Williamson’s story

Material facts about Joseph Williamson’s life are very hard to come by. It is only by piecing together the few there are, by making judgements on the common assertions about him and by making logical deductions from physical evidence that one can come up with a version of his life story. Here we have tried to present an account which avoids the all too frequent exaggerations and clichés and hope that the result is as close to the truth as possible.

Joseph Williamson was born on 10th March 1769. His place of birth is not definitely proven, but is widely believed to be Warrington. There is virtually no information on his early years bar the claim that he left his family home aged 11 and went to Liverpool to seek employment. If he did leave his family as a child that would suggest that the family was not wealthy.

Arriving in Liverpool in 1780, he would have been greeted by a city that was noisy and busy; its landscape dominated by windmills and chimneys; animals being herded in some streets; grand merchants’ houses in others. Much commercial activity would have been centred on the docks and one of the growing activities there would have been the importing of tobacco.

Liverpool docks, where Wiliamson's trade was focused
Liverpool docks, where Wiliamson’s trade was focused.  Courtesy Liverpool City Libraries.

The young Williamson would have had little difficulty finding a job in such a burgeoning town and at some point he began employment with the tobacco & snuff firm of Richard Tate. Tate’s main office was based in Parr Street, adjacent to Wolstenholme Square, near the city centre.

It was a family business and when patriarch Richard Tate died in 1787, the reins were passed to his son, Thomas Tate. The business was successful; it enjoyed the spoils reaped by many Liverpool firms as the city’s greatest years dawned in the early 1800s. It would appear that by this time Williamson was rising through the ranks of the company, perhaps being promoted from runner to clerk and so on. As a sideline, Williamson set up as a merchant in partnership with Mr. Joseph Leigh, while still working for Tate’s a few doors away.

Elizabeth Tate, Williamson's wife to be
Elizabeth Tate, Williamson’s wife to be

He must have done well because the family gave its blessing to Joseph to marry Elizabeth Tate, Thomas’s sister. In 1802, Elizabeth Tate, amateur artist, became Mrs. Elizabeth Williamson in a ceremony held at the family church – St. Thomas’s, near the waterfront.

Joseph Williamson, aged 50
Joseph Williamson, aged 50

Just a year later, Williamson bought the tobacco business from Thomas Tate and incorporated the Leigh & Williamson merchants company into Tate’s. He continued to run it for many years. One suspects that the success of the business continued under Williamson’s auspices.

An early view of the sparsely developed Smithdown Lane
An early view of the sparsely developed Smithdown Lane.  Courtesy Liverpool City Libraries.

It is important to understand that in the early 1800s Edge Hill was largely undeveloped, although the layout of Mason Street had been in place for some time. Mr. Edward Mason, after whom the street would be named, had his mansion on one corner of the then narrow pathway. This and a small number of houses stood on a breezy outcrop, offering an unobstructed view down to the River Mersey. Significantly, the sandstone terrain had previously been quarried and several abandoned pits are marked on contemporary maps.

Mason Street in 1803. Note the ornate gardens behind each house.
Mason Street in the early 1800s. Note the ornate gardens behind each house.

Around 1805, Mr & Mrs Williamson moved into one of the Mason Street houses – a house which was to be their home for the rest of their lives. Williamson quickly set about building more properties. These houses were built with cellars, as most houses were at the time. However, it appears that in designing these properties Williamson decided that they should follow the fashion for having large gardens and orchards behind them.

By 1806, with several houses under construction at once and the arches taking shape behind them, Williamson would have been employing a large gang of men. At this time, many healthy men of Liverpool would have been among the British troops battling against France as Napoleon Bonaparte sought to conquer Europe. However, there was labour aplenty available to him as Liverpool began her rapid expansion, fuelled by immigration, in turn fuelled by the success of her port.

At the back of each house was a small amount of space but then the sandstone bed rock dropped about twenty feet, down to the same level as Smithdown Lane. To accommodate the gardens, Williamson had his men build brick arches that they could be extended onto. In this way, the gardens and orchards were laid out and, most significantly, the first outwardly visible parts of the tunnels had been put in place.

A naive painting but very informative: an 1800s view of the gardens behind Mason Street
A naive painting but very informative: an 1800s view of the gardens behind Mason Street.  Courtesy Liverpool City Libraries

The manner in which matters developed from this point on is the subject of much Chinese whispering and even more speculation. A choice has to be made here without the benefit of any significant documentary evidence. Most casual and many serious observers today maintain that Williamson had his men continue digging, building and tunneling, perhaps making use of the old quarries on the site, as a response to the poverty which surrounded his neighbourhood. Certainly, the construction stepped up a gear and a labyrinth began to take shape, but was it genuinely the product of philanthropy on Williamson’s part?

The suggestion that it was stems largely from the old writings of James Stonehouse and Charles Hand yet careful reading of these, Stonehouse’s near-contemporary account especially, reveals that Williamson was very secretive about his tunnels, never stating their purpose except for a few reported conversations in which he replied to questions about their nature by pointing out that he was employing more men than other people did.

His comments may have been observation rather than explanation and are not in themselves enough to prove the philanthropy theory. Indeed the absence of any categorical explanation of the tunnels by their mastermind leads inevitably to speculation about alternatives.

These include the suggestion that the Williamsons subscribed to an extremist religious sect which claimed that the world faced Armageddon several years hence. Williamson therefore built the tunnels as a place into which he and his fellow believers could escape to avoid the catastrophe and emerge later to build a new city. Fanciful though this theory appears, there are factors which lend it some credence: at the time Liverpool was a hotbed of religious extremism, with any number of sects propounding such theories.

