top of page
Joseph Williamson (The Mole of Edge Hill) was born in 1769 and in 1802, he was married to Elizabeth Tate at St Thomas Church, Park Lane, Liverpool. In 1805, Williamson moved to Mason Street in Edge Hill and begun a 35 year long ‘hobby’ of constructing the most elaborate set of underground tunnels known in the UK.
He was written about in Recollections of Old Liverpool, by A Nonagenarian which provide the following description back in 1863:
Mr. Williamson’s property at Edge-hill, was principally held under the Waste Lands Commission. His leases expired in 1858. It commenced adjoining Miss Mason’s house, near Paddington, and extended to Grinfield-street. It was bounded on the west by Smithdown-lane, along which ran a massive stone wall of singular appearance, more like that of a fortress than a mere enclosure. Within this area were some of the most extraordinary works, involving as great an outlay of money as may be found anywhere upon the face of the earth, considering the space of ground they occupy.
In their newly wrought state, about the years 1835 and ’36, or thereabouts, they created intense wonder in the minds of the very few who were permitted to examine them. During the last few years, I believe they have been gradually filled up and very much altered, but they are still there to be laid open someday. Few of us know much of them, though so few years have elapsed since they were projected and carried out, since the sounds of the blast, the pick, and the shovel were last heard in their vicinity.
Now what will be said of these minings, subterranean galleries, vaults and arches, should they suddenly be discovered a century hence, when their originator as well as their origin shall have faded away into nothing like the vanishing point of the painter? Here we behold an astonishing instance of the application of vast labour without use, immense expense incurred without hope of return, and, if we except the asserted reason of the late projector that these works were carried on for the sole purpose of employing men in times of great need and depression, we have here stupendous works without perceptible motive, reason, or form. Like the catacombs at Paris, Williamson’s vaults might have been made receptacles for the dried bones of legions of our forefathers. Again, they might have been converted into fitting places for the hiding of stolen goods, or where the illicit distiller might carry on his trade with impunity.
I hardly know in what tense to speak of those excavations, not being aware in what state they are at present. A strange place it is or was. Vaulted passages cut out of the solid rock; arches thrown up by craftsmen’s hands, beautiful in proportion and elegant in form, but supporting nothing. Tunnels formed here—deep pits there. Yawning gulfs, where the fetid, stagnant waters threw up their baneful odours. Here the work is finished off, as if the mason had laboured with consummate skill to complete his work, so that all the world might see and admire, although no human eyes, save those of the master’s, would ever be set upon it. Here lies the ponderous stone as it fell after the upheaving blast had dislodged it from its bed; and there, vaulted over, is a gulf that makes the brain dizzy, and strikes us with terror as we look down into it. Now we see an arch, fit to bridge a mountain torrent; and in another step or two we meet another, only fit to span a simple brook. Tiers of passages are met with, as dangerous to enter as they are strange to look at. It must ever be a matter of regret that after Mr. Williamson’s death, someone able to make an accurate survey of the property did not go through and describe it, because it has been greatly changed since then by the accumulations of rubbish that have been brought to every part of it. All the most elaborate portions of the excavations have been entirely closed up. In one section of the ground (that near Grinfield-street), where there was of late years a joiner’s shop, the ground was completely undermined in galleries and passages, one over the other, constituting a subterranean labyrinth of the most intricate design. Near here also was a deep gulf, in the wall sides of which were two houses completely excavated out of the solid rock, each having four rooms of tolerable dimensions.
When Joseph Williamson died in 1840, the house was used for a variety of different uses over time. While other buildings in the street were demolished, this façade seemed to linger on, as a nod for Williamson and the past events in Mason Street. The biggest change was when the top tier was removed, a pitched roof was added and lots of steelwork added to the inside of the building to be part of P.M. Willey’s garage as seen below. This was a car workshop that made use of Williamson’s former house, with most of the ground floor being cemented up, only for small access hatch points for those accessible tunnels. Over the many years, during and past the ownership of the garage, many have got into these access points to learn about the Williamson’s Tunnels and what lies beneath the ground.
As quoted from the Friends of Williamson's Tunnels website:
"The central area of the Williamson Tunnels rectangle is recognisable above ground by the remaining facade of Williamson’s house, the former No. 44 Mason Street. Along with some sections of boundary wall and some possible other features in adjoining streets, the house facade is one of the very few remaining Williamson structures above ground. It is therefore important and demands preservation."
The Friends of Williamson's Tunnels website can be found here:
However, it is not just the façade above ground that is important, the Friends of Williamson’s Tunnels have made sterling work in uncovering the remainder of Williamson’s House and basement. It is vast and stunning to see! But let us see video of this amazing structure below left. We then take a fantastic tour of the underground tunnels under this section:
The Friends of Williamson’s Tunnels have made a sterling effort in the excavation of the tunnels network under Williamson’s House, not just the ‘Wine Bins’ section but also that of the ‘Banqueting Hall’ too. They are a limited company who rely on membership donations to keep going and have done so for over 20 years.
The patch of land that Williamson’s façade sits on is owned by Liverpool City Council. The Friends operate on this land by a lease which is renewable each year. With the immense changes to the immediate area around Mason Street and Paddington Village, it is testament that this is a very well-known and well-liked set of tunnels, known locally and nationally. Therefore, the façade is owned by Liverpool City Council.
