A somewhat taciturn character in life, further obscured by the passage of time, Joseph Williamson is the architect of the infamous and much speculated about Williamson Tunnels. Little is known of this curious Liverpudlian, or the reasoning behind the construction of his Williamson Tunnels. Conjecture, amended truths, and educated guesses are the best those who find Williamson and his compelling network of tunnels can do.
Documentation of Williamson’s early life is scarce. Born into a glass-making family, all that is known of Joseph Williamson’s mother is that she was a mannerly, decent, and god-fearing woman. Josephs father, James Williamson on the other hand has been described as ‘the greatest rip that ever walked on two feet!’ For the longest time, those who have written about Joseph Williamson claimed his family were poor. However, it should be noted that glass making in the 18th and 19th century was considered an occupation of the middling sort, and both Josephs father James, and his uncle William, were glass makers at Gawber Hall, which was owned by the Tate family. This too is worth noting, as in later life Joseph Williamson would go on to marry a Tate. It is more likely the Williamson family were not by any means destitute, but that at some point, fell on hard times. Williamson’s birthplace was thought to be Warrington, others thought he was born in Leeds. Williamson, according to Darton parish records, was in fact born in West Riding Yorkshire, in the hamlet of Gawber, during the period his uncle and ‘rip’ of a father worked at Gawber Hall.
In 1780, aged 11, Joseph Williamson left his mother and father behind to earn his crust in Liverpool.
Once again, the Williamson’s connections with the Tate family appear, as Joseph entered employment as a Snuff & Tobacco merchant under the watchful eye of Richard Tate of Gawber Hall. Williamson, already showing signs of being a peculiar fellow, was a quick study. Never afraid of hard work, Williamson quickly rose through the ranks. In 1787, Richard Tate died, and control of the business passed to his son, Thomas Moss Tate. Some years later Williamson, utilising what he’d learned under the late master Tate, started his own lucrative merchant business. His increase in fortune made him an attractive option to his late master’s daughter, Elizabeth Tate, and in 1802 the two were wed. In 1803, Joseph Williamson purchased the Tate’s Snuff & Tobacco holding outright. Joseph Williamson was now his own master, and a very wealthy man.
In 1805, Joseph Williamson purchased what was then a largely undeveloped expanse of sandstone, known as Long Broom Field on Mason Street, in Edge Hill Liverpool. It is with this purchase, the mythos, fable, and folklore; of Williamson’s ill thought out impractical mansion houses, and furtive tunnelling truly begins.
213 years on, and still historians cannot concretely say for what reason or purpose the Williamson Tunnels were built. As time passed, locals dreamt up reasons for the building of the vast Williamson Tunnels. Was Williamson simply a humanitarian, building and excavating with the singular intention of keeping poor men in work? Was he a Freemason? Was he a member of a satanic cult, were the tunnels a place of bloodletting and sacrifice, built deep enough so no one could hear sacrificial screams? Did Williamson believe the end of the world was nigh, building endless tunnels as some sort of apocalyptic escape plan? The tales were as tall as they were many, passed down through the centuries, while the tunnels lay sealed, and undisturbed.
It wasn’t until 2001, when Les Coe, and a group calling themselves ‘Friends of Williamson’s Tunnels’, took a digger and began to burrow in the Paddington area of Edge Hill, that the Williamson Tunnels were rediscovered. What they found was astounding. A warren of 20ft deep, waterlogged, cavernous, rubble, and artefact filled tunnels. A nest of elevations, cellars, and archways. Animal bones were plentiful, and though it may disappoint the tellers of tall tales, the bones of not one Regency nor Victorian virgin have been found.
In the last 17 years, pains taking excavations have taken place, and the Williamson Tunnels have offered up a treasure trove of antiquities. Bottles, from perfume to poison, chamber pots, ink wells and clay pots, yet none of these finds offer a concrete reason as to why the tunnels were built. The apocalyptic stronghold, and in some part the selfless philanthropist theories have now been debunked. The latest rationale, is that the Williamson Tunnels are in fact slot quarries, not nearly as much fun as a cult, but a pinch more believable.
In 2012, G. Lucas, of Edge Hill University’s Geography and Geology department, published works proposing the infamous tunnels were in point of fact wildcat sandstone slot quarries. When asked to expand, Gerry said, “We suggest that the tunnels were wildcat sandstone slot quarries, providing dimension stone for some of the grand buildings of the expanding and rich mercantile of Liverpool. Williamson saw an opportunity to develop land on the hill by building a system of arches that covered the slots, and then provided the foundation for urban housing. In effect, his business acumen produced one of the earliest and most profitable forms of quarry restorations”.
So, Joseph Williamson was not a blood thirsty member of a satanic cult, there’s no evidence he was a Freemason, nor a harbinger of doom. By all accounts Williamson was devout. The church warden’s ledgers at St Thomas’s show Williamson regularly attended and donated monies to the church. Williamson even rented a pew there for the princely annual sum of £1.18s. Williamson, though rich, reportedly dressed like a ragamuffin. Built houses without a single window, kitchen or fire place, a consequence of being so secretive he refused to let his workers see plans.
Williamson, was known to bellow and bluster, once setting all the birds in his wife’s aviary free, telling her as they flew away, ‘that it was a pity all married men had not wings to enjoy their liberty again’!
He was generous in the extreme to those he thought deserved it, and refused to give a shilling to those he thought did not. His quirks led him to host such things as ‘Test Dinners’, dinners of only bacon and beans, served on common plates with common cutlery. Dinners where guests were made to perch on planks of rough wood instead of chairs, these dinners he served to test his friends’ loyalties.
Bonkers or brilliant? Quarries, or a mammoth philanthropic undertaking? What we can say with certainty, is that Joseph Williamson, odd as he was, was a great Liverpudlian; and Liverpool’s heritage is that much richer for him, and his tunnels without purpose.
Liverpool’s 30 James Street Hotel was voted the best in Britain in the Travel Republic Hotel Awards 2018.