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Last weekend, I got an opportunity to visit the Williamson Tunnels and take some photos. My visit was to the Paddington section, which is the other side of the Lime Street cutting from the Smithdown Stables section, which is now open to the public. Access is restricted because of the narrow passageways and the need to climb up and down ladders but visits can be arranged via the Friends of the Williamson Tunnels.

The tunnels are an underground 'folly' beneath the Edge Hill area of Liverpool created in the early nineteenth century by Joseph Williamson, a wealthy tobacco merchant. Although there are several theories, nobody knows for sure why the tunnels were built and one of the most common explanations given is that they were an act of philanthropy - giving jobs to men returning from the Napoleonic Wars.

The work on the tunnels lasted for about 30 years - until Williamson's death - and employed over a thousand men at its height. One notable feature of the tunnels is the shear quality of workmanship, which suggests that it served as training for workers who would later be employed in railway construction and other construction activities.

The present tunnel network is what has survived after a century and a half of development in the area. Many of the higher level tunnels will have been destroyed by building work above and those that remain have been filled with rubble from demolition work and general household and industrial waste, so that what can be seen at the moment is probably only a fraction of what is down there. Every tunnel that you come across has side passages leading to God knows where so the full extent of the system is unknown although all the tunnels so far discovered are in an area broadly extending from Edge Lane to Smithdown Lane. Some accounts talk of the tunnels extending for miles.

The Friends of Williamson Tunnels is a group of enthusiasts who have done a great deal to publicise the tunnel network and to protect it from destruction by development. They have also carried out a lot of excavation, although they are seeking a lease on the tunnel network to enable them to remove some of the rubble filling the tunnels. Until that is forthcoming, they cannot remove anything from site and city council quantity surveyors do periodic checks to ensure that none of the excavated rubble has been 'stolen'.

Work on the tunnels probably started when Williamson moved into his house in Mason Street off Paddington. This is all that remains of it today - not one of the best preserved examples of Georgian architecture:



Only the facade of the house now remains, it would have originally been three storeys. More recently it has been used as a garage, as can be seen by the 'modern' steel roof to the rear:



Williamson built and owned a number of houses in Mason Street and those on this side would have had excellent views over Liverpool and across the Mersey because the road was built on the edge of a hill, literally Edge Hill. One problem with this was that level back gardens could not be provided and Williamson solved this by constructing huge arches to extend the gardens over the slope. None of these arches now remain (although they are depicted in a Herdman drawing) but it is possible that they gave the impetus to Williamson to construct his later tunnels.

This is how you get into the tunnel network. In the course of the visit, our group used three entrances to separate sections of the system:



This section of tunnel beneath Williamson's house shows the huge amount of rubble filling in the tunnels and also the marvellous quality of the sandstone vault, which was built to such precision that the inside faces of the blocks were curved to follow the curve of the arch:



The sandstone blocks forming this arch are so large and heavy that it is most likely that they were built on timber centering using the cut and cover method and so the space would have originally be open to daylight. The arch in the headwall has never been properly explored but is believed to extend to the holy grail of the Williamson Tunnel network, the Great Arch, which has not been seen since the early 20c but is believed to be still intact. The land above the Great Arch is now occupied by a Magnet warehouse but was for a long time used by the Territorial Army who acquired the site mainly so that they could make use of the arch as an enclosed space for rifle practice.

This is looking up the 'Gash', a tall and narrow descending tunnel leading from the previous arch to the 'Banqueting Hall'. A tunnel leading from this in the opposite direction is understood to have originally come out in the hillside but is now partially collapsed. The walls of the Gash are natural sandstone with the tool marks of the quarrymen still visible:



This is the largest tunnel so far discovered in this part of the network - the Banqueting Hall. The full height of the arch will not be known until all of the rubble has been cleared.

The name of this tunnel came about because of a legend about the tunnel's builder. Williamson had tested the loyalty of his acquaintances by inviting them to a dinner at his house. The dinner turned out to be a poor man's meal of beans and many of the distinguished visitors left in disgust. Williamson then said ' I now know who my true friends are' and led the remaining people to a sumptuous banquet. There is no reason to believe that the banquet was held in this tunnel but the FoWT intend to hold a banquet there one day, probably when all the rubble has been cleared out.



