Posts Tagged ‘scaffolding’

The king of Edge Hill

It’s Wednesday, my guest blogger’s day to take over. Enjoy it!


Just before I start I did say I would report back on my query to the Allerdale Borough Council in last week’s blog (Allerdale Goat’s Cheese ). If you remember I had found a rather elementary error on their website which mixed up left & right in their description. Being a bit of a cynic I didn’t expect a reply. However within a few working days the actual Mayor of Allerdale’s secretary emailed me with an acknowledgement that their website did need amending as they had got the left/right bits wrong. Well top marks to Allerdale; serves me right for doubting them.

Ok so this week it was a visit to rather odd “attraction” in Liverpool. On my way to the place I passed a few interesting streets. There was one group of consecutive Groves called Fern, Moss, Lime, Cedar & Aspen making you think of being out in countryside instead of traversing a somewhat dreary urban landscape. Then came another (rather cultural) group consisting of Vandyke, Wordsworth, Boswell (curiously no Johnson nearby) & Longfellow Streets. Interestingly at the bottom of Longfellow Street are adjacent pairs of streets named Greenleaf & Whittier (presumably a nod to the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, 1807-92) and Wendell & Holmes (presumably in recognition of Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1841-1935).

Whilst looking for the place, I actually drove past the entrance nestling as it now does between two brand new blocks of housing and set back from the road – 0/10 for me for observation there then but a good excuse.

Here’s the entrance area.

Anyway having rung ahead to book a tour (which the day I went wasn’t actually necessary) I was keen to get going. The lady at the entrance told me the next tour was in 20 mins and perhaps I’d like to go and look at the exhibition area. It provided a fascinating read on a number of story boards, and was not just somewhere to park visitors while they waited for the tour guide. Here there were a couple of men dressed in clothes of the 19th century. I could see clearly that the man kneeling, although appearing ready to pounce, presented no danger – in fact he was completely armless (haha). Yes, if you look closely, you can see that those white sleeves are actually empty!

Where was I? Well, it’s a place which had been used by Liverpool Corporation, from 1868 up until the early 1960s, as stabling for some of their horses. The horses were employed to perform tasks in the city before motorised transport became fully established. (In 1935 there were still 5,000 heavy horses working across the city but by the mid-1940s motor transport had begun to take over much of their work.) The various types of horse, going from the smaller ponies right up to the largest shire horses delivered mail, transported people & heavy goods and pulled the bin (refuse) carts round the streets to take away domestic waste. One of the boards told me that when Roy Rogers visited the city his horse Trigger had been stabled at this site. Outside the building I’d probably walked over the same cobbles where Trigger had once stood! It was an emotional moment. However the site’s use as stabling was a far later incarnation; the original was as the site of a strange enterprise employing hundreds of men. Today it is a visitor centre, opened in 2002, called The Williamson Tunnels Heritage Centreand the site is run by The Joseph Williamson Society, a registered charity. It celebrates (and partly showcases) the work of a successful businessman who seemed to really enjoy giving people work but with an odd twist. I’d just about got round all the story boards on the walls in the exhibition area when I was called through for the tour to start. Our guide was Carl and as I looked round for my fellow visitors it seemed there were….. none – ok amend “our” guide to “MY” guide; I hadn’t expected a tour for one but that’s what I got. First things first though, I had to get fitted with the obligatory (green) plastic safety hat. In the unlikely event of tons of rock falling down from overhead I would be ok. Phew that was re-assuring. We (me & the guide that is) went through the doors into the first part of the tunnel experience. I was informed about the man responsible for what I was looking at, well as much as they know so far. Williamson was born in 1769 over in Yorkshire and at some point the family moved to Warrington. Then when he was 11/12 yrs old (about 1780) he came to Liverpool to find work. He found it, and lodgings, with a certain Mr. Richard Tate, a successful tobacco & snuff merchant, who had offices & a factory in the city centre.

Williamson was clearly a man of determined nature and good business acumen because in just over 20 years he had progressed up the company ladder and then actually married the then boss’s sister (who was the daughter of the original boss) in 1802. Richard Tate had died about 15 years earlier leaving the business to his son, Thomas Moss Tate. The following year (1803) he bought out the Tate business and with his other interests made quite a fortune. Three years after that he used some of his money to buy an estate, previously owned by a timber merchant, in the Edge Hill area of Liverpool. Edge Hill back then wasn’t part of Liverpool.

