Never heard of any of this? Here’s a brief introduction:
- The Williamson Tunnels are a labyrinth of tunnels and underground caverns under the Edge Hill district of Liverpool in north-west England.
- They were built in the first few decades of the 1800s under the control of a retired tobacco merchant called Joseph Williamson.
- The purpose of their construction is not known with any certainty. Theories range from pure philanthropy, offering work to the unemployed of the district, to religous extremism, the tunnels being an underground haven from a predicted Armageddon.
- Although some of the tunnels have been lost over the years, a lot of them still exist today, under what is now a residential area.
- Different sections of the tunnels are being cleared and renovated and opened to the public. The remaining parts of the labyrinth are closed, with many suspected tunnels yet to be rediscovered.
- Friends of Williamson’s Tunnels is a voluntary organisation which is trying to find all the tunnels and excavate those that are inaccessible. We are one of the biggest local history societies in Britain.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q. Where are the tunnels?
A. In Liverpool, north-west England. Just to the east of Liverpool city centre is the Edge Hill district and it’s here that the main ‘tunnels site’ can be found. It is a rectangle of land bordered by Mason Street, Grinfield Street, Smithdown Lane and Paddington. This is a few hundred metres from the city’s landmark Metropolitan Cathedral.
Q. Who built the tunnels?
A. For the sake of brevity, most people say that ‘Williamson built the tunnels’. However, it wasn’t really Williamson himself, but rather the hundreds of workers he eventually employed who did the work. Probably beginning with a number of abandoned quarries which had long existed on the plot of land he adopted, Williamson designed the tunnels and gave construction orders to his workers. At first, the workers were largely unskilled labourers but, if you look at the 35 years or so that the project lasted (until Williamson died), many of them no doubt became skilled in brickwork and stonemasonry. It is believed that a good number went on to work on other contemporary projects such as the pioneering railway building of the early/mid-18th century.
Q. Why were the tunnels built?
A. Despite speculation ever since Williamson died, this most often asked question still has no definite, provable answer. The explanation most commonly offered is that having risen from humble beginnings, the rich retired merchant was touched by the poverty which pervaded the Edge Hill district and offered construction labour to the unemployed as a gesture of generosity. Rightly or wrongly, this theory has become so entrenched in folklore that it is taken by many today as the truth.
Suggestions that the tunnels were used for smuggling are unlikely to be true: their location is wrong for that and Williamson’s business affairs were successful to the point of him having little need to engage in such activities. At FoWT we did explore a lead which suggested Williamson subscribed to one of the religious groups prevalent at the time which claimed the world would end soon, and that the tunnels were a refuge from Armageddon. It may sound outlandish today, but wouldn’t have at the time. True? We’re unlikely ever to know.
Until hard evidence is uncovered, it remains impossible to prove or disprove any of the explanations for the tunnels, including that which is most often heard – that the tunnels were the means by which a philanthropic Williamson gave work and a living to an impoverished local population.
Q. Did Williamson build anything other than tunnels?
A. He built a lot of the houses on Mason Street (although half a dozen or so were already standing when he moved in) and many in adjoining streets. Some of these were conventional; others were very strange. He was constantly changing the houses he owned – knocking down walls, putting in bigger and bigger windows, extending cellars. Most of these houses survived into the 20th century but few remain now.
Q. Are all of the tunnels still in existence today?
A. Unfortunately not. Many of the big and spectacular Williamson structures at the back of the Mason Street houses were demolished before 1900 and some tunnels were destroyed by building work above over the decades. That said, the frequent practice of tipping the spoil of demolished buildings into the tunnels underneath probably did many of the tunnels a favour in that it stopped them being flattened. Take the rubble out of the filled tunnels and they’ll be in very good condition. Recent excavations have borne this out.
Q. How big are the tunnels?
A. They vary. The so-called ‘banqueting hall’ is about 64 feet long, 14 feet wide and 27 feet high. By the same token, there are tunnels which are 4 feet wide and 6 feet high. Think of tunnels and caves of every conceivable size in between and you get the picture.
Q. How far do the tunnels go?
A. The known tunnels are all within the confines of the 300 metre-wide rectangle of land bordered by Paddington and Grinfield Street. Because so many of them are inaccessible or blocked with rubble (and because no comprehensive map has ever been found) it’s impossible to say. There are indications of tunnels going further outside the area but access to those isn’t currently possible.
Q. When were the tunnels discovered?
A. They’ve never really been ‘discovered’ in that they’ve always been known about. Obviously, they were widely known while Williamson was alive, but after he died in 1840 one only had to walk along Smithdown Lane to see them. Even after the most outwardly visible tunnels were no longer visible, enthusiasts have raised the profile every now and then. The press archives show expeditions and re-tellings of the story every decade or so.
Q. Who owns the tunnels?
A. They are generally owned by the owner of the land above. The main ‘tunnels site’, incorporating the three sections of the tunnels to which we frequently refer in this web site, incorporates both private landlords and Liverpool City Council.
Q. Are the tunnels open for me to go and see them?
A. Most of them, yes.
The Paddington and House sections are managed by FoWT and we run free visitor tours most weeks of the year (see How to visit).
The Heritage Centre on Smithdown Lane has a section of the tunnels renovated and open for paid visits.
Certain chambers and other sections aren’t accessible by the public at present.