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Campaign to preserve Williamson's tunnels


THE STORY of the creation of an urban tunnelling network, predating London's Underground, entertained a meeting of North Western Association IE&T members recently.

The labyrinth of tunnels bored beneath Liverpool in the early 19th century was conceived by eccentric millionaire Joseph Williamson to save the city from the scourge of unemployment.

Founder of the Joseph Williamson Society Gabriel Muies gave an account of how the wealthy tobacco merchant was so moved by economic depression in Liverpool which followed the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 that he commissioned the boring of the tunnels as a job creation scheme for returning soldiers.

The first tunnel bored through sandstone could not be regarded as a municipal necessity, although it did keep Williamson and his family dry on rainy days as they made their way from his home in Edge Hill to Sunday services at St Mary's church.

Subsequent tunnelling gradually built up an elaborate subterranean world which included a banqueting hall where Williamson would entertain his friends.

From 1818-40, Williamson spent £100,000 on a labyrinth of tunnels, crypts and caverns built for no reason other than his philanthropic desire to keep his men employed.

After his wife died, Williamson began to inhabit his underground kingdom and apparently did not surface in his final years. The legend - 'the mole of Edgehill' - was born.

His legacy at ground level was a team of expert tunnellers created in an era before the London Underground and the tunnels built in the railway revolution of the 1840s.

So impressed was Robert Stephenson at the quality of the work of the self-standing tunnels that many of the men were taken on for railway tunnel building, said Muies.

A century and a half later a campaign is gathering pace to open up the perfectly preserved bricklined tunnels as a tourist attraction.

Muies is raising money to create a subterranean museum and a restaurant connected by several tunnels. £1M has been raised but much more is needed. A lottery bid failed because the tunnels are not listed.

Campaigners were told that tunnels cannot be listed because they are not structures. If the proposal does not go ahead, some of the tunnel entrances would be built on by developers, the meeting heard.

The Williamson Society backed claims that the tunnels would be a massive tourist attraction for the city by opening up them to the public for one day last September. Thousands of people queued for up to three hours, it was heard.

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