This map of Liverpool is from 1768:

I’ve put the pen on pointing to Smithdown Lane where Williamson’s yard was. You can see there were a few fields and lanes leading down to the heavily populated city area in the centre at the bottom of the map. Early in the 19th century one writer (Charles Hand) described the Edge Hill area rather healthily as having, “fresh air and bracing breezes”. Today of course all that empty space has been built on and extends miles beyond Edge Hill.

He moved into the house a timber merchant had used as his rural retreat and started building houses in the same street. Clearly he wasn’t someone who just wanted kind of manor house away from the city standing on its own. The ground underneath this area was sandstone so the houses all had very solid foundations. However they were situated at the top of quite a steep slope. Because of that slope and in order to be able include a garden for each house Williamson had to build supports on which to make them. The supports took the form of arches onto which the land behind the houses could then be extended. Various sorts of people rented these properties from Williamson. In the 1830s residents occupations included: merchant, chemist, junior attorney, salt merchant, corn merchant, book printer, schoolmaster & gentlewoman. It is the innards of Williamson’s yard, in the next street down from where his own house was, where I’m standing with my guide who’s giving me the talk. Photos inside the tunnel were difficult because it was quite dark but I got a few which we’ll come to. Also the tunnel walk areas were kitted out with Christmas paraphernalia for kids who’ll be visiting over the coming weeks. Now, I have to say at this point, if it’s glitz and high-tech you want as your “visitor experience” this is not the place to come. However if you don’t mind a damp atmosphere and a few drips from the ceiling landing on your shoulders accompanied by a fascinating tale of 18th/19th century eccentricity & philanthropy then this is definitely the place to come. The story is absorbing simply because it’s not about a guy who wanted his name on a stone plaque or on a statue in the city centre. He didn’t make a showpiece for the world to see; he built tunnels underground that few would ever see. And that is what intrigues you as you walk through a small section of his hidden domain.

His yard employed hundreds of local people doing something necessary – building houses and then arches for the gardens; but then something rather bizarre – building tunnels that apparently didn’t lead anywhere. Some just went to a dead end rock face; some went on a circular route bringing you back to your start point. So the question you’re probably asking, like me, is why? At this point it seems to be all conjecture because Williamson apparently left no reason, either written or oral. Most info comes from two men who wrote about him after his death. What you do have are some of the known facts: he was a real person as records exist – he died in 1840 and his grave was found in an old churchyard when digging work on the Liverpool One development was taking place; he employed many people who were able to support their families because of the work he gave them; and that the tunnels were built because we can still see a part of them. The speculation, which appeals to other known info about his character, suggest he was simply a philanthropist who didn’t believe in just giving people money in their hand but was quite happy to reward them for work done. If there was no particular work for their skills then he would make work that they could do and then pay them for it. He employed bricklayers, carpenters, stone masons and labourers. If a worker was good there are stories of Williamson then employing his wife and even children.

It is amazing to look up at the arched ceiling with its neat rows of bricks and to think of all the men working down there, by candlelight, doing the building of it. He was known as “The King of Edge Hill” by his workers and “The Mayor of Edge Hill” by his friends but as “The Mole of Edge Hill” by his detractors. The large scale map the guide showed me marked with all the areas he tunnelled into is very impressive although unfortunately most will never be excavated because they now run under modern developments and are under council owned land.

Anyway here’s my attempt at a photo of part of the area inside the first part of the tunnel. The circular water ripples you can see are caused by drips from the ceiling landing in the hollowed out area and forming the pool at the bottom. That pool just keeps getting deeper until they can do some pumping out. Part of the reason for the constant drips is the rising of the water table: local industries that was once used plenty of water in their production processes have long since gone.

The next pic shows the left side of the pool with the scaffolding supporting the walkway we had to go on to get to the next section.

This next pic is of the area directly above the pool with the ripples in and you can just about see the high arch and the bricks forming it on the right.

