Stonehouse and Hand

There is very little original material about Williamson and the tunnels dating from his time. This being the case, one has to look for information in writing and/or pictures which were produced as soon after his death as possible.


The prime example of this is the work of James Stonehouse. Stonehouse was alive in Williamson’s day and toured the tunnels just five years after Williamson died. Luckily for us, he wrote his findings down in a manuscript. The latter’s contents were published in a local review called The Liverpool Compass and later re-published in two books: Recollections of Old Liverpool (1863) and The Streets of Liverpool (1869).

Reading Stonehouse’s writings on the tunnels with the benefit of modern research, it is clear that in a small number of instances he makes factual errors. Equally, a few of his notes appear the subject of slight exaggeration (though this is difficult to prove). However, Stonehouse’s work stands above all others in that it was written so soon after Williamson’s death and is therefore untainted by decades of re-telling and misquoting. This applies particularly to his vivid descriptions of the tunnels he viewed in person in 1845. These passages are spellbinding to today’s Williamson enthusiasts.  For example:

“At the northern extremity of the property there was a small tunnel or gallery about six feet wide and ten feet high, which commenced in the orchard and ran up to the back premises of Mr. Hull’s house, in Mason-street.  About half way up this gallery were two flights of steps, having a landing place between them.  At the second flight of steps there was a recess.  Above it was a funnel or a spout through which the rubbish from the garden above appeared to have been shot down.  At the top of the passage or tunnel there was a door, which opened to a back yard.  This tunnel crossed over the other tunnels.  At the first flight of steps in the right hand wall the crown and part of the arch of one of the vaults leading from the great vault previously described as visible.  Why it was thus open appeared inexplicable … In the garden or orchard to the right of the tunnel just described, there were four lofty recesses cut out of the solid rock … Near these recesses there was a passage or vault running eastwardly.  It was about 120 feet in length, and ten or twelve feet high.  The approach to it by a path cut between two high banks.  This gallery crossed over the tunnels running northward and southward.  The entrance to it was neatly finished … there were some huge blocks of stone at the furthest portion of it, which had lain undisturbed either upon Mr. Williamson having abandoned the idea of continuing the tunnel to Mason-street, or the work was stopped by his death.”

Stonehouse even drew sketches of what he saw.  Admittedly he was no artist, but close examination of them is very informative.

Two of James Stonehouse's sketches, drawn as he explored the tunnels in 1845
Two of James Stonehouse’s sketches, drawn as he explored the tunnels in 1845.  Courtesy Liverpool City Libraries.

And he even drew a map, which we discuss on the ‘Maps’ page.

The second important source of information about Williamson and the tunnels is the works of Charles Hand, one-time president of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire. Hand, too, visited the tunnels but in his case it was much later – in the first two decades of the 1900s. His observations on Williamson, the tunnels and Stonehouse’s manuscript are contained in two books of the Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire. The first stems from 1916 and the second, with a great deal of amendments by Hand himself was published in 1927.

Hand’s works immediately reflect the fact that he carried out much archival research – especially into areas such as what Williamson left in his will when he died. The 1916 notes are particularly useful in that they include a long extract from Stonehouse’s writings. The second notes exhibit an admirable diligence in including ‘corrections’ of errors he believed Stonehouse had made alongside corrections of mistakes he had made himself in his own 1916 papers.

Charles Hand and colleagues in the Paddington tunnels in 1926.
Charles Hand and colleagues in the Paddington tunnels in 1926.

Hand includes descriptions of his own visits to some of the tunnels, the reporting of which in a local newspaper in 1925 led to the rediscovery of the Paddington tunnels by FoWT. However, he did not have the advantage of viewing some of the spectacular sights available to Stonehouse seventy years earlier as they were long gone by the twentieth century.

Most 20th century writing on Williamson (mainly short summaries included in general books about Liverpool history) stems quite clearly from the works of Charles Hand and, by inference, from those of Stonehouse. Therefore little new has been added to their findings. With the research programme being carried out by FoWT, it is intended that a modern, authoritative version of the Williamson story may be arrived at. Of course, today we all owe a huge debt to both Stonehouse for recording the story in the first place and Hand for researching it further.