JOSEPH WILLIAMSON: MAKER OF TUNNELS
Our September 2014 talk - reviewed by Mike Chitty
Claire Moorhead, of the Friends of Williamson's Tunnels, came to talk to us on 8th September. She recalled public meetings in the 1990s when people had said "there's nothing to see, you won't find anything!". The photographs she showed of the recent excavations revealed just how wrong the sceptics had been.
Joseph Williamson was a Liverpool tobacco merchant and snuff manufacturer. The owner of the firm, Richard Tate, died suddenly. His son was not business-minded. In 1802 Williamson married his daughter, and took over the business. The Tate family had lived on the corner of Parr Street and Wolstenholme Square, but on marriage the Williamsons moved 'out of town' to Edge Hill. While Williamson's contemporaries bought country houses in Cheshire, Williamson chose to spend his money on tunnelling.
Williamson didn't believe in the 'poor box' or charitable donations. He gave a fair day's pay for a fair day's work - whether or not the work was necessary! Claire showed us photographs of some of his underground creations, which in the early 20th century were given nicknames like the 'banqueting hall' and the 'Gothic arch'. She explained that there is a 20ft drop from Mason Street (where Williamson lived) to Smithdown Lane, and he began by building a brick arch to extend his back garden. Having discovered that the sandstone under the house was pebble-free, he then began digging tunnels from his own house under neighbouring properties.
A 1925 photograph shows members of a Liverpool antiquarian society standing in the basement of a house in Paddington. The Friends wondered whether they could find it. Council flats had been built there in the 1930s, but by 1999 they had gone and new student flats were being constructed. The developer allowed the Friends to dig down. They found a cave, with arches on all sides - and air mysteriously fresh - and they were allowed to build a new entrance to avoid the use of ladders. However, before long the property had changed hands, and a whole series of new owners weren't interested (or proved impossible to contact). Then in 2013 the Friends got proper access to the underground area at last, and the removal of all the rubble-fill material began in earnest. So far 84 skips (6½ tons each) have been filled by volunteers using buckets and hoists. As Claire said, it has been "a fantastic team-building exercise - and we have an amazing team".
Meanwhile the Friends were also campaigning to save Joseph Williamson's grave, which was known to be in the grounds of St Thomas's Church (built 1744, demolished 1911) on the edge of the new Liverpool One shopping centre. The developers - Grosvenor - agreed to pay an archaeologist to find the grave. After one false start - some of the graves having been renumbered when Paradise Street was realigned through the churchyard in 1884 - the grave was found, and a plaque now marks the spot.
Claire's talk was an eye-opener to many of us - and an inspiration to all.
We shall be arranging a special visit to the tunnels for Gateacre Society members on a Sunday in late March. The next Newsletter will confirm the date, and give details of the booking arrangements.