Next is the walkway to the next section

This walkway takes you through a narrow passage to the next tunnel where there are a few more displays.

This is a pic of some of the items recovered from tunnel excavations. Many had been used by the council to landfill with rubbish. The interesting thing in this one is the collection of shells at the far left on the lower shelf. They are oyster shells and the guide told me they were quite a common food for the workers because supply was a lot more plentiful in those days.

Next pic is of a double arch. The three small figures you can see, on the arch, are a Father Christmas, a snowman & a reindeer; these are part of the decorations for the kids who’ll be visiting between now and Christmas.

A little bit further round and I was shown another area of the tunnels which can only be viewed through a glass panel in the wall. Down the stairs back to ground level for a few closing comments and that was the end of the official tour. However as I’d been the only one on the tour I’d got to ask loads of questions so the whole thing was just really fascinating.

One story is that when Robert Stephenson (he of “The Rocket” fame) and his workforce were digging a tunnel down to what is now the railway terminus at Lime Street Station the floor of their tunnel gave way. Heads appeared through the floor and it was Williamson’s workers who were digging under the level of the men working for Stephenson.

So was he a philanthropist? Was he eccentric? Was he just keen on building “things” but especially houses and tunnels? Given the discovery of certain chapel –like features in the tunnels some believe he might have been preparing a place of safety from what he thought was a coming Armageddon. Was he? I suppose you could answer yes to all of those but we’ll never know for sure. As I left the centre, the lady on the till said the tunnels were actually warmer than the area on ground level!

Here’s a pic of the cafe area from outside looking through the glass wall. If you look carefully you can see the double arch inside. The streaks down the glass are meant to be icicles just in case you were wondering.

Finally here’s a view of the rest of the yard with a row of boarded up stables in the distance.

Before leaving I asked the guide where Mason Street was so I could look at the houses. He said they were all gone except one small bit. Here it is – it’s No.44 Mason St. As you can see it’s just the front wall of a house which has been preserved by putting a metal frame behind it to keep it upright; and this is all that remains of Williamson’s actual house. There had been another storey above but it had to be removed by the council to make the site safe. Entrance hatches to the tunnels lie behind this frontage but are not open to the public.

And that was it. Time for home and a nice hot cup of tea as it had been freezing outside as well as inside the tunnels.

I’d like to finish with a couple of rather contradictory quotes about the city of Liverpool:

1. In the mid 17th century Sir Edward Moore wrote that the men of Liverpool are, “….the most perfidious in all England, worse than my pen can describe”

2. In 1772 Dr Dobson, a physician to the Infirmary and whose work on diabetes was influential in bringing it under control said:

“The degrees of the soil, the purity of the waters, the mildness of the air, the antiseptic effluvia of pitch and tar, the acid exhalations from the sea, the pregnant brisk gales of wind and the daily visitations of the tides render Liverpool one of the healthiest places in the Kingdom.” Of course it is!

The Lion Saltworks and Anderton Boat Lift

My regular guest blogger is posting on Thursday this week, a day later than usual. Enjoy it!

This week’s post finds me in a village in the Cheshire countryside just NE of the town of Northwich. What am I doing here? Well, at the end of last week’s blog you remember the guy at the Museum told me about a site visit with a free guided tour in a nearby village; and so off I went, just 2 miles across town, to the Lion Salt Works in Marston. (Its population was in 1801-284, 1901-878 & 1951-729.) It is interesting to remember that the discovery of salt in the area was accidental; people in the 17th cent were digging to try and find coal and came across the salt.

Here’s a view of the works from the opposite bank of the canal. You can see how handy it was for collections and deliveries to the site. Canals were of course the highways of their day. They were the new form of transport enabling importers and exporters to get their goods to or from a port and others who just needed to move goods to market where there were no decent road connections.

Thanks to Chris Allen for photo from Geograph site. Photo used with permission under Creative Commons Licence (details below, each of which can be copied/pasted into browser to see relevant info):
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And next is an aerial view; the renovation scaffolding had not arrived at this point. Thanks to Edward Robinson for the pic from the Geograph site (taken in Oct 2011). Photo used with permission under Creative Commons Licence (details below, each of which can be copied/pasted into browser to see relevant info):
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I had to use someone else’s aerial view as my private helicopter was in the garage being repaired and my pilot was on holiday! It was his turn on the rota (or should that be rotor….haha).