After a climb up the rubble slope, you come across the headwall of the tunnel showing the pick marks of the builders. The arch here is probably some thirty to forty feet above the floor of the hall:



This side arch leads off from the Banqueting Hall and shows some of the vast network of tunnels that has still to be explored. The whole complex is like this:



This is a memento of a film made in the tunnels a few years ago: The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe. There is no evidence that the tunnels were ever intended to be used as catacombs:



This is the 'Wine Bins', a section of the tunnels accessed via a second manhole under Williamson's house. The wine racks date from the making of the film and the name was suggested by the curious alcoves in the tunnel wall:



This small tunnel near the Wine Bins was blocked off for the making of the film. In the classic Poe short story, Montresor, seeking revenge on the 'thousand injuries' exacted by his friend Fortunato lures him into the deepest part of his wine cellars in search of a cask of fine Amontillado sherry. When they get there, having consumed plenty of wine along the way, Montresor manacles Fortunato to the wall and bricks it up behind him and states that 'for half a century no mortal has disturbed him'. The two walls here are the site of that sadistic crime:



This next section of the network was accessed from a new entrance constructed in the student village behind the Bears Paw pub in Irvine Street. This was the site of one of the most important events in the history of FoWT, when they managed to break into a section of tunnel last seen in the 1920s by the local historian Charles Hand:



Hand stated that he could walk for miles along tunnels, although that might have been hyperbole or just disorientation. The tunnels have been excavated and refilled with rubble from other sections of the network. Hopefully, before long permission will be granted to remove some of this material.

Despite being completely underground and only accessed by narrow openings, the air in the tunnel network is surprisingly fresh - that fact being put down to the air shafts that Williamson incorporated into his design. The temperature is constant and is just cold enough to require wearing a coat.

Probably from the time of Williamson's death, local householders and industrialists chose to use the tunnels for refuse disposal. These three photos show some of the 'finds' from this section of the network. Most of the plates will have been broken or chipped but some were recovered intact - showing that the throwaway society is nothing new. You can see some of the fine dressed stone sandstone blocks in the final photo:







This tunnel contains some 150 years of ash deposits from a bakery that used to sit above the site. An exploratory pit was dug by FoWT which got down 20 feet in this ash without finding the bottom. A probe established that the ash went down a further 10 feet and still didn't find a solid surface. Imagine the size of the space when this is fully excavated:



The sections of tunnels that I visited are only a part of the total network. Some years ago, the upper level of the large 'Triple Decker Tunnel' - literally a tunnel on three levels - was discovered. This was bisected by the Lime Street Cutting and its location can still be seen from the cutting being marked by tall brick walls either side.

There is a legend that workers engaged on the original tunnel to Lime Street broke into a Williamson Tunnel, which enabled Robert Stephenson and Joseph Williamson to greet each other underground.

Why the tunnels were built will probably always remain a mystery. There is a story that Williamson's wife had been frightened by a religious zealot into believing that Liverpool would be destroyed in a forthcoming apocalypse and the tunnels were to provide refuge for the townspeople (in fact the tunnels were considered during WWII for conversion into bomb shelters although they were never used for that).

A more prosaic explanation would be that Williamson was simply making land for property development. Edge Hill had previously been the site of a large number of sandstone quarries and these tended to follow the rectangular outlines of property divisions. By roofing these rectangular pits over, more building land could be created in what was then a very desirable part of the city.

That explanation, though plausible, does not explain why such craftsmanship should have been employed in their construction but, as mentioned above, it may have been a philanthropic apprenticeship scheme. Maybe some of the skills that Williamson's workers acquired were employed elsewhere in the city.

I suppose the final conundrum is just what is to be done with these tunnels. The Friends of Williamson Tunnels is an enthusiastic and friendly bunch who are anxious to open up more and more of the network. There is surely more tourist potential (although this will depend a lot on improved access) and the tunnels have generated worldwide interest, so hopefully some imaginative ideas will be forthcoming.

The Williamson tunnels are not the only underground attraction in the area. A short distance from the tunnels is the Cavendish Cutting, at the head of Wapping Tunnel where trains set off on the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. There are moves afoot to get the area made into a World Heritage Site but I guess there will be a lot of hard work ahead before that comes to fruition.

If you would like to find out more about the tunnels, visit the excellent FoWT website. The Smithdown Lane Heritage Centre is also well worth a visit. This is operated by the separate Joseph Williamson Society.
 

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I went down there years ago with a group from Yoliverpool,I don't think any of this was excavated then though? We went through the main entrance in Smithdown Lane I think? One story that stuck in my head was Williamson was commissioned to do the main pillars on the Albert Dock but because money and time were no object they replaced him/his workers with someone else and that's why there are two pillars in the Albert Dock that are made of stone and the rest are cast iron.









Here's the thread from way back in 2005.
http://www.yoliverpool.com/forum/showthread.php?1741-Williamson-Tunnels
 

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Thanks Martin and Paul.

We should make more of the Williamson Tunnels as part of the Liverpool experience because it works on so many levels - Edge Hill moles, the human imagination/resourcefulness, philanthropy, the story of deliciously strange people who pitched up in Liverpool, the downside of being over reliant on port related work, and so on.
 

