Going Underground

In 1805 Joseph Williamson acquired an area of land in Mason Street, Edge Hill, Liverpool, which was then a largely undeveloped outcrop of sandstone with a scattering of scars from small-scale quarrying. He started to build houses on the site. These houses were eccentric in design "of the strangest description" without any rational plans. The ground behind the houses dropped sharply and in order to provide large gardens, which was the fashion at the time, Williamson built arches over some of the quarrying, and arched terraces over which the gardens could be extended. When these were complete he continued to employ his workmen, sometimes to carry out apparently pointless tasks, such as moving rubble from one place to another, then back again. His major project was to build a labyrinth of brick-arched tunnels in various directions and over various lengths within the sandstone. This tunnel-building continued until Williamson's death in 1840.

The reasons for building the tunnels have been widely discussed as Williamson was secretive about his motives. This has led to speculation that he was a member of an extremist religious sect fearing that the end of the world was near and that the tunnels were built to provide refuge for himself and his friends Williamson's own explanation was reputed to be 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", his prime motive being "the employment of the poor".

Archaeological investigations were carried out in 1995. Since then excavations have been carried out and part of the labyrinth of tunnels has been opened to the public as a heritage centre.

Another 19th century tunnel enthusiast was William John Cavendish-Bentinck-Scott, the fifth Duke of Portland. Scott was extremely introverted and constructed a substantial network of underground rooms below his Welbeck Abbey home in order that he could avoid contact with others including his own staff. His valet was the only person he permitted to see him in person in his quarters - he would not even let the doctor in, while his tenants and workmen were told never to acknowledge his presence (a workman who saluted him was reputedly dismissed on the spot) and they received all their instructions in writing.

Like Williamson, Scott's ambitious schemes benefitted local workers as thousands of both skilled and unskilled labourers were required to carry them out. While there were occasional labour disputes over wages and hours, the Duke was on very good terms with his many employees and earned the nickname "the workman's friend".
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Feb 16, 2013