BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific North Midlands/East West/South-West London/South North Midlands/East West/South-West London/South

BBC News World Edition
 You are in: UK: England  
News Front Page
Middle East
South Asia
N Ireland
Talking Point
Country Profiles
In Depth
BBC Sport
BBC Weather
Friday, 25 October, 2002, 01:14 GMT 02:14 UK
The enigma of Liverpool's labyrinth
A section of the tunnels is now open to the public

Tycoon Joseph Williamson dug a vast, bizarre network of tunnels under Liverpool almost 200 years ago. Were they the city's first job creation scheme, a rich man's whimsy or a shelter from the end of the world?
At ground level there is little clue to the secret harboured deep beneath the surface of Liverpool's Edge Hill area.

A church, a school, a police station and student accommodation for the nearby universities compete for space with a railway cutting and roads leading down to the city centre.

Williamson Tunnels Heritage Manager Lynn Podmore
Lynn Podmore: "We still haven't explored all the tunnels"
But tucked away on a side street is the entrance to a warren of tunnels hollowed out by an eccentric millionaire in the early 19th century.

They have been the stuff of Merseyside legend for decades but the truth is stranger than any fireside story.

Now with the opening of a section of tunnels, the public can for the first time gain access to the underground kingdom of Joseph Williamson, tobacco magnate, philanthropist, recluse and "mad mole".

Gothic arches

The portal to this subterranean realm is almost mundane: a wide, arching tunnel, looking rather like a French wine cellar, hewn out of sandstone and partly lined with brick.

But there is an eerie drip, drip of unseen water ahead and lights pick out gothic arches in the distance, giving the whole place something of a church crypt atmosphere.

Stepping forward through the gloom, the space opens out into a cave-like room which drops away beneath a platform.

It is a barrel-shaped tunnel with a beautifully constructed arch of sandstone blocks as the ceiling.

Earth is still piled up on the floor, far below the scaffold gantry that visitors pass along.

Who was Williamson?
Born 10 March 1769 in Warrington
Moves to Liverpool aged about 11 to seek his fortune
Finds work at tobacco and snuff firm of Richard Tate
Rises through the ranks and marries the boss's daughter, Elizabeth, in 1802
In 1803 buys the family firm and builds mansions in Edge Hill
As construction work finishes he turns to building tunnels
Napoleonic Wars end in 1815 and Williamson takes on unemployed soldiers
Elizabeth dies in 1822 and he immerses himself in the tunnel project but it saps his fortune
Williamson dies aged 70 in 1840 from water on the chest
Volunteers have so far removed tonnes of soil, rubble and 160 years' rubbish out of the tunnels - and there is still a long way to go.

Between 1805 and his death in 1840, Williamson employed thousands of men digging out a network underneath land that he owned in Edge Hill.

It seems to have started logically enough - a few cellars and ground level arches behind the mansions that he was building so that the back gardens could be extended despite the sloping terrain.

But while these constructions had a purpose, the next are a puzzle.

Williamson set his gangs of men burrowing in all directions but most of the tunnels lead nowhere.

Some just come to an abrupt halt, others intersect another part of the labyrinth. There are even tunnels within tunnels.


One of these double-decker tunnels makes a spectacular feature at the section of the network newly opened to the public.

Torchlight picks out individual chisel marks
The tunnels were hacked out by hand - as the pickaxe marks reveal
According to the site's Heritage Manager, Lynn Podmore, there are even more unusual constructions to be explored.

"We still don't know where each one leads, and we are finding new tunnels all the time," she says.

"There is a triple-decker tunnel under the carpark here and a completely different section has just been found up the road."

Back within the barrel-shaped chamber, the tunnel twists, turns, narrows and changes level.

Smaller tunnels and chimneys head off into the darkness.

Mapping the maze has not been easy. Williamson was notoriously secretive about his creation and no contemporary plan of the whole network survives.


The lack of documentary evidence has prompted endless speculation about why the tunnels were built.

One popular theory is that he was pricked by social conscience.

In the early 19th century, men who had been fighting the Napoleonic wars were flooding back to Britain - and were in need of jobs.

Ginger beer bottles were among the items found in the tunnels
More than 100 years of rubbish was found in the tunnels
Williamson, it is said, responded to the poverty around him by creating work, whether it really needed doing or not.

Another story puts the tycoon as a member of an extreme religious sect that believed that Armageddon was on the way.

The tunnels therefore were a place of sanctuary for Williamson and for fellow believers to flee to and emerge from to start a new city once God had wreaked his vengeance on the world.

A more prosaic image is of a man obsessed by his project, who, when his wife died in 1822, withdrew ever deeper into his subterranean empire, even building living rooms and a banqueting hall down there.

Some people find the lack of answers frustrating but others, like Lynn Podmore, enjoy the idea of an enigma with no solution.

"We're so certain about everything these days - it's good to have a mystery," she says.

"But of course we are still trying to find out as much as we can about Williamson."

Secret legacy

That job is not made any easier by the fact that his housekeeper sold all his personal documents after he died aged 70 in 1840.

Lynn is hopeful that some records will turn up or that the people of Liverpool may have a vital piece of oral history passed down through the generations - although she admits that Williamson may be spinning in his grave at the thought.

"He would be mortified if he knew that we had found all this and people were tramping through - he tried to keep it secret all his life," she says.

The Williamson Tunnels and heritage centre are open daily except Mondays 1000 - 1700.

Click here to go to Liverpool
See also:

25 Oct 02 | England
19 Mar 02 | England
03 May 02 | UK
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more England stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more England stories

© BBC ^^ Back to top

News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East |
South Asia | UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature |
Technology | Health | Talking Point | Country Profiles | In Depth |