Williamson Tunnels

The Williamson Tunnels are a series of extensive subterranean excavations, of unknown purpose, in the Edge Hill area of Liverpool, England. They are thought to have been created under the direction of tobacco merchant, landowner and philanthropist Joseph Williamson between 1810 and 1840. Although popularly described as "tunnels", the majority comprise brick or stone vaulting over excavations in the underlying sandstone. The purpose of the works remains unclear and remains a subject of heavy speculation; suggestions include commercial quarrying, a philanthropic desire to provide employment, and Williamson's own eccentric interests.

Williamson Tunnels
Williamson Tunnels - The Banqueting Hall.jpg
The Banqueting Hall chamber beneath Joseph Williamson's house.
TypeExcavations; possible sandstone quarries,[1] or subterranean folly
LocationEdge Hill, Liverpool
Coordinates53°24′17″N 2°57′32″W / 53.404775°N 2.958839°W / 53.404775; -2.958839
Restored byFriends Of Williamson's Tunnels
Joseph Williamson Society
ArchitectJoseph Williamson
Williamson Tunnels is located in Merseyside
Williamson Tunnels
Location of Williamson Tunnels in Merseyside

After being gradually infilled with rubble and spoil during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they remained largely inaccessible until archaeological investigations were carried out in 1995. Since then volunteers have rediscovered and excavated an extensive network of tunnels, chambers and voids across several sites, with sections open to the public. Guided tours are available at the Williamson Tunnels Heritage Centre and the Friends Of Williamson's Tunnels, and excavation continues as volunteers continue to uncover new sections.


FoWT volunteers digging in a newly-discovered section of tunnel, May 2019.

In 1805, wealthy businessman Joseph Williamson acquired an area of land in Mason Street, Edge Hill, Liverpool, which was then a largely undeveloped outcrop of sandstone with a scattering of scars from small-scale quarrying. The land was held under a lease from the West Derby Waste Commissioners, who retained rights to the minerals under it: Williamson started to build houses on the site, which then adjoined growing and fashionable areas of Liverpool.

According to the account of a 19th-century Liverpool antiquarian, James Stonehouse, these houses were eccentric in design and "of the strangest description" without any rational plans. The ground behind them dropped sharply, and in order to provide large gardens Williamson built arched terraces over which the gardens could be extended. He continued to erect and alter many further buildings on the site during the period, including a large house in Mason Street occupied by himself and his wife.[2] To carry out the work he recruited a large pool of labour from among the poor and needy of the area, including soldiers left unemployed at the end of the Napoleonic War; according to Stonehouse, he occasionally engaged them to carry out apparently pointless tasks, such as moving rubble from one place to another, then back again.[3]

Over the same period, his workers also excavated a series of brick-arched tunnels and vaults at various depths within the sandstone. They covered a wide area, extending to the boundaries of Williamson's lease and possibly beyond. Stonehouse, who traversed parts of the tunnels in 1845, described the excavations as a labyrinth of "vaulted passages [...] pits deep, and yawning chasms",[4] including a "fearful opening" beneath Grinfield Street with two "complete four-roomed houses" in the side of it connected by a spiral passage.[5] This apparent tunnel-building activity continued until Williamson's death in 1840.[6] In August 1867 the Liverpool Porcupine described the tunnels as being "a great nuisance" because drains ran straight into them, in one place creating a cess pool full of offensive water 15 feet (5 m) deep, and they were being used for dumping refuse,[7] including down chutes built into the buildings above for the purpose.

In the later 19th century the Corporation of Liverpool began backfilling the tunnels with rubble and other waste from building demolition, a process that continued sporadically into the 20th century. Little information about the excavations had been recorded and nearly all knowledge of them, and of Williamson's life in general, was derived from the 1845 account of James Stonehouse. Although not published at the time it was written, it was referenced in Stonehouse's later works and was finally reprinted in full by Charles Hand as part of a 1916 article, "Joseph Williamson, the King of Edge Hill", published in the Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Historical Society. Hand's work saw a brief revival of interest in Williamson and his life.

