complete with its own bar situated within one of Williamson’s famed triple tunnels. The FOWT’s own visitor site is located in the heart of the Williamson Student Village in Paddington, just around the corner from Mason Street. Both organisations are campaigning to raise awareness of the works of Joseph Williamson and are working hard on opening up more and more of his tunnels to the public. As Williamson left no map of his structures, each time a new stretch of tunnel is cleared fresh discoveries are made.
Though his tunnels may have more than a whiff of the tomb about them, Williamson was not interred within his life’s work; he was buried in the Tate family vault at Saint Thomas’s Church alongside his wife in 1840. Having fallen into disuse, the church was demolished in 1911. Headstones and monuments were removed and the land was eventually sold off for development. Even so, there were those who dared to dream that the Tate’s crypt had somehow been left undisturbed. On Sunday the 23rd of August 2005 FOWT were excavating a discussed car park near Canning Place, soon to become part of the new Liverpool One Paradise Street Development. Believing that the parking place stood upon the once hallowed ground of Saint Thomas’s, the volunteers had until five o’clock that afternoon to unearth some evidence of Williamson’s final resting place; construction work was scheduled to begin on the site the following morning. It was a little after lunch time when a 7 foot by 3 foot [2.13 metre by 0.91 metre] slab bearing the name of Tate was unearthed by one of the on site archaeologists. The find was greeted with cheers from the assembled volunteers, representing as it did an end to ten year’s worth of searching with barely four hours to spare. Once fully uncovered the grave stone could be clearly read, The Mole’s modest epitaph at its bottom: “Also the remains of Joseph Williamson of Edge Hill who died 1st May 1840 aged 71 years”. With its location properly noted and recorded, the slab was re-buried before the afternoon’s deadline.
Charles R. Hand: Joseph Williamson – The King of Edge Hill, Transactions of the Historical Society of Lancashire and Cheshire 1927.
The Story (www.williamsonstunnels.com).
Richard Whittington-Egan: Joseph Williamson Maker Of Catacombs.
James Stonehouse: The Streets Of Liverpool (1869).
The Mole newsletter #19, March 2009.
Homa Khaleeli: Found! Mole’s Resting Place. Daily Post, Monday August 24th, 2005.
Thanks to FOWT Chairman Chris Sharples for his assistance with the original article, Johnathon Wild for his help with the 2008 revisions and Keith Hawkins for the additional information for the 2009 version.
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11 March 2013 Last updated at 00:32 Help
Volunteers in Liverpool are giving up their free time to clear out a mysterious labyrinth of tunnels that lurk beneath the city's Edge Hill area.
The Friends of the Williamson Tunnels are removing the results of decades of Victorian "fly-tipping", hoping one day to expose tunnels which they believe could stretch for miles.
The tunnels were built and conceived in the early 19th century by eccentric businessman Joseph Williamson, who paid soldiers returning from the Napoleonic war to build them. No records were kept of how far they stretch, nor which direction they go in.
After Williamson's death in 1840, the tunnels fell into disrepair. The site currently being cleared was filled with over 100 years' worth of ash and debris from a local bakery.
BBC News was given a tour by volunteers who explained why they are so intrigued by Williamson's weird and wonderful world.
Watch the news clip at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21595625
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