Historic house at Williamson Tunnels could be demolished due to safety fears
This was the recent shocking headline from the City Council in which is reported here:
The facade is not listed and yet is one of the most important 'above ground' features in the Williamson's Story. I therefore wrote off to Historic England, Save Britain's Heritage, the Mayor of Liverpool and ward councillors in the following e-mail:
Since 2000, I have been a member of the Friends of Williamson's Tunnels, and during the early part of the 2000's, I was a tour guide for both the Paddington section and Joseph Williamson's House section under Mason Street. I am one of the early members who have supported the Friends of Williamson's Tunnels for over 20 years and was present when the Duke of Westminster toured both of the above sections. Further to this, I have been in to the rarely seen 'Triple Decker' tunnel many years ago. I am very knowledgeable on the Williamson's Tunnels and have watched Mason Street change from a small throughfare to an important road behind Paddington Village and its new enhancements and buildings. My late great grandfather on my mother's side once lived on Shimmin Street (just off Mason Street) so I have a personal connection to the area. I have an extensive collection of images of the Tunnels including many images of Joseph Williamson's House throughout the years when it was a 3-story building.
I have heard about the proposed demolition of Joseph Williamson's House facade via the Liverpool Echo (https://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/historic-house-williamson-tunnels-could-24953164) and this has to be said that this cannot happen. For 200 years, this building (originally a three-story building) was once the home of Joseph Williamson. He lived there with his wife, Elizabeth and it was described in the 1846 James Stonehouse 'recollections of Liverpool'. Whereas Mason Street was once part of the Gentry in Edge Hill, it has become almost a forgotten area until the Friends of Williamson's Tunnels became involved, and I have spent many hours behind the Williamson's facade taking tours around the Tunnels. The Friends have done a sterling job in excavating the Tunnels for the last 20 years and must be commended.
It is the last remaining part of Williamson's domain above ground. Contemporary photographs of the area around the 1900's show the street in all its glory. Littered with odd buildings that Williamson constructed and rented out, all of this has gone apart from this facade.
My question to you is how we can go about repairing this? We are not talking about St George's Hall. We are talking about a fairly simple 2 story facade, held together by iron work, installed when P.M. Willey took over and converted the 'house' in to a car garage. It would be an absolute crime to let this facade fall to the wrecker's ball, as we watched with horror of similar facades (i.e. the Futurist on Lime Street).
Could I therefore ask (under the Freedom of Information Act 2000) on how much you have been quoted for:
1 - The cost of retaining and repairing the facade.
2 - The demolition of the facade (which includes all costings to have the road closed/cherry pickers/demolition crew/rubble taken away).
I ask, because I know that the council's finances aren't in the best shape, whether you would consider a crowd sourcing campaign based on the above figure to restore the facade, something which I would be happy to run myself as a local historian? Or whether you would welcome local builders/tradespeople and or architects to work for free to secure this facade if they dealt with you directly?
This is a most important facade and should be saved as a beacon for the work that Joseph Williamson did and how historic this facade is. I ask that no demolition work is undertaken until every avenue on funding etc is explored so we don't lose yet another important and historic building. We are only talking about a 2-story facade, not an entire building to be saved and therefore could be done with ease. If we cannot restore a simple facade of great importance and heritage, then there is no hope for any other complete building within the boundary of Liverpool.
I do not speak for the capacity of the Friends of Williamson's Tunnels, merely a local campaigner who can see the immeasurable value in keeping the facade of Joseph Williamson's house standing for future generations.
I have copied in both Save Britain's Heritage and Historic England as well as the local councillors for the area in the hope that you can pull out ALL the stops and see if this facade can be restored.
Our only hope now is that the City Council sees sense and attempts to restore this as a beacon for Joseph Williamson, someone who brought so much employment and hope to our great city. This is a simple two-story façade and should be retained for another 200 years. Perhaps the builders who are working on Paddington Village could come along for a couple of days and attempt to put right this façade so they can understand the amazing structures of the Williamson’s Tunnels and the sterling work that the Friends of Williamson’s Tunnels have done in Edge Hill for over 20 years.
Do not demolish this structure and regret it later as we have done with so much of our lost heritage!!
SAVE BRITAIN'S HERITAGE
LIVERPOOL'S HERITAGE - AT RISK
These buildings do not belong to us only...they have belonged to our forefathers and they will belong to our descendants unless we play them false. They are not our property, to do as we like with. We are only trustees for those that come after us.
SAVE has been campaigning for historic buildings since its formation in 1975 by a group of architectural historians, journalists and planners. SAVE is a strong, independent voice in conservation, free to respond rapidly to emergencies and to speak out loud for the historic environment.
SAVE is a strong, independent voice in conservation that has been fighting for threatened historic buildings and sustainable reuses since 1975.
We are at the forefront of national heritage conservation. We intervene to help historic buildings and places in serious danger of demolition or decay. We stand apart from other organisations by bringing together architects, engineers, planners and investors to offer viable alternative proposals. Where necessary, and with expert advice, we take legal action to prevent major and needless losses.
Historic England are the public body that helps people care for, enjoy and celebrate England's spectacular historic environment.
We protect, champion and save the places that define who we are and where we've come from as a nation. We care passionately about the stories they tell, the ideas they represent and the people who live, work and play among them.
Working with communities and specialists we share our passion, knowledge and skills to inspire interest, care and conservation, so everyone can keep enjoying and looking after the history that surrounds us all.
We make sure people understand and appreciate the benefits England's heritage brings and why it should be respected, cherished and enhanced as part of the very soul of our nation. We open up heritage for everyone, using digital resources, media campaigns, our unsurpassed archive, publishing, public information and exhibitions.
bottom of page