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The whole lot needs clearing out and a proper tourist attraction made of it with an information centre & cafe being built in Edge Hill, more user-friendly entrances to the tunnels put in place etc

It's a unique attraction and could help regenerate that part of the city
 

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Liverpool, England.
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Discussion Starter · #6 ·
Paul,

Thanks for posting the photos and the link. The heritage centre in Smithdown Lane is physically distinct from the Mason Street site due to the Lime Street cutting and is the only part of the network that is regularly open to the public. Having said that, it is not clear that the tunnels ever did form a continuous network - my visit involved three different access points. Only further excavation will prove it either way.

Babaloo / Eyeam

Agree that something needs to be done to fully exploit these tunnels. At present it is the two amateur groups (who have a history of strained relations) that are doing all the work and the legal situation is holding up further excavation. Basically, the tunnels are owned by whoever owns the land above them but the new lease should enable the removal of fill from the tunnels and lots more discoveries..
 

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The visitors centre and the 'Friends of Williamson Tunnels' are two distinct groups. There has been some rivalry between them in the past, as shown by the similar but different websites:

www.williamsontunnels.co.uk/ - Heritage Centre
www.williamsontunnels.com/ - Friends

I once worked as a volunteer in the heritage centre and have also helped excavate rubbish from the tunnels. It is indeed interesting but needs more excavation work to create a better / longer visitor experience. My belief is that the arches are land reclamation. Unfortunately not as romantic as the other stories!
 

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Wasn't there a couple of failed national lottery fund bids?

The PR and fund raising potential of 'going for gold' and 'revealing' the 'magnifient' central arch is huge. I wonder whether the two groups are really up to it.
 

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Unearthing of ‘new’ Williamson tunnel sparks planning row


by Emily Gosden, TMNW
Jan 20 2011

Friends of Williamson Tunnels member,Steve Moran,with the new tunnel
THE unearthing of a previously unknown Williamson tunnel sparked a row over the building of student accommodation at the historic site. The labyrinth of tunnels in Edge Hill was built in the early 1800s by retired tobacco merchant Joseph Williamson but their original purpose is a mystery. Local historians fear that the proposal for flats at an area of the tunnels on Smithdown Lane could destroy the newly uncovered tunnel.

Site owners Goldcrest Finance, who built the Williamson Tunnels Visitors’ Centre in 2001, insist they will protect any archaeological remains. An archaeological survey ordered by the council found the new tunnel. If the survey deems the find historically significant Goldcrest Finance may have to redraw plans. History society Friends of Williamson Tunnels said the tunnel has a “composite” style of arch construction, with brick and sandstone.

FoWT trustee Dave Head said: “This whole site is a very important part of Liverpool’s heritage. Unfortunately the tunnel was badly damaged sometime in the past, probably in the late 1860s when the Corporation Central Stables was built on Williamson’s former work yard. It would now appear that with the condition that the tunnels are in they may face being demolished.”

Another trustee Steve Moran, said: “We have been constantly fighting to save the history buried within our tunnels. Liverpool owns this history and the finds should be on public display, not demolished. There are 800 members within our history society and we are going to do everything we can to save the tunnels.”

RA Fisk and Associates, architects for Goldcrest Finance, said: “Following the discovery of archaeological remains, Oxford Archaeology North have undertaken an investigation. Once this work is complete agreement will be reached with the Merseyside archaeological officer in relation to a scheme to ensure that these remains are protected and preserved.”

A city council spokesman said: “We are now assessing the situation with the county archaeologist. Depending on the findings of this assessment the owners may be required to find a solution which protects any discovery of historical importance.”



Read More http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/live...98&siteid=100252-name_page.html#ixzz1BZJzgJXN

This story was covered on Yo! (with photos) a few days ago:

http://www.yoliverpool.com/forum/sh...on-Tunnel-Found!&highlight=Williamson+Tunnels
 

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Hello Skyscraper City, we're long-time followers but first time posters! We have a litte request we hope you lovely people can help with.

Ok, so you might not have the time to grab a spade or pickaxe and grub beneath the streets of Edge-Hill like our diggers do - but YOU can help in your own way.

The Williamson Tunnels Heritage Centre is trying to raise funds so we can open the recently discovered Triple Decker tunnel.

Since 2002 The Joseph Williamson Society have removed over 1500 tonnes of rubble by hand.

We need your help to get this amazing section of tunnel open to the public. By registering and voting at the NatWest Community Force website we could get up to £6000 towards opening this to YOU.

We are now raising votes for the NatWest Community Force.

Vote for us here: http://communityforce.natwest.com/project/5968

Remember this is your chance to help The Joseph Williamson Society continue their hard work of keeping the tunnels open to the public and it costs you NOTHING but a minute of your time.

Please join in and help save this unique part of our heritage, Help us dig out the tunnels - no spades needed!
 

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I tried, I registered but got no verification E-Mail so I tried to register again it
said My E-Mail address was all ready in use, so I requested my verification
E-Mail be sent again nothing. I'll try and register later today with a different E-Mail address if that fails I ring them...
 
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