The site was owned and operated by the Thompson Family from 1894 to its closure in 1986: this was due to a civil war in the country where most of its exports went – Nigeria. (It was the last open pan salt works in the county; it is the only surviving Victorian salt works in the UK; and although not actually working, the structure is one of only 3 surviving open pan salt works in the whole world!).

The poor quality of the upper structure, made from mainly wood, corrugated iron & asbestos, was due to its owners believing it would be just a temporary building until the mine or brine was exhausted and they would move on.
It made the BBC’s “Restoration” programme but didn’t get enough voted to progress finishing in second position on the day. However a campaign, which has run for many years to turn the site into a proper visitor centre, has eventually resulted in an £8 million refurbishment programme; it is hoped that work, just started, will be completed by Spring 2014.

Our archaeologist guide Chris was ready and waiting with a couple of other visitors as I arrived; in the next 10 minutes the group expanded to about 12. I hope I have remembered his info correctly – any mistakes are mine as they say in the publishing world.

Open pan means basically you construct a large rectangular shaped metal tank, fill it with brine pumped from underground, and put a heat source (originally coal, later oil) underneath it; as the brine evaporates a salt precipitate is formed which is then scooped out. The one we were able to see measured about 30ft x 20ft (9.1m x 6.1m). The strength of heat is what determines the quality of salt produced: hotter equals better quality. It was said that it needed 1 ton of coal to produce 2 tons of salt.

The Lion Salt Works, as you saw in the pic, is located right next to the Trent & Mersey Canal which runs 93 miles from Derby through to near Runcorn. That canal also serviced exports from the Potteries (Stoke-on-Trent area) and Josiah Wedgewood (yes ‘the’ JW himself) cut the first piece of turf (in 1766) to start the construction of the canal. It also brought coal to the Lion and took salt exports away.

The big barrier to the smooth operation through to the ports on the River Mersey was the difference in height which had to be overcome at Anderton just north of Northwich itself: about 50ft (15.24m). It was solved by building a boat lift to raise and lower the narrowboats with their cargoes. It was closed for a long time because of corrosion caused by the very cargoes of salt which it was built to move. After a £7 million refurbishment it is now open and working although the salt trade has gone. It’s well worth a visit as there are only two such structures in the UK – this one and a far newer one in Scotland called The Falkirk Wheel.

Here’s a view from a boat on the River Weaver approaching the lift. Thanks to Dave & Ann-Marie of the blog Becoming Listless for the excellent action photos. Their blog, about their narrowboat travels, is definitely worth a visit: (

The Lift, built in 1875, has two large tanks both of which can take two full length (72ft/22m) narrowboats (side by side) – see the space beside the one in the bottom left side of the lift in the photo. The tanks are called caissons and each weighs 252 tons when full of water.

Can you answer this question: if there were 2 boats, in one caisson, each weighing 24 tons how much would the total weight in the caisson be? Think carefully! Can only offer a (paper) gold star to the first correct reply but they’re quite rare in the Rambler’s Blogworld.

And here’s a view from the boat when it’s actually in the lift looking back the way it’s just come.

In the distance you can see the concrete buildings of an industrial site called the Winnington Works. These chemical works were built by the Brunner Mond Company in 1873 – remember the wavy lines in the Northwich Town Crest at the beginning of last week’s blog. (Interestingly, Brunner was born and raised in Everton in Liverpool.)

Also interesting is that, at these very works back in the 1930s, a substance called polyethylene (or PE) was discovered just by accident; we know it by its more common name of polythene. One of its uses is in the manufacture of – what currently seems to be public enemy no.1 – the ubiquitous plastic carrier bag. So now you know, that’s where the bag that has gone all over the world started its life.

But I digress. Back to the Lion Salt Works.

I had hoped to show you a picture showing a plan of the site but have been unable to obtain copyright permission. (There’s one in Google Images if you’re interested.

