[BITList] Boring but not dull - Oxford DNB Life of the Day

John Feltham wantok at me.com
Fri Mar 12 11:59:28 GMT 2010

To read this Life of the Day complete with a picture of the subject,
visit http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/lotw/2010-03-10

Williamson,  Joseph  (1769-1840), tunnel builder and philanthropist, was born on 10 March 1769, probably in Warrington, Lancashire. Little is known of his family or early life except that his family was not wealthy and that while his mother was 'a decent woman' his father was apparently 'the greatest rip that ever walked on two feet'  (Stonehouse, 170). Williamson left his family in 1780 aged eleven to seek his fortune in Liverpool. He gained employment with the tobacco and snuff firm of Richard Tate, based in Wolstenholme Square, Liverpool, and gradually moved through the company's ranks, while at the same time developing his own merchant's business in partnership with Joseph Leigh. Williamson's ventures were evidently successful and Thomas Tate, who assumed control of the Tate family business in 1787 following the death of his father, Richard, was sufficiently impressed to give his blessing for Williamson to marry his sister Elizabeth (d. 1822). They were married at the Tate family church, St Thomas's, Park Road, Liverpool, on 12 December 1802. Some insight into Williamson's curious character can be gained from the fact that he immediately left the ceremony to join the Liverpool hunt. In 1803 Williamson purchased the tobacco business from Thomas Tate and after merging it with his other interests, created an even more successful enterprise amassing a considerable fortune in the process.

In 1805 Joseph Williamson acquired the Long Broom Field on Mason Street, Edge Hill, then a largely undeveloped outcrop of sandstone to the east of Liverpool  (Moore, 147). The following year, after he and Elizabeth had moved into their own property, Williamson set about building other houses, most of which were constructed 'of the strangest description' and built without any plans, 'having rooms without windows, rooms that were all windows and all sorts of cellars and underground tunnelling'  (Porter, 22). The reason for the building of the tunnels remains unclear and subject to speculation. Some have theorized that the tunnels were a place to hide smuggled or stolen goods, or a place for the illicit distillation of liquor. Others have even attributed their construction to Elizabeth Williamson's supposed attachment to a doomsday cult. The truth, or as close as we can ever hope to get to it, is far more prosaic however. Fashion dictated that the houses should have large gardens, but the sandstone bed on which Mason Street stood dropped sharply behind each house making this difficult. To overcome this, Williamson had his men build brick arched terraces out from the rock face onto which gardens could be extended  (Introduction to Joseph Williamson, 1-6). Subsequently, word spread about the availability of employment on these building projects. Although already fully staffed, Williamson was loath to turn men away, having started his life in poverty. Instead, he chose to employ them by sending the additional men into the arches to extend them into the bedrock thus beginning the construction of his extensive, although apparently purposeless, underground network, which came to form:

A series of subterranean passages and huge underground halls, a positive maze of tortuous catacombs ... at depths between ten  and fifty feet and stretching for several miles ... a labyrinth twisting a serpentine course through solid rock. (Whittington-Egan, 8)
With the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1816, unemployment in Liverpool rose dramatically, especially among those injured in the conflict. After his retirement from business in 1818 Williamson concentrated both his energies and his fortune on creating employment for hundreds of men. Engaged either on the construction of the tunnels or in other apparently pointless tasks such as moving piles of stones from one place to another, he justified his methods on the grounds that 'all received a weekly wage and were thus enabled to enjoy the blessing of charity without the attendant curse of stifled self respect' and said that his prime motive in all he did 'was the employment of the poor'  (Whittington-Egan, 9).

After the death of his wife in 1822 Williamson became increasingly eccentric, devoting almost all his time to the excavations-even to the extent that he is said to have advised George Stephenson on the construction of tunnels during the building of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway-while his impact as a benefactor on the local community (where he not only gave work to many families but also donated all the stone for the building of St Jude's Church) was such that he was christened 'the King of Edge Hill'.

Joseph Williamson died at his home 44 Mason Street, Edge Hill, Liverpool, on 1 May 1840, aged seventy-one, the cause of death being given as water on the chest. He left no immediate descendant. All tunnelling stopped immediately and work was never resumed. He was buried in the Tate family crypt at St Thomas's. The church itself was demolished in 1911 and by 1920 the graveyard had been covered over, Williamson's grave being lost until its rediscovery in 2005 during the redevelopment of the Paradise Street area of Liverpool. Although Williamson's tunnels gradually became filled in and much of the labyrinth was lost, the visible signs of entry in Edge Hill meant they were never totally forgotten and they are now being opened up to the public as a unique visitor attraction.

Jon Murden 

Sources  C. R. Hand, 'Joseph Williamson: "the king of Edgehill"', Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, 68 (1916), 1-23; part 2, 79 (1927), 86-111 + J. Stonehouse, Recollections of old Liverpool (1863) + R. Whittington-Egan, Liverpool characters and eccentrics (1985) + An introduction to Joseph Williamson and his amazing underground world, Friends of Williamson's Tunnels (2000) + J. Moore, 'Maps and Liverpool's Williamson tunnels', Proceedings of the third Romano-British colloquium, ed. G. Erdell and D. Dumbravenu (1998), 147-58 + J. H. Porter, An address given to the trustees of the West Derby waste lands (1943) + Merseyside painters, people and places: catalogue of oil paintings, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, ed. M. Bennett, 2 vols. (1978), text, 57-8; plates, 113 + Liverpool Mercury (8 May 1840) + friends of Williamson's tunnels official website, www.williamsontunnels.com,  accessed on 31 March 2006 + Joseph Williamson Society, Williamson tunnels heritage centre official website, www.williamsontunnels.co.uk,  accessed on 31 March 2006
Likenesses  attrib. J. Jenkinson, oils, c.1820, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool; repro. in Merseyside painters, 113, pl. 7480 [see illus.] · C. Henderson, oils, 1828, repro. in Hand, 'Joseph Williamson', facing p. 95 · C. Henderson, oils, 1838, repro. in Hand, 'Joseph Williamson', facing p. 94 · photograph, c.1820, repro. in Hand, 'Joseph Williamson', facing p. 96
Wealth at death  £39,000: probate, 18 May 1840, Liverpool RO

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