Secondly, it is known that Williamson was a religious man – a regular member of the congregation of St. Thomas’, the church where he married. Thirdly, as stated above, he was very secretive about the tunnels, only allowing certain people to see inside the hidden parts of them. Finally, equipped with this theory today, one cannot help but notice the numerous gothic, chapel-like features that have survived in many parts of the tunnels …

None of this is to discount any of the other theories about the tunnels’ construction, nor that the simple philanthropy theory may in fact be the sole and true reason for the tunnels.  We simply don’t know.

In any case, the expansion of the labyrinth continued. By 1816 the Napoleonic Wars were effectively over. Soldiers returned to their home towns and thousands began looking for work. Just as important, the home industries which supported the war effort suddenly had a lot less to do. Unemployment was rife and social support was only available on a scarce and informal basis.

Williamson had retired and sold the tobacco firm by now. It would appear that from this point on almost all his attention was given over to expanding the tunnels – whatever the reason.

It is easy to underestimate the severity of the recession that hit Liverpool at the time. Jobless men far outweighed the vacancies around the port and those who had returned from war permanently injured stood little chance other than to try their luck with the man who locals were now referring to as ‘The King of Edge Hill’.

Smithdown Lane, 1858: some of the tunnels supporting gardens behind Williamson's houses
Smithdown Lane, 1858: some of the tunnels supporting gardens behind Williamson’s houses. Courtesy Liverpool City Libraries.

Williamson kept taking more and more men on. No doubt others left: through age, through finding a better job. Perhaps some were killed in the dangerous conditions: dark, dusty, noisy, cold in winter and hot in summer. The rock men worked with picks, shovels and barrows while the carpenters used axes and saws to build formers for the bricklayers to lay arches on. Under ground, the men worked by candlelight. Certainly some would have been injured, but they may have been kept on. There would always have been a need for storemen, counters, men to hand out the food and wages.


Williamson would often have his workers perform apparently pointless duties. It is said that he would get a man to move a pile of rocks from one place to another and then get him to move them back again. In the parts of the tunnels accessible today there is evidence of tunnels being built and bricked up again, alongside fine arches that lead nowhere.

This supports the idea of keeping men busy simply to keep them in a job, but may equally lend mystery in the sense of keeping certain parts of the labyrinth secret. Perhaps Williamson was also deriving satisfaction from his growing domain – the power it gave him. The street had become fully occupied, with all the residents vetted by himself. The ‘King of Edge Hill’ was now in control of his own kingdom.

A couple overlook their rear garden from one of Williamson's Mason Street houses
A couple overlook their rear garden from one of Williamson’s Mason Street houses. Courtesy Liverpool City Libraries.

Williamson would often be seen above ground, conversing with those he had time for or bawling at those he didn’t. Just as often he would disappear underground, instructing the navigators where to direct their pick axes next.

Then again, there was plenty of work going on above ground. Not only in building houses (Williamson’s domain was now extending across the other side of Mason Street and further up into Edge Hill) but also in some apparently spectacular structures at the back of the Mason Street houses, alongside the original garden arches.

Tunnels upon tunnels
Tunnels upon tunnels. Courtesy Liverpool City Libraries.

In 1822, Williamson’s wife Elizabeth died, aged 56. There is a supposition, and it makes some sense, that thereafter Williamson sought solace by turning his attentions even more vehemently to the labyrinth. Some say that after Elizabeth’s death he rarely ventured above ground, but this is unlikely given his active property interests.

By 1830, the railways had arrived … and they were right on Williamson’s doorstep. There is little doubt that he would have taken himself the few hundred yards up the road to witness the inaugural journey of the pioneering Liverpool – Manchester railway. Perhaps he was one of the many private shareholders in what was a highly speculative and controversial project.

Certainly, Williamson would have noted the colossal movement of sandstone as cuttings and tunnels were dug – not least when, a few years later, the main tunnel to Lime Street was dug right under his own street.

Many of Williamson’s men, of course, became highly skilled as they served their informal apprenticeships on his tunnels. It is highly likely that at least some of them were recruited by the rail engineers from the 1830s onwards.

Williamson died, aged 71, on 1st May 1840, by chance on what would become International Workers Day. The cause of death was given as water on the chest, known today as pleural effusion. Seventy was a significant age at that time and his life was no doubt lengthened by his active lifestyle. The tunnelling stopped immediately and was never continued.

Williamson's will, with his signature
Williamson’s will, with his signature

He left his major assets – land, money – to a few close acquaintances.  Other things: paintings, furniture and so on, were auctioned not long afterwards.

He was buried with the remains of his wife and her family in the Tate family crypt in the cemetery of St. Thomas’s Church, where they had married 38 years earlier. He had remained steadfastly loyal to the church throughout his time in Liverpool. St. Thomas’s was demolished years later and subsequent changes to the adjoining road layout saw many of the graves moved elsewhere. It was not necessary to move the rest and so several dozen of the tightly packed and very basic graves were left in place.

Over the years the site changed: fenced-off land, a car park … and the existence of the graves was forgotten, then became the subject of doubt.  However, research showed nothing about the remaining graves being removed.  In 2005, as the Liverpool One shopping centre was being built on the site, FoWT lobbied hard for a formal archaeological dig to take place to try and locate the long lost Williamson/Tate grave.

October 2006: The hunt for Williamson's long-lost grave

October 2006: The hunt for Williamson’s long-lost grave

During the third and final dig, with the allotted time almost expired, we found it.  It was exposed for a couple of hours, allowing the archeaologists to record details and ourselves to take photos, but was then covered up again.

Found it.
Found it.


A couple of years later a garden was built on the plot, with a plaque about Williamson, his remains covered over again but still resting at peace underneath today.