Early investigations and archaeologyEdit

In 1881, the North Staffordshire Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers conducted a field trip to Liverpool during which they surveyed some of the surviving excavations, producing a plan and dog-leg section of the main parts of the site.[8]

In the early 20th century soldiers from the 1st Lancashire Engineers and the West Lancashire Territorial Forces Association, whose drill hall in Mason Street stood on top of one of the tunnels, carried out additional surveys. The Association produced a map of the excavations, although as many were filled with rubble this was incomplete. The map also showed the course of the London and North Western Railway cutting between Edge Hill and Lime Street stations which ran through the area.[9]

Public interest in the tunnels waned through much of the 20th century and many of the sites were further buried or destroyed by new construction. However from the 1980s onwards interest in Williamson steadily increased, leading to the formation of the two major societies and, eventually, excavation of tunnels across several sites. In 1995 a geology student from Liverpool University carried out a micro-gravity survey of the site. Some of his findings were ambiguous, perhaps due to rubble infill, and not all of them seemed to correspond with those of the Forces Association's 1907 map. Later that year a professional firm, Parkman, carried out a survey on behalf of the Joseph Williamson Society.[10]

The corner tunnel and arch constructed out of individual sandstone blocks, with a view of Biddulph's factory rubbish chute.

Both societies eventually acquired the rights to begin digging, and over time a considerable portion of Williamson's legacy has been rediscovered and cleared of the last two centuries' accumulated spoil and rubble. In the course of excavation, a substantial amount of artefacts have been found - some dating back as far as the 1830s - including bottles, plates and other crockery, pipes, vintage signs, military items and other items, much of which was likely refuse dumped in the tunnels. Many of these finds have been cleaned and returned to display.

Extent of the excavationsEdit

The known tunnels are in an area to the east of the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral in a rectangle bordered by Mason Street, Grinfield Street, Smithdown Lane and Paddington. Their full extent is unknown and many are still blocked by rubble. They encompass a range of designs and sizes, from vast chambers to spaces inaccessible by an average human.[11][12] The "Banqueting Hall" is around 60 feet (18 m) long and up to 27 feet (8.2 m) high, while the largest "Paddington" chamber is shorter but an impressive 40 feet (12 m) deep. Still larger excavations, such as the vaulted "Great Tunnel" seen by James Stonehouse and Charles Hand[13] and noted on the Army surveys, have yet to be rediscovered.

Purpose of the tunnelsEdit

The purpose of the excavations has been the subject of widespread speculation. According to Stonehouse's near-contemporary account, Williamson was secretive about his motives, leading to a great deal of speculative local folklore. Upon hearing that Stonehouse planned to publish his research on Williamson's excavations, Williamson's friend, the artist Cornelius Henderson, threatened to sue Stonehouse both for libel and trespass, leading to the paper's suppression for some years.[14]

The most commonly related explanation is that they were a philanthropic endeavour. Williamson's own explanation was reputed to be that his motive was "the employment of the poor"; his workers "all received a weekly wage and were thus enabled to enjoy the blessing of charity without the attendant curse of stifled self respect".[15] Certain features of the tunnels appear to support this theory; there are many architectural features that seem unnecessarily decorative, hidden deep below the ground in chambers that would likely have been dimly lit and rarely seen. By way of example, at the Mason Street site a beautifully-constructed stone arch was recently uncovered in an otherwise plainly-constructed side chamber, deep underground, with no obvious explanation for its purpose.[16] These features could be interpreted as Williamson helping his employees improve their skills.

A panoramic view showing the remains of the Joseph Williamson's house, at basement level.

Another suggestion, that he was a member of an extremist religious sect fearing that the end of the world was near and that the tunnels were built to provide refuge for himself and his friends,[17] originated in recent times with a casual suggestion made on a television programme. No evidence has been found to support the existence of such a sect or that Williamson, who a practising member of the Church of England, belonged to one.[18]

Stonehouse and Hand both felt the excavations were simply the largely purposeless folly of an eccentric man: however while Stonehouse called the works "stupendously useless", Hand concluded that Williamson's philanthropic purpose was a noble one and felt he "should have been both pleased and proud to have known him".[19] Many of Williamson's workers were said to have later found employment in railway construction with the skills they had learned.

Scores of pieces of crockery, dating from the 1830s onwards, are among the artefacts found in the tunnels during clearance work.

