When trains approach Liverpool’s Lime Street Station from Edge Hill, it’s possible to discern oddities in the smooth sandstone surface of the dank, vertical-sided cutting. The line, which was originally in tunnel, runs through a very strange part of the city, honeycombed with what are now called the Williamson Tunnels.
Joseph Williamson was born, possibly in Warrington, on March 10th 1769. At the age of eleven he arrived in Liverpool looking for work, and made his fortune as a tobacco and snuff merchant and built speculative housing at the then picturesque settlement of Edge Hill.
Standing on the edge of a slope looking down on the River Mersey, these houses were built with arched cellars, which were extended above ground as the natural contour dropped some twenty feet towards Smithdown Lane.
Quite how this development led to the construction of the first man-made caves in the sandstone is unclear. Possibly Williamson recruited workmen from the droves of unemployed that came seeking work, particularly after the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815. Perhaps he wished to offer financial support without giving charity.
Legend has it that when in the 1830s Robert Stephenson engineered the first railway tunnel from Edge Hill to Lime Street, the navvies unexpectedly broke through the floor of their works and were confronted by Williamson’s men going about their own tunnelling business. Stephenson’s men, convinced they had penetrated into Hell, apparently fled. Eventually, Robert Stephenson and Joseph Williamson met, and the young engineer was sufficiently impressed by the scale and quality of the Edge Hill tunnels to pass on some of Williamson’s workforce to his railway contractors.
At Williamson’s death in 1840 all work on the tunnels stopped, and the owners of the surrounding property quickly took opportunities to break through to dump rubbish in the voids beneath their houses. The opening out of the rail tunnel into Lime Street sliced through the entire network, including a triple-deck tunnel, evidence of which can still be discerned with difficulty in the walls of the cutting. Over the following decades the accessible spaces were filled in, and to this day the foundations of new building operations on the former Williamson estate are customarily disrupted by unexpected voids.
By the late twentieth century Williamson’s works had been largely forgotten, except as apocryphal local stories. In the mid-1990s a group of enthusiasts formed to rediscover and where possible preserve the Edge Hill caves, and to take practical steps to make them accessible to the public.
Three sites are currently under investigation, on Smithdown Lane, Mason Street and Paddington. A previously unknown entrance to the system was discovered during the construction of the Williamson Student Village. At Smithdown Lane the Williamson Tunnels Heritage Centre opened in September 2002, utilising the former Corporation stables that abut one part of the tunnel complex.