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Joseph Williamson

Philanthropist, tobacco merchant and digger of tunnels

He was a 19th-century philanthropist, tobacco merchant, property owner and pioneer of tunnels. He was born on 10 March 1769, possibly in Warrington.

At the age of 11 he moved to Liverpool to seek employment. His mother Sarah permitted him to move from his home at such an early age on the condition that he was to lodge with his employer. His employer was Richard Tate of the Tate tobacco and snuff manufacturers.

He became wealthy by working his way up through the company, then forming a partnership with Joseph Leigh in a separate tobacco merchant company before marrying Elizabeth Tate, his boss's daughter. In 1803, a year after the marriage, he gained ownership of Tate's after buying the company from Thomas Moss Tate, his brother-in-law. He retired and sold the company. He then built houses and terraced gardens in the Edge Hill area of Liverpool.

His houses were an early indicator of his eccentricity. It is said that some had coal cellars that could hold 200 tonnes of coal as well as multi-level cellars. Despite the unusual designs, many wealthy people wanted to live in the houses because of their desirable location. Williamson's tenants included artist Cornelius Henderson and philosopher James Martineau.

He is best known for the labiryth of tunnels which he caused to be dug in the Crown St area of Liverpool.  These tunnels have no economic purchase and were seemingly dug to provide employment for local people.

Williamson died aged 71 on May 1, 1840, leaving no children. The tunnelling ceased immediately upon his death and never resumed. The tunnels were abandoned and rubbish was allowed to accumulate. Williamson was buried in the Tate family vault at St Thomas's Church, at the intersection of Park Lane and Paradise Street in Liverpool city centre. The church was abandoned in 1906 and demolished in 1911 and in later years the land was used as an NCP car park.

During the summer of 2005, excavations took place on the site as part of the Paradise Street Redevelopment. On October 23, 2005 the gravestone of Williamson was revealed for the first time in nearly a century. Sadly the stone was broken in half but the inscription on the stone records that Joseph Williamson and his wife Elizabeth Tate are buried there, along with her mother Hannah Tate, father Richard Tate and grandmother Ann Tate.