An underground mystery: Liverpool’s tunnel system

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A subterranean warren

It’s a story of intrigue which has been puzzling subterranean enthusiasts for nearly two centuries: a warren of tunnels and chambers crisscrossing their way under the streets of Liverpool.

The reasons for their construction are shrouded with mystery. So much so, they even featured heavily as a key plot point in recent episodes of BBC One’s Doctor Who series.

Break Time News is trying to find answers that countless generations of Liverpudlians, historians and underground enthusiasts have been asking over the years: what’s down there and why were they built?

Their creation is thanks to Joseph Williamson who lived in the Edge Hill district of the city until his death in 1840 (indeed, it’s said that work stopped in the tunnels at the time of his death).  

Not for nothing did he earn a nickname that sticks until this very day: The Mole of Edge Hill.

He was a rich philanthropist and it’s believed he wanted chambers dug to give men a purpose following their return from the Napoleonic wars.

‘Joseph Williamson is peppered with false stories and myths. We have spent years trying to squash the untruths. The real story has only evolved as we have spent 25 years unearthing and emptying these spaces,’ explains Tom Stapledon.

Tom is a member of the Friends of Williamson Tunnels, one of two groups established to preserve these incredible achievements of Georgian and Victorian engineering. The charity was formed in 1996.

Teaching trades in Georgian England

In short, Williamson’s goal wasn’t just about providing a chance to provide men with the wherewithal for food to feed their families, but also to give them a chance to keep a bit of pride and to learn new types of expertise.

‘This was not a commercial venture, and it wasn’t just about giving them dignity, but it was teaching them trades with skilled craftsmen, everything from quarrying through to carpentry which would have given them the skills to work on building the docks and the railways. These men had been previously unemployed and struggling.’  

Having visited parts of the Williamson tunnels a few years ago, Break Time News has seen the results of the incredible Herculean task theatre volunteers spent four years undertaking.

Their back-breaking task to clear these caverns of mud, rubble, dirt and debris has allowed these incredible structures to be revealed to the world.

Tom explains the Paddington area of the tunnel network extends some 60 feet below the surface and around buildings that were constructed in the 1830s.

‘Paddington is our showcase,’ he says. Visitors have been giving consistent five-star ratings for the Williamson Tunnels. Tours have now restarted following the easing of Covid restrictions.

For around 90 minutes, guides are able to transport us back in time and into a forgotten world which involves heading down some 82 steps, over four levels. Along the way, visitors get to see the everyday household items which have been uncovered.

Bottles and jars. Some with the content makers’ names still visibly on them. Objects from just before the war. Other artefacts date back to Victorian times.   

‘We were persistent with our research and found a way into the tunnels in 1999. It was almost filled to the roof, and we had no idea what we would find. We spent four years emptying it.’

Team filled 159 skips to clear access

The statistics behind their achievement are incredible to consider. The team filled 159 skips to allow for clear access into the structure. To put that figure into context, that’s enough rubble and earth to fill half the volume of an Olympic sized swimming pool.

And each shovel full of earth had the potential to contain a priceless artefact from a long-forgotten past

‘You could spend days not finding anything and all-of-a-sudden you would come across a whole bottle, or jars, with names on them. We found a coronation cup for Edward VII with 1902 written on it.’

‘Someone picked it up and scraped out the mud. They saw something was inside and we held it up to the light where we could see a beautiful image of him on it.’

‘It was a real ‘wow’ moment and something which is a bit special. No one had seen anything like it.’

During our remote meeting, Break Time News’s eyes were continually drawn to Tom’s virtual background: an incredible image showing a colossal underground chamber.  

He explains it was only recently uncovered and starts some 23 feet below ground level before going on to descend to a total depth of 60 feet. There’s a double archway down there too.

These are architectural works of art that have not been seen by the human eye in more than 150 years.

It comes as no surprise to us that their discoveries have helped to spark the interest of people from around the globe.

‘It’s the mystery of not knowing what you will find next but just wanting to find more to try to make sense of what he was trying to do.’

And it’s that sense of mystique that may also explain why the charity’s membership numbers have grown to more than 1200 and why people from all over the world are drawn to take a peek at this once-forgotten piece of our heritage.

Photography copyright: © Chris Iles – Friends of Williamson’s Tunnels

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