The Williamson Tunnels, Liverpool

I always knew it would be a risk going into museum studies research; suddenly all those heritage sites and museums and art galleries are no longer 'things to do at a weekend' like they are for 'normal' people but they become places which must be thought about, analysed and dissected in minute detail. So it was with some dismay and cries of 'but its the weekend!' that I greeted my sister's suggestion to go and visit the Williamson Tunnels in Smithdown Lane, Liverpool. Fortunately she ignored me and my eyes were opened to this unique and incredibly bizarre (and very British) tourist attraction.

Tucked away in one of the less salubrious parts of Liverpool, the Williamson Tunnels were the project of one Joseph Williamson, an eccentric philanthropist, a self-made millionaire who blew most of his fortune building a labyrinth of tunnels beneath his house and the neighbouring lands of Edge Hill, characterised by its sandstone outcrops. In the process he hired soldiers and sailors returning home from the Crimean Wars, providing work for those who society otherwise shunned such as disabled soldiers (and remember in those days there was no equivalent of the Job seekers allowance etc) and enabling them to learn a skill. In the process of building his tunnels, many of which were experimental, he allegedly bumped into George Stephenson's navvies who happened to be building the railway cutting from Manchester to Liverpool (which still marks the entrance to Liverpool Lime Street station all the way from the sandstone magnificance of Edge Hill station). They thought they had met demons, covered in the soot of hell and ran shrieking to Stephenson, who went over to take a look at the tunnels. Bumping into Williamson, Stephenson was significantly impressed to offer work to several of Williamson's men. Just as well because Stephenson's cutting 'cuts' through one of Williamson's three-decker tunnels, remains of which can be seen from the train (if you have night vision that is since its in the tunnel). Williamson's men even built some of the columns for Albert Dock (they took too long though and the rest were made of cast iron). When Joseph died of water on the chest in 1840 it was found that he actually had very little money left, having spent it all on his tunnels and building impressively unique houses, sadly none of which now survive. Even the church where he is buried has been demolished and made way for a car park. Such is the wisdom of city planners.

Fortunately the tunnels survive, buried away beneath the depressing flats and council housing of the surrounding area. Thanks to the efforts of some modern 'eccentrics' and volunteers a bit of the tunnels have been dug out, by removing tons and tons of Victorian waste material which had been dumped there in subsequent years. For a modest fee you can go on a guided tour of the tunnels; our guide was one of the men who originally discovered them and it was wonderful to see his enduring and obvious passion for what is a very strange landmark. It was damp and warm inside, and we all had to wear a hard hat, and you cannot help but be impressed by the dedication of Williamson and his men, as well as the dedication of the modern volunteers. Whilst we were there three men were hacking away at the rubble with picks and carting it away in wheelbarrows to reveal a collapsed archway, the beginning of the three decker tunnel that was sadly truncated by Stephenson's railway. There is not much tunnel to see at present, and they are hoping to open up more of them to visitors in the future, but it was very interesting to see the workmanship that had gone into the making of them, the vaulting all fashioned from handmade sandstone brick. Also a room filled with bits of 19th century rubbish, uncatalogued and all higgledy-piggledy, was interesting in terms of seeing what our forebears threw away. You can always pet the rather lonely looking Shire horse who lives there as well, the council once having used the site to stable their horses who used to cart the rubbish and perform other unenviable tasks.

So although the tunnels to some might seem pretty pointless, for me it was a fascinating place. There is only a small exhibition which brings some more detail to the life of Williamson, who remains somewhat an enigmatic figure, and the heritage site itself is looking a little worse for wear with a very old fashioned approach to display etc. However it didn't really seem to matter for once. Essentially it is the tunnels which are the star of this attraction and are well worth a visit if you are ever in Liverpool as an alternative to the more flashy tourist attractions.


Amy said…
Ooooo - sounds like an exciting place. Just been looking at pics on the Friends' website:

They suggest that the tunnels might have been used for satanic rituals. :S Ooo-err. They ought to get the Most Haunted team in. ;)
Amy said…
I take it all back. Have just re-read that bit on the website, and - in fact - Williamson and his wife are thought to have belonged to an apocalyptic religious cult, which is rather different from what I suggested. Whoops! Someone's been watching too much Most Haunted methinks. ;)
Ceri said…
The guide we had mentioned nothing about that so I was rather surprised to read it on the website! Its an interesting enigma all the same :)
Amy said…
It's interesting to note how information is controlled at these kinds of sites, isn't it? And the role of the individual (the guide) in its dissemination.
Anonymous said…
I'm a guide at the tunnels and the reason we don't tell you about the apocolyptic cult is that... there is not one shred of evidence to back it up. Anyway, Williamson was a God-fearing-Church of England man with his feet firmly on (or under) the ground.

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