Because of all the scaffolding and areas still being made safe we were somewhat restricted in the areas we could see but we did go inside pan house 4 and the small Exhibition Centre. The rest of the talk took place outside looking across the site towards the canal at the top of the plan.
Here are a couple of views of the side of panhouse 4.


And here’s a close up of the chimney on the left of the previous pic<

Here’s a view of one end of the saltpan inside panhouse 4.

And where the furnace was fed with coal:

When the crystals were scraped out of the saltpan they were put into receptacles (salt moulds) originally cone shaped but later a tapered rectangular shape and packed down. Once set, the blocks would be tipped out and then lifted through a space in the roof to an area just above head height where they would be stored to dry out using the heat rising from below.

I had hoped to use 3 or 4 pics from a booklet produced by the Lion Salt Works Trust but unfortunately after many attempts by phone (including leaving messages) and an email using an address from the site which was returned as “unknown recipient” this has not been possible. I will have to just direct you to a YouTube vid (sound not that good, seems to be too fast but it shows the place and some old stuff). If you have a couple of minutes watch this:

Apparently elm was the wood used for the salt moulds. They had a cricket bat shaped piece of wood called a ‘mundling stick’ which was used to bash the crystals down into the moulds to make the lump as heavy as possible. Long handled perforated ladles (‘skimmers’) were used to gather the crystals and allow surplus liquid to drain off back into the pan. After tipping the blocks out of the moulds the next job would be to lift them up over head height into the drying area on the floor above.

Halfway through the tour a visitor arrived, from a nearby village, who told us (and our guide) that he had actually worked at the site in the 1960s doing various jobs including the one just mentioned lifting the blocks to the floor above. His info was great as we were literally hearing it from the horse’s mouth. He told us that working there in the heat caused a number of health issues from breathing in the fumes coming off the saltpans and burns from hot surfaces.

He also showed us his finger tips where you could see he had no fingerprints – they were burnt off he said through the work there! Yeah, I know what you’re all thinking….. because I did too. (Had he thought of a safe job…. Perhaps at my local bank?)

The Salt Union, which is still in business today, was formed in 1888 by the amalgamation of over 60 salt producers to try and address the problem of overproduction which was bringing the price down to uneconomic levels. (The influence of cheap Cheshire salt was felt across the country. The decline and closure of salt workings was reported in town histories for places as diverse as Lymington on England’s south coast and the county of Fife in Scotland!) Today technology has moved on of course and the production figures, by this conglomerate, are staggering compared with earlier times. Here are some statistics from their own publicity. Check out how far their tunnels go in the last paragraph.

It’s also worth remembering that, in our ecologically more sensitive times, some of the excesses of the salt mining companies which caused land & road subsidence at various times have got a new life. For instance Neumann’s Flashes, an area of subsidence just up the road from the Lion Salt Works, has been turned into a Community Woodland with a lake and numerous wildfowl species. (My 1908 OS Map puts the lake size at 17 acres – that’s about 10 times the size of Liverpool FC’s Football Pitch!) Keep your eyes open there and, amongst other species, you might catch a glimpse of the rare “dingy skipper butterfly”!

The Census records for 1871 tell us that Henry Neumann, who had owned the mine in that area, had retired by 1871: that means prior to his 60th birthday. It possible to gain some idea of his financial success as a salt producer from the census records for that year: at his home are four family members along with a butler, domestic servant, house maid & kitchen maid. Records for the 1881 & 1891 continue to show him with a staff of at least 4 servants. Salt was very good to Henry. Don’t know about you but I wouldn’t mind retiring with such a set up as that.

Anyway that was it. Overall I’d learned a lot about salt, how it was produced & some of the disasters over-mining caused. It was certainly a lot more interesting than I’d expected. Time to set off for home. The Lion Salt Works free tour had been an unexpected bonus on my trip and very enjoyable. Hope the guys doing the renovation work will not meet too many problems in trying to preserve the structure and build the new stuff. Roll on Spring 2014 and the new Visitor Centre.

Salt does have other more unusual uses: have a look at this clip showing a guy producing a picture using salt! It is quite good.

And finally don’t forget to have a go at the quiz question about the boat lift. If you can’t work it out try a guess. Answer will be given next week if no-one gets it by then.