More recent research by academics at Edge Hill University has concluded that the 'tunnels' were in fact the result of work by Williamson to restore ground levels after quarrying.[20] Most of the excavations are directly within a band of high-quality sandstone, and show clear signs of having been carried out using established quarrying techniques designed to produce single large pieces of stone suitable for building use.[1] In addition, the cross-sections of the works produced by the 1881 survey reveal a typical stone quarry profile.[8] The apparently aimless nature of the excavations was likely a reflection of the work following the best "seam" of stone, avoiding imperfections and master joints.[21] The tunnels had, therefore, originally been unregulated "slot quarries" for sandstone, used for prestige buildings in the rapidly-expanding Liverpool of the Georgian era, and by subsequently vaulting them over Williamson was able to restore ground levels, facilitating his extensive housing developments on the site.[20]

While during Williamson's lifetime it was locally rumoured that he was earning large sums from unlicensed quarrying, Williamson had apparently claimed that he made little money, using extracted sandstone largely within his own properties.[21] It seems possible that his secrecy was at least partly driven by a need to conceal his avoidance of both large amounts of income tax and mineral rights duties due to the West Derby Waste Commission from the sale of sandstone.[21] Knowledge of the latter dealings may have been the reason behind Henderson's threat to sue James Stonehouse.[21] Despite retiring from the tobacco trade in 1818, Williamson left an estate valued at £40,000 - the equivalent of around £3,322,731 in 2019 - and it appears that a large proportion of this income must have come from his excavations and subsequent property development.[22]

The Joseph Williamson Society and Heritage CentreEdit

Graffiti, circa 1960s, on a wall of the Williamson Tunnels

The Joseph Williamson Society was founded in 1989. It was incorporated as a private limited company in 1996 and acquired charitable status in 1997. Its aim is to promote interest in the life and philanthropic achievements of Joseph Williamson and takes the form of talks, tours, publications and educational visits.[23] In autumn 2002, after much excavation, removal of rubble and renovation, one of the three sections of the site, the Stable Yard section, was opened to the public as the Williamson Tunnels Heritage Centre (53°24′14″N 2°57′31″W / 53.403991°N 2.958721°W / 53.403991; -2.958721) under the trusteeship of the Joseph Williamson Society.[24]

Visitors are taken on a guided tour which includes the south tunnel and the double tunnel and various artefacts are on view including some of the items which have been uncovered in the excavations.[25] A programme of events and entertainments is organised on the site.[26] The entry to the heritage centre was formerly part of the Lord Mayor's Stable Yard which closed in 1993.[27] The stable became the home for a horse again when Pop arrived in 2003.[28]

Public AccessEdit

The Heritage Centre allows visitors to see a substantial section of the tunnels, including the impressive "Double Tunnel". They are open Tuesday-Sunday during the summer months (Thursday-Sunday in Winter) with no advance booking required.[29] The Centre is also used as a unique venue[30] for live music and events, as well as being available for use as location for filming and training.

The Friends of Williamson's Tunnels (FoWT)Edit

The 'banqueting hall' beneath Joseph Williamson's house. This section was most likely built as a stone quarry in the 18th century and later vaulted over. The chamber was filled with spoil, and was excavated between 2017 and 2018.

The Friends of Williamson's Tunnels (FoWT) is a registered charity, managed by a Board of Trustees and committed to exploring, excavating and preserving the tunnels, with the work of excavation carried out by volunteers.[31]

FoWT's main base on Mason Street is the site of Joseph Williamson's house, largely demolished except for a small section of the facade which remains standing. However, excavations there have uncovered an extensive portion of the site below ground level, as well as numerous tunnels branching off in various directions at different depths. Beneath the basement area is a large chamber known as the "Banqueting Hall", which gained its nickname from oft-repeated stories of Williamson holding lavish banquets for his most loyal friends, though it is highly unlikely the space was ever used for this purpose. As of 2019 the "Banqueting Hall" has been completely cleared of spoil, but excavations continue in newly-discovered tunnels leading off from the main chamber.

A second section of tunnels is accessed from the "Paddington" site, comprising a series of underground galleries on several levels, leading to a large vaulted chamber approximately 40 feet (12 m) high from floor to ceiling. The floor of this chamber is approximately 60 feet (18 m) below ground level and was cleared in 2016 after several years of excavation.[32]

The sites have been used as a filming location, and have appeared in several documentaries featuring the tunnels and FoWT volunteers. The group has been featured in several news items, including domestic TV channels like the BBC[33] and ITV.

