28 July 2014

The Williamson Tunnels, Edge Hill, Liverpool

David Bridson's brief booklet The Life of Joseph Williamson (Liverpool: The Joseph Williamson Society (2011)) gives a potted biography of a little of what is known of Joseph Williamson (1769–1840), including a number of updates. Williamson was born in Yorkshire and at the age of eleven or twelve moved to Liverpool to work for and lodge with tobacco manufacturer Mr Tate (no forename given), whom his family had probably known.

Williamson's position in the tobacco business grew greatly and in 1802 he married Elizabeth Tate, the boss's daughter, and the following year he bought the business from his brother-in-law. Then in 1806 he bought Edward Mason's Edge Hill estate to the east of Liverpool (now part of the city) and started using local men to build houses in the Mason Street area.

But it was in the same year that he began employing many men in a yard in the Smithdown Lane area – building networks of tunnels that were of no use apart from the fact that they provided men with a regular income, a philanthropic activity which would continue until Williamson's death. When he retired in 1818, he employed hundreds of poor and out-of-work, demobilised men from the Napoleonic wars to build his tunnels.

One venerable but much more amusing source of information on Williamson is James Stonehouse's Recollections of Old Liverpool: By A Nonagenarian (Liverpool: J. F. Hughes (1863)), which has some very spirited (and perhaps more than a little exaggerated(?)) descriptions of Williamson:

'Mr. Williamson appears to have been a true Troglodite, one who preferred the Cimmerian darkness of his vaulted world, to the broad cheerful light of day.  He spent the principal part of his time in his vaults and excavations, and literally lived in a cellar, for his sitting room was little else, being a long vault with a window at one end, and his bedroom was a cave hollowed out at the back of it. In his cellar it was that he dispensed his hospitalities, in no sparing manner, having usually casks of port and sherry on tap, and also a cask of London porter. Glasses were out of use with him. In mugs and jugs were the generous fluids drawn and drank.'


'Mr. Williamson’s appearance was remarkable. His hat was what might have been truly called “a shocking bad one.” He generally wore an old and very much patched brown coat, corduroy breeches, and thick, slovenly shoes; but his underclothing was always of the finest description, and faultless in cleanliness and colour. [Where Stonehouse can have found this last piece of information is intriguing, to say the least.] His manners were ordinarily rough and uncouth, speaking gruffly, bawling loudly, and even rudely when he did not take to any one. Yet, strange to say, at a private dinner or evening party, Mr. Williamson exhibited a gentleness of manner, when he chose, which made him a welcome guest.'


'A lady of my acquaintance once caught Williamson intently reading a book.  She inquired its purport.  He evaded the question, but being pressed, told her it was the Bible, and expressed a wish that he had read much more of it, and studied it, and that he always found something new in it every time he opened it.  This lady said that the touching way, the graceful expression of Mr. Williamson’s manner, when he said this, took her completely by surprise, having been only accustomed to his roughness and ruggedness.  He added, “The Bible tells me what a rascal I am.”'

I'm not aware of any specific writings by Williamson's workers on the intrinsic futility of their work, although this piece by Stonehouse is very interesting:

'The industrious poor of Edge-hill found in Williamson a ready friend in time of need, and when work was slack many a man has come to the pay-place on Saturday, who had done nothing all the week but dig a hole and fill it up again. Once, on being remonstrated with by a man he had thus employed, on the uselessness of the work, Williamson said, “You do as you are told — you honestly earn the money by the sweat of your brow, and the mistress can go to market on Saturday night — I don’t want you to think.”'

The Williamson Tunnels Heritage Centre was opened in 2002, and excavation is an ongoing process. Below I show a number of photos from my visit there yesterday, which include displays of various objets trouvés from different periods – clay pipes, (ginger) beer bottles, toys, etc.

The image above is an artwork inspired by the work carried out by Williamson's workers.

For an off-centre view of Liverpool, away from the usual attractions, the Williamson Tunnels are a must. I like this Guardian article, the title of which suggests a healthy 'Bollocks to Alton Towers' attitude:

Emma Kennedy: 'Forget the Cavern'

1 comment:

David Bingham said...

Absolutely fascinating. The next time I am in Liverpool I will definitely be going here.