Though the purpose of the mysterious tunnels is currently unknown, the work itself was done at the order an idiosyncratic—and rich—landowner from the early 19th century named Joseph Williamson.
Little is known about Williamson before his adult life. Born in 1769, it’s speculated that Williamson’s family was poor, and that he moved to Liverpool—alone—at the age of 11, to seek employment. Finding work with the Tate family tobacco and snuff business, Williamson moved up in ranks—so much so that, by 1802, he had married his boss’s daughter, Elizabeth Tate.
He and Elizabeth moved to Edge Hill in 1805, which, at the time, was largely undeveloped. Williamson soon began buying up property and started a side business of landownership. A few years later, he broke ground on his labyrinthine world beneath Edge Hill.
Precisely why this commoner-turned-businessman built the tunnels is up for debate. Some say that Williamson, while officially a member of the Church of England, was a clandestine member of a religious cult, and the tunnels were built to house his friends in the believed end of the earth. Others report than Williamson’s own rationale for the project was charity disguised as labor—creating work for nearly half of the residents of Edge Hill, which gave jobs and a sense of dignity to an otherwise declining population.
Williamson was notoriously secretive about his motives for the project. Perhaps he was merely fulfilling a boyhood dream—all grown up, and wealthy enough to construct his own underground universe.
After Williamson’s death in 1840, construction on the tunnels came to a halt. Soon after, debris was dumped at the entry points, and the whole affair was largely forgotten. If anything, the strange maze was a nuisance for the residents of Edge Hill, as many of the passages collected water that turned into foul-smelling cesspools.
Then, in, 1995, over 150 years after Williamson began his work, a geology student from Liverpool launched an archaeological survey of the tunnels. Excavations are currently underway to map out the underground system—and, hopefully, unlock its secrets.
Perhaps the mystery of Williamson and the Williamson Tunnels will finally be unearthed.
All photos of the tunnels below are provided with express permission from Chris Iles and Friends of Williamson’s Tunnels.
Please consider making a donation to this organization of volunteers, historians, and explorers. All donations help the Friends of Williamson’s Tunnels continue their work in preserving the site for future generations.
Tour the Williamson Tunnels
All photos: Copyright Chris Iles and Friends of Williamson’s Tunnels