The central area of the Williamson Tunnels rectangle is recognisable above ground by the remaining facade of Williamson’s house, the former No. 44 Mason Street. Along with some sections of boundary wall and some possible other features in adjoining streets, the house facade is one of the very few remaining Williamson structures above ground. It is therefore important and demands preservation.
However it is beneath the surface of that plot that some of the most famous parts of the Williamson Tunnels can be found. Towards one edge of the house site are the Banqueting Hall, the arched entrance chamber, the Wine Bins, the Gash, the Boiler Room, a small front chamber and various other noteworthy features.
Some of these are layered on top of each other. Others have passages which are clearly blocked up, with difficulty in knowing whether they continue for any distance. It’s certainly tempting to assume that there were tunnels linking these areas with the adjoining chambers and tunnels.
To the north of the house site, where the Magnet’s store stood for many years until closing recently, there was the colossal ‘Great Tunnel’, directly under the Magnet’s plot. Historian James Stonehouse sketched the Great Tunnel when he visited it a few years after Williamson died.
That sketch, a fairly banal watercolour by a local artist and Stonehouse’s text description were all we knew of the Great Tunnel until the discovery of a startling early photograph, taken during railway surveying work in the late 1800s. It shows Williamson’s Great Tunnel fully intact, decades after Williamson died.
Close to the camera is a bricked up tunnel. Further on, two men sit on an enormous stone ledge with the Great Tunnel dropping away behind them. To their right is the top of another tunnel. It didn’t take long studying the likes of the Territorial Army map to realise that that was likely the top of the Triple Decker tunnel, which cut across the whole Williamson estate.
In the early 2000s we arranged an attempt to find the Great Tunnel. Long drills into the later-built wall at the rear of the Magnet’s plot produced nothing and to this day we don’t know for sure what remains of the Great Tunnel.
However we did also dig down looking for that top layer to the right of the monochrome photo. It didn’t take long to find that very arch, intact about five feet below the surface. Inside the tunnel all was well but, as usual, it was full of rubble and rocks, best left for proper excavation another day.
A couple of years later the rough grassy land behind the house and Magnet’s had been cleared by the adjacent landowner and we took the opportunity to follow up on records of Liverpool Corporation unearthing and covering up some tunnels there. With some core drilling we quickly found a large chamber running up towards the Great Tunnel’s location.
It tallied with Stonehouse’s 1845 map of the tunnels, which showed this large chamber right in front of the much larger Great Tunnel. Unfortunately the far end was collapsed, so again this will require further exploration another time.
This area is bisected from east to west by the railway cutting which serves the main line into Liverpool’s Lime Street Station. It’s very difficult to get into the correct viewpoint, but a careful eye can see exactly where the cutting went straight through the full height of Williamson’s Triple Decker tunnel.
The cutting was once towered over by a huge chimney, which used to vent out the steam trains’ gasses when it was a railway tunnel, before being opened out into a cutting in 1881. The fan mechanism which drew the steam out stood inside one of Williamson’s chambers, the perfect pre-built machine room.
Today we know of all the features above, but can’t help thinking there are other tunnels still in existence but perhaps filled in or hidden, linking the central area to the other parts of the system.