Public accessEdit

The general public can access the "Paddington" site with free guided tours on Wednesdays and Sundays,[34] while the Mason Street site can be accessed by FoWT members.[35] Members also have access to regular historical talks and other events.



  1. ^ a b Lucas, Bridson and Jones (2014) "Williamson Tunnels, Edge Hill, Liverpool: an example of Georgian and early Victorian quarry restoration" in Hunger, Brown and Lucas (eds) Proceedings of the 17th Extractive Industry Geology Conference, EIG, p.13
  2. ^ Hand, C. R. ( 1928), 88. In the 20th century this house was numbered 44.
  3. ^ Stonehouse, in Hand, C. R. (1916), 14
  4. ^ Stonehouse, in Hand, C. R. (1916), 6
  5. ^ Stonehouse, in Hand, C. R. (1916), 7
  6. ^ Murden, Jon, 'Williamson, Joseph (1769-1840)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, online edn, October 2006 [1], accessed 30 July 2008.
  7. ^ Moore 1998, p. 80.
  8. ^ a b Lucas, Bridson and Jones (2014) "Williamson Tunnels, Edge Hill, Liverpool: an example of Georgian and early Victorian quarry restoration" in Hunger, Brown and Lucas (eds) Proceedings of the 17th Extractive Industry Geology Conference, EIG, p.11
  9. ^ Moore 1998, pp. 79–80.
  10. ^ Moore 1998, p. 81.
  11. ^ FAQ, Friends of Williamson's Tunnels, retrieved 4 August 2008
  12. ^ Virtual Tour, Friends of Williamson's Tunnels, retrieved 4 August 2008
  13. ^ Hand, C. R. (1927), 89
  14. ^ Hand, C. R. (1916), 3
  15. ^ Quoted in Whittington-Egan 1985, p. 9.
  16. ^ chrisiles (29 October 2018). "New Tunnel update…". Friends of Williamson's Tunnels. Retrieved 24 June 2019.
  17. ^ The Story, Friends of Williamson's Tunnels, archived from the original on 31 August 2009, retrieved 31 July 2008
  18. ^ The lost tunnels buried deep beneath the UK, BBC, 03-09-15
  19. ^ Hand, C. R. (1929) 101-102
  20. ^ a b Speed, "Williamson Tunnels – are they really quarries?", Edge Hill University, 6-08-12
  21. ^ a b c d Lucas, Bridson and Jones (2014) p.15
  22. ^ Lucas, Bridson and Jones (2014) p.22
  23. ^ About the Centre, The Joseph Williamson Society, retrieved 4 August 2008
  24. ^ About FoWT, Friends of Williamson's Tunnels, retrieved 4 August 2008
  25. ^ Come and see the Tunnels!, Friends of Williamson's Tunnels, retrieved 4 August 2008
  26. ^ Calendar of Events, The Joseph Williamson Society, retrieved 5 August 2008
  27. ^ Clark, Edward, 'The Cart Horse and the Quay', Countryside Publications
  28. ^ New arrival at Stables, Friends of Williamson's Tunnels, 29 October 2003, retrieved 5 August 2008
  29. ^ "Williamson Tunnels Heritage Centre - Information - Opening Times". www.williamsontunnels.co.uk. Retrieved 24 June 2019.
  30. ^ "Williamson Tunnels, Liverpool". Skiddle.com. Retrieved 24 June 2019.
  31. ^ Introduction/FAQ, Friends Of Williamson's Tunnels, retrieved 23 June 2019
  32. ^ Williamson's Tunnels volunteers get ready for next stage of mammoth 'big dig', Liverpool Echo, retrieved 23 June 2019
  33. ^ Digging into Liverpool's secret tunnels, BBC News, retrieved 24 June 2019
  34. ^ Friends of Williamson's Tunnels, Eventbrite, retrieved 23 June 2019
  35. ^ Visit The Tunnels, Friends Of Williamson's Tunnels, retrieved 24 June 2019


  • Moore, Jim (1998), Underground Liverpool: Joseph Williamson - The King of Edge Hill, Liverpool: The Bluecoat Press, ISBN 1-872568-43-2
  • Whittington-Egan, Richard (1985), Liverpool Characters and Eccentrics, The Gallery Press, ISBN 978-0-900389-22-1

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit