Meet Mr. Williamson: what he looked like, what he said …

Williamson aged 50. On the reverse he has written 'This is a good likeness of me when I was half-seas over'
Williamson aged 50. On the reverse he has written ‘This is a good likeness of me when I was half-seas over’   (Access courtesy Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool.  Photo copyright FoWT)

Look into those eyes.  What was in his mind?  What was his motivation?  This is Joseph Williamson aged 50 in 1819, at the peak of his tunneling exploits.  At this point he was successful and rich and had scores of men on his books, all digging caverns and passages, building arches and walls in a complex, chaotic frenzy of construction.

Challenge him and he’ll tell you that employing those men keeps them out of mischief. Scoff at the idea and he’ll ask you what good you’ve ever done to help your fellow man.  He’ll tell you proudly that he gives the men a mug of ale every day but only because they work all the harder for it.

According to an 1837 article in the magazine ‘The Rambler’, an acquaintance met Williamson in Liverpool and challenged him over his scruffy state of dress. Williamson replied ‘What does it matter? – everybody knows me here’. Later, the same two men met in London and, faced with the same challenge, Williamson replied ‘What does it matter? – no-one knows me here’.

Williamson in 1828, aged 59. The painting was by his friend and tenant Cornelius Henderson.
Williamson in 1828, aged 59. The painting was by his friend and tenant Cornelius Henderson.

Posing for these portaits saw him don fine attire, but his every day outfit by all accounts was a scruffy coat and hob-nail boots.  From that laconic owl-like face a gruff and intimidating manner would unnerve any stranger venturing near the King of Edge Hill’s domain on Mason Street.  Yet once he knew and trusted you, especially if you were a humble individual and not a suspicious official, he was capable of great kindness.  Many at the time called him the ‘King of Edgehill‘, reflecting how his persona and activities dominated his adopted district, overlooking Liverpool.

Writer James Stonehouse interviewed the Mason Street residents not long after Williamson died.  He learned that: “Mr. Williamson took great delight in this lady’s children and made great pets of them. On her family increasing the lady and her husband frequently asked Williamson to build her an extra room for a nursery, reminding him that as he was always building something, he might as well build them an extra room as anything else. He however, declined until one day the lady sent him a manifesto from the “Queen of Edge-hill,” as he had been accustomed to call her, commanding him to build the room she wanted. Williamson, thereupon, wrote her a reply in the same strain, promising to attend to her commands.

A few mornings after his reply had been received the lady was busy in her bedroom dressing her baby, when she suddenly heard a loud knocking in the house adjoining, and down fell the wall, and amid the falling of bricks and the rising of dust Mr. Williamson himself appeared, accompanied by two joiners, who fitted a door into the opening; while two bricklayers quickly plastered up the walls. Through the door next stepped the landlord. “There, madam, what do you think of this room for a nursery,” he exclaimed, “it is big enough if you had twenty children.”

Mr. Williamson had actually appropriated the drawing-room in his own house to her use. She thanked him, but said he might have given her some warning of what he was going to do, instead of covering her and the baby with dust, but Williamson laughed heartily at his joke, while the lady was glad to get a noble room added to her house without extra rent.”

The King of Edge Hill in his later years, 1838.
The King of Edge Hill in his later years, 1838.

There’s a good heart behind tales like that.  And Stonehouse’s stories, however embellished and Chinese-whispered they may have become over time, boast the unique benefit of stemming from his interviewing the very people who were Williamson’s tenants just a few years earlier.  One likes to think that their experience of him was on balance a good one.

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Special Feature: The underground ‘Banqueting Hall’

It’s one of the most startling features of Williamson’s underground kingdom.  And first-time visitors are usually mesmerised by it.  Despite its name, the Banqueting Hall has no dining tables or chairs, but it does offer a generous serving of size and spectacle.

The Banqueting Hall today
The Banqueting Hall today

65 feet (20 metres) long, the vast chamber was originally dug down from ground level.  Williamson’s men put an arched roof along its full length, then added another level of tunnel on top of that.  So as you climb up the huge slope of rubble that pervades this area like so many parts of the tunnels, you are still a long way underneath the ground surface.

FoWT diggers levelling the slope to the Gothic Arch
FoWT diggers levelling the slope to the Gothic Arch

That floor you can see isn’t the bottom of the chamber at all.  That is a layer of dense rubble, its surface smoothed off by the boots of explorers and visitors over many decades.  How deep?  Probably six feet at its shallowest and 20 feet at its deepest.

Channel 5's 'Underground Britain' in the Banqueting Hall, 2014
Channel 5’s ‘Underground Britain’ in the Banqueting Hall, 2014. (see the film here; fast forward to 34:45)

So why is it called the ‘Banqueting Hall’?  A very old story has it that: On one occasion, Williamson invited a number of friends and well-to-do acquaintances to his house for a meal. He sat them at a ramshackle table and placed in front of them a poor man’s meal of bacon and beans. Most took offence and left. To the remainder he said ‘now I know who my true friends are, follow me…’. He took them through to a banqueting hall and treated them to a feast fit for a King.  Many have thought ever since that the large cavern seen here must have been where that event took place, hence the name.

Coming through the 'gash' into the Banqueting Hall
Coming through the ‘gash’ into the Banqueting Hall

Features of the Hall include a delightful gothic arch high up in the south wall, which offers a tortuous climb up a shaft to the surface.  Also the tall slab-roofed ‘gash’, which visitors descend through in order to arrive in the main hall.

Just as with the Paddington section of the tunnels, we hope and plan to clear and excavate the infill from the Banqueting Hall.  Who knows what passageways and features may lie beneath the deep layers of rubble that have hidden its secrets for so long.