Joseph Williamson was born in either Warrington, Lancashire or the West Riding of Yorkshire where his father was a glassmaker in a small village near Barnsley. If the latter, his family moved to Warrington when he was young. In 1780, when he was aged 11, he left his family and went to Liverpool where he was employed in the tobacco and snuff business of Richard Tate. He gained promotion within the business and also developed his own merchant's business in partnership with Joseph Leigh. In 1787 Richard Tate died and control of the business passed to his son, Thomas Moss Tate. Williamson married Thomas' sister, Elizabeth, in St Thomas' Church, Liverpool in 1802. The following year Williamson purchased the business from Thomas Moss Tate and from this, together with his other business enterprises, he amassed a considerable fortune. In 1805 Williamson bought an area known as the Long Broom Field on Mason Street, Edge Hill, Liverpool, which was a largely undeveloped outcrop of sandstone and around this time moved into a house on Mason Street. He then began to build more houses in Mason Street which were built without any plans and which were "of the strangest description". The land behind the houses dropped sharply for about 20 feet (6 m) and, as it was the fashion to have large gardens and orchards behind them, he built brick arches onto which the gardens could be extended. Following this, he continued to employ his workmen, and recruited more, to perform tasks, some of which appeared to be useless, such as moving materials from one place to another and then back again. He also used the men to build a labyrinth of underground halls and brick-arched tunnels. Labour was plentiful at the time and with the ending of the Napoleonic wars in 1816, there were even more unemployed men in Liverpool. The tunnels were built at depths between 10 feet (3 m) and 50 feet (15 m) and they stretched for several miles.
Williamson retired from his business in 1818 but continued to be a landlord, one of his tenants being the Unitarian philosopher, James Martineau. His wife died in 1822 and he then became increasingly eccentric, devoting almost all of his time to supervising his excavations and tunnel-building. In the 1830s he came into contact with George Stephenson who was building the extension of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway from Edge Hill to Lime Street stations and whose own excavations passed through those of Williamson. Williamson died in 1840 aged 71 at his home in Mason Street, the cause of death being "water on the chest". He was buried in the Tate family vault at St Thomas' Church and left an estate of £39,000. He left no immediate descendant. The tunnelling ceased with his death. The 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 not known and many of them are still blocked by rubble. They vary in size from the "banqueting hall", which is about 70 feet (21 m) long, between 20 feet (6 m) and 25 feet (8 m) wide and 20 feet (6 m) high, while the smaller tunnels are 4 feet (1 m) wide and 6 feet (2 m) high. Aside from the oddity of the tunnels themselves, there is a mass of artefacts recovered (the tunnels were used as a rubbish dump with chutes from the building above) which give a fascinating record of the Victorian era. As the tunnel network is not suitable for wheelchair users, admission is free. Only the cafe, exhibition area and the toilets are accessable.
Location : The Old Stable Yard, Smithdown Ln, Liverpool, Merseyside L7 3EE
Transport: Edge Street (National Rail) - 12 min. Bus routes 6, 116, 7, 7A, 7B, 14, 14c, 61, 161 - all stop by Archbishop Blanch School. 78 & 79 - stop at the back of the Royal Liverpool Hospital. 76, 76A, 77, 139 & 207 stop in Oxford St East.
Winter Opening Times: Thursday to Sunday 10:00 to 17:00
Summer Opening Times: Tuesday to Sunday 10:00 to 17:00
Tickets: Adults £4.50. Concessions £4.00. Children £3.00. Wheelchair Users Free.
Tel: 0151 709 6868