Williamson's Tunnels, Liverpool

Urban Tunnellers – What Lies Beneath Our Streets?

Last week tongue-in-cheek Northern Irish news site Tyrone Tribulations (“News from amongst the bushes. Accuracy cannot be guaranteed.”) published a piece entitled “Omagh’s ‘Shawshank Husband’ Dug Tunnel From Bedroom To Pub Over 15 Years”.

“The wife has a bad snore on her and after watching the Shawshank Redemption on RTE one night in 1994, I decided to do something about it so I waited til she was in a deep sleep and then set about digging a hole under the bed in the direction of the pub. I used all manner of tools from spoons to a heavy duty tunnel boring machine I managed to sneak down there when she was at the shops. It wasn’t until 2009 that I hit the jackpot and came up through the women’s toilet mop and bucket room.”

While the chronicle Patsy Kerr’s nocturnal misadventures beneath the streets of Omagh should undoubtedly be taken with a hypertension inducing amount of salt, there are many interesting documented cases of urban tunnellers and their subterranean works.

 

William Lyttle -The Hackney Mole Man

In August 2006 retired electrical engineer William Lyttle was ordered by Hackney Borough Council to leave his home at 121 Mortimer Road in De Beauvoir Town, London, UK. Five years earlier an 8 foot (2.4 m) hole appeared suddenly and unexpectedly in the pavement on nearby Stamford Road. When the local authorities investigated, they found that Lyttle had created an intricate network of tunnels, some 26 feet (8 m) deep, spreading out as much as 65 feet (20 m) in every direction from his house. Lyttle had been working on his excavations since the 1960s, digging with a shovel and using a home-made pulley system. Following numerous complaints from people living in the adjacent properties, and with the council looking at and estimated repair bill of one hundred thousand pounds to fill the tunnels in, Lyttle was finally banned from re-entering his property.

In an interview with The Guardian newspaper at the time Lyttle – known as The Hackney Mole Man – was asked the big question: why did he dig the tunnels?

“I don’t mind the title of inventor,” he said. “Inventing things that don’t work is a brilliant thing, you know. People are asking you what the big secret is. And you know what? There isn’t one.” [1]

William Lyttle died in 2010. After remaining derelict for several years, 121 Mortimer Road sold at auction in 2012 for £1.12 million. The house remains shrouded in scaffolding and unoccupied, the tunnels beneath largely untouched and unexplored. [2]

 

Seymour Roger Cray

Seymour Roger Cray was an American electrical engineer and supercomputer architect who designed a series of computers which were, for a long time, the fastest in the world. He is known today as “the Father of Supercomputing”. In 1997 – the year after Cray’s death – an article published in Personal Computer World revealed some interesting mythology surrounding the man and his methods.

There are many legends about Seymour Cray. John Rollwagen, a colleague for many years, tells the story of a French scientist who visited Cray’s home in Chippewa Falls. Asked what were the secrets of his success, Cray said “Well, we have elves here, and they help me”. Cray subsequently showed his visitor a tunnel he had built under his house, explaining that when he reached an impasse in his computer design, he would retire to the tunnel to dig. “While I’m digging in the tunnel, the elves will often come to me with solutions to my problem”, he said. [3]

 

Williamson's Tunnels

In Liverpool, UK, during the early 1800s, wealthy businessman Joseph Williamson employed a workforce of thousands to carve out a vast, uncharted labyrinth of tunnels beneath the city. The purpose of the Williamson Tunnels remains a mystery — some suggest philanthropy, while others say Williamson was a cultist preparing a safe haven for the coming apocalypse. Sealed when Williamson died in 1840, the tunnels were tapped into from above and used as an immense pit into which the household refuse of the city was tipped for over a century.

Today at The Williamson Tunnels Heritage Centre in the Old Stable Yard on Smithdown Lane, visitors can take a guided tour through a section of tunnels cleared over the last twenty-five years by volunteers from the Joseph Williamson Society and the Friends of Williamson’s Tunnels. The majority of the brick-lined warren still remains unexcavated and unexplored. [4] Not only is Williamson reputed to have had a tunnel dug to connect his home with St. Mary’s Church nearby but also, to his local pub The Bear’s Paw. Sadly,there’s insufficient historical data to tell us whether or not Mrs. Williamson had a “bad snore on her” or not.

