The one about the railways …

When Robert Stephenson’s new railway tunnel to Lime Street Station was being dug in the 1830s, the navvies were hacking away deep underground and suddenly a hole opened beneath them. Staring up at them through the hole were Williamson’s workers, busy digging their own tunnel underneath. The rail workers ran for their lives, fearing they had broken through to the devil’s kingdom. Once the situation was explained, Williamson and Stephenson met and inspected each others’ works. Stephenson was most impressed by Williamson’s tunnels.

Our view: The Lime Street rail tunnel, later opened out into today’s cutting, did cut right through Williamson’s land, apparently bisecting his deep triple-deck tunnel. It is unsafe to assume that Stephenson was in the rail tunnel at the time of the supposed impact – though he was a ‘hands-on’ engineer, he had works in progress in many parts of the country at once and could have been anywhere. If the breakthrough did take place, it is quite likely that the rail workers would have been far more shocked than Williamson’s men.

The railway tunnel, here being widened into a cutting, sliced right through Williamson's 'triple decker' tunnel
The railway tunnel, here being widened into a cutting, sliced right through Williamson’s ‘triple decker’ tunnel

The latter would have been used to their co-workers digging alongside, above and below them. Again, if the breakthrough did take place, there is every likelihood that the two parties would have gone to look at each others’ tunnels – if for no other reason than to establish that the safety of neither would be compromised. In this regard, that part of Williamson’s lower tunnel would almost certainly have been filled so as to provide a solid floor for the railway line. Though this anecdote sounds a little too ‘ideal’, there is a good chance of something very much along these lines having occured.


The one from the Rambler

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’.

Our view: Fits perfectly the image of the quirky, no-nonsense Williamson. The almost unique factor with this anecdote is that it was written and published while Williamson was alive – and in a magazine that he was more than likely to have read. ‘The Rambler’ had long previously been edited by Dr. Samuel Johnson, whose works Williamson admired greatly (he owned a portrait of Johnson*). The article is brief but is exclusively about Williamson. Unfortunately it isn’t particularly revealing, mainly talking in flowery language about what a character he is. That said, it doesn’t suffer the usual disadvantage of 160 years of embellishment and therefore we rate this one as highly likely to be true.

* Dr. Johnson is famous for having written a pioneering dictionary of the English language.  Williamson owned a portrait of him which was sold when he died and, like most of his possessions, has never been traced.  A 1984 biography of Johnson lists all his official portraits and accounts for the whereabouts of all of them bar one, by a German neo-classical artist called Johann Zoffany.  Could the missing portrait be the one that Williamson has on his wall?

The Banquet

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.

Our view: The most often heard story about Williamson. Seen in the context of the eccentricity evident in all the other anecdotes, this one fits the bill. Certainly, Williamson would have kept good company – he had been a successful businessman before retiring – and counted a number of high-ranking clergymen among his friends. However, this story is only likely to be true if all the others are true, i.e. if he was that contrary then giving offence to a few snobs would have been quite acceptable to him. Some would offer credence for this story by pointing out that there is an underground ‘banqueting hall’ beneath the site of Williamson’s house. That said, that large hall could have served any purpose (or none) and has only acquired the nickname of ‘the banqueting hall’ because it fits in with the anecdote itself . Overall, quite possible.


The Wedding day hunt

On his wedding day, immediately after the ceremony Williamson rode off on his horse to join the Liverpool Hunt. There, someone commented on his smart dress and he replied that it was his wedding day. When asked where his wife was he replied that she was where a wife should be – preparing his dinner.

Our view: Very politically incorrect! This story comes from James Stonehouse’s ‘The Streets of Liverpool’ and has been altered a little through repeat-telling to the effect that he arrived at the wedding wearing the traditional ‘hunting pinks’. Some of the ‘facts’ in Stonehouse’s writing about Williamson are clearly incorrect and his relation of conversations word-for-word detracts a little from his credibility. However, the fact remains that Stonehouse’s work was written only a few years after Williamson died and is therefore closer (if only chronologically) to the real events than anyone else’s. Generally, we are of the opinion that Elizabeth Williamson was no shrinking violet and that Joseph would not always have got his own way. Even if the story is true, we’re sure that Williamson found he had met his match in later years.


The good neighbour

“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. This lady told me that one night just previous to this event they had heard a most extraordinary rumbling noise in Mr. Williamson’s house which continued for a long time and it appeared to proceed from one of the lower rooms. On inquiring next day of Mr. Williamson what was the cause of the disturbance he took the lady into a large dining-room, where she found about fifty newly-painted blue barrows with red wheels all ranged along the room in rows. These had been constructed for the use of his labourers and were there stored away until wanted.”
James Stonehouse

Our view: Here we have the widower, devoting his years to his tunnels and never short of workmen to do his bidding. From other stories, he was not the sort of man who would do anything in response to nagging, especially if it was a nagging woman. He would do things only in his own time, when he was good and ready to do so. We are told that this lady met with Williamson’s approval since on their first encounter “she gave as good as she was sent” and stood up to him. He knew therefore that she would like the end result of his action. If the story had stopped short at Williamson and his joiners stepping through the hole in the wall, it could have been a bit of exaggeration.

But the story continues to tell us that the woman did object to her and the baby being covered in dust. One might argue that Williamson should have looked to the safety of the child, but perhaps he reasoned that such a tremendous noise would have made the mother move the child from the room anyway. In those days a tenant was absolutely at the mercy of his landlord, having many duties and few rights. The landlord could come along and modify the property whilst the tenant was still in it if he chose to do so. A tenant could find himself out on the street at very short notice.

Joseph Williamson was reputed to hand-pick his tenants, and was a very active landlord, keeping a close watch on his properties. The wheelbarrows being stored in a dining-room: this leads one to infer that the room was still recognisable as a dining-room perhaps with the furniture pushed to one side. After Williamson’s wife Elizabeth had died, it does seem that he became more reclusive, and it would be in character for him to decide that he had no further use for a dining-room for socialising.

However, being canny with the pennies, he would not have built a new shed for these barrows, especially if their storage was only to be temporary. Why the delivery should be in the middle of the night is another question. Was Williamson spending so much time down in the dark that he actually came to prefer night to day? Once again, it points to the domination that he had over others – as long as they did what he said, they got paid. The writer is specific about the colour of the barrows. In those days a barrow was a very common object, and painting them with a special livery would have enabled Williamson to carry out spot-checks on who was carrying what to where.  Overall this anecdote sounds very feasible.