The Legacy of Joseph Williamson, Philanthropist

The King of Edge Hill

Known as an eccentric, a businessman and a philanthropist, Joseph’s most enduring legacy must be the tunnels he had constructed in the Edge Hill area of Liverpool.

Born in the West Riding of Yorkshire, Joseph was the son of a glassmaker, but left his family home at the age of 11 to work for Richard Tate in the tobacco and snuff business in Liverpool. He quickly rose through the ranks, marrying the boss’s daughter Elizabeth in 1802 and buying the business off her brother in 1803.

Joseph Williamson Portrait

Joseph Williamson Portrait

Now wealthy, Joseph bought a large piece of undeveloped land in Edge Hill along with a house on Mason Street close by. He proceeded to employ builders to construct houses ‘of the strangest description’, apparently with no architect’s plans, rhyme or reason. But he did not stop there. He continued to employ men to work on his land, even when there appeared to be no purpose – moving piles of earth from one place to another and back again. He also embarked on a programme of tunnel building, with underground passageways at depths of between 10 and 50 feet below the surface. Eventually, these stretched for several miles. When he had retired and after the death of his wife, he concentrated all his efforts on these mysterious excavations and appeared increasingly odd to those who met him.

Williamson died in 1840 aged 71. He was buried in the Tate family tomb at St Thomas’ Church and the tunnelling finally stopped.

There is plenty of speculation about the tunnels, fuelled even more by the fact that Joseph was secretive about their purpose. He left behind no plans or any records of who had worked on the tunnel or for how long. Some say he was a member of a strange cult, but the most likely reason was that he saw it as a means of providing gainful work for the many men returning from the Napoleonic Wars. He himself said that his workers “all received a weekly wage and were thus enabled to enjoy the blessing of charity without the attendant curse of stifled self-respect”, suggesting that his prime motive was “the employment of the poor”.

Today, the Friends of Williamson’s Tunnels and the Heritage Centre on the site continue to renovate and foster awareness of the labyrinths Joseph created. Parts are open to the public, and if you want to see this fascinating piece of Liverpool history, an enduring memorial to Williamson, you can find details of when to visit here.

There is also a very entertaining account of Williamson with anecdotes about his strange ways in the book Recollections of Old Liverpool by a Nonagenarian, published in 1863 – this is freely available on the internet and also contains many fascinating accounts of the city and its characters!

Louise McTigue is a freelance writer and researcher, writing on behalf of Sarsfield Memorials.