 

Joe De Rio tunnels

This January a jury ruled in favour of the City of Austin, Texas, USA in a case brought against it by 74 year old Austin man Joe De Rio. Joe’s claim was that city officials had not followed proper procedures when they seized his home on Canterbury Street in East Austin in 2010.

What has been distressing is the city did not give any prior notice,” [Joe De Rio’s Defence Attorney, Joe] McCreary said. “I realize they thought there was some kind of mad bomber-type situation and they mobilized all the horses and all the king’s men. The problem is it’s disturbing when a city will use a warrant to seize a person’s property.” [5]

The authorities became concerned when De Rio’s home was inspected following complaints from neighbours and found unlicensed firearms, grenades, and suspicious chemicals on the property. Beneath De Rio’s home they found a 35 foot (10.6 m), three tier excavation “supported [in places] by wood and automotive parts” [6] . De Rio claimed that he was merely expanding a pre-existing fallout shelter constructed as part of the home in the 1950s but his efforts left the house in danger of imminent collapse. City contractors filled the tunnels beneath the home with more than 264 tons of concrete and De Rio was billed more than $90,000. [7]

 

By and large tunnellers motives remain a mystery and, of course, we only know about those whose activities are uncovered. How many suburban catacombs remain undiscovered? Do you know really what your neighbours are up to? I’ve just worked out that it’s 1345 feet (410 m) from my house to the nearest decent pub so, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some digging to do.

 

1. http://www.theguardian.com/society/2006/aug/08/communities.uknews

2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/De_Beauvoir_Town

3. http://www.cs.man.ac.uk/~toby/writing/PCW/cray.htm

4. http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/essential-guide-urban-tunnels

5. http://www.statesman.com/news/news/local/jury-rules-for-city-of-austin-in-seizure-of-joe-de/ncsnT/

6. http://www.statesman.com/news/news/man-who-dug-space-under-home-sues-city/nRtW9/

7. http://www.kvue.com/story/news/local/2014/05/25/2435656/

Contributing Editor
  1. Hmm….
    Interestingly enough, I’ve been thinking about some tunneling over the past couple weeks. Turns out that the house next door to me, which is almost identical to mine, was foreclosed upon and now up for sale at a quite attractive price.

    It does need some foundation work and some interior work too, but it occurs to me that whilst repairing the foundation, the crawl space could easily be expanded into a full basement and perhaps have a couple of “safe” rooms added.

    From inside of my homes crawl space over to the center of the neighboring place is less than 100″, and wouldn’t it be nifty if one could connect the two places via a cleverly hidden tunnel entrance?

    I could use the other home as a retreat from my own, put in a nice little man cave and a workshop as well.

    Hmm…. what to do, what to do. Sadly, it’s about 2 miles to my favorite pub, and tunneling is right out of the question. Though wouldn’t it be lovely if here in the states we could get beer to take away like you can over in England?

    1. Just remember that shoring up
      Just remember that shoring up a tunnel properly is absolutely necessary otherwise it can become your grave. You have to know about the soils, tunnel depth vertically and all sorts of other calculations. Just look at how many construction workers are killed working in collapsing open ditches every year, and you get some idea as to the dangers.

    2. The solution is obvious: buy
      Gwedd, the solution is obvious: buy next door and turn it into a pub. Sorted.

      Although we can, in theory, buy beer from the pub to take home here in the UK I have never done it or seen it done myself. Beer in pubs is a lot more expensive than it would be from a supermarket or Off Licence (Liquor Store to you) so we just stock up for when we stumble in. 😉

      But yes, as emlong says, please don’t just start hacking away and hope for the best.

      1. Meh…….
        Not to worry. If it ever happens, the tunnel project will be a long & hard project. All of the houses here are built on a granite ledge. There’s only about 12″ (or less) of topsoil. Just enough to grow grass & weeds, etc.

        So, it’d be a dig through solid granite to reach the other house, and a major project to dig a cellar for it. The houses here currently have crawl spaces, about 4″ deep, under the houses. Just enough to hold fuel oil tanks for the heating systems, etc.

        It’s a pipe dream, but regardless of that, I still am trying to find a way to buy the house next door, as it’d make a great rental property.

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