William Mackenzie: The Ghost of Rodney Street

William James Mackenzie, born March 20th, 1794 near Nelson in Lancashire, was a leading European civil engineering contractor in the 1840s. His life has had a significant impact on the city of Liverpool, both physically and culturally, yet his lasting legacy is obscured by superstition and myth and perhaps this is the most interesting aspect of Mackenzie’s life; not the impact he had whilst he was alive, but the myths and speculation that have persisted following his death into the 21st Century.

William was the son of Alexander Mackenzie, a small contractor on the Liverpool Leeds Canal and, following an unsuccessful spell as an apprentice weaver, began a career of his own as a civil engineer. In relation to Liverpool Mackenzie was responsible for the construction of tunnels on the Liverpool and Manchester railway such as the Edge Hill to Lime Street tunnel and the Grand Junction Railway. Away from England, Mackenzie worked throughout Europe in countries such as Spain, Italy and France, most notably working with John Locke on the Paris and Rouen railway line.[1]

Perhaps not the most prolific man associated with Liverpool, Mackenzie still helped to shape the city and its image through its railway development and became enormously wealthy in the process; following his death in 1851 Mackenzie had amassed a fortune of over £300,000 which he left to his younger brother Edward. Not much is written about Mackenzie himself in books of Liverpool’s history and possibly the most valuable source of information on his character is his own diary, published in 2000. The diary records his busy day to day life in short entries and gives an insight into what kind of person he was. When asked for money by his nephews he replies, “I received no help in life; no-one supported me.[2]Comments such as these indicate Mackenzie was a cold yet hardworking person and as recorded in his diary allow the general public to read in detail about what he was really like.

Despite having such a large impact on the city of Liverpool as an international railway contractor, Mackenzie is remembered in the city nowadays as a legend of folklore. Following his death William’s younger brother Edward erected a pyramid above his grave in St. Andrew’s Church on Rodney Street in Liverpool city centre. Despite such a large gap in time between William’s death in 1851, and the pyramid’s arrival nearly two decades later in 1868, myths of Mackenzie have grown to implement both Mackenzie and his pyramid in supernatural dealings with the devil[3]. Depicted by Liverpool writer Tom Slemen, in his book Haunted Liverpool Ghost Walk, Mackenzie is described as a “terrifying apparition… corrupt and wicked…condemned to walk the earth without rest until Judgement Day.[4]  The story continues to tell that Mackenzie, having lost his fortune in a game of poker, resorted to betting his soul against his opponent; upon losing this gamble it was revealed he had indeed been wagering against the devil himself. His soul, however, could not be claimed until he was “laid to rest in (his) grave[5] and because of this detail Mackenzie supposedly requested that he be buried within the tomb above his grave seated upright.

Clearly, claims that Mackenzie is buried upright within his pyramid monument can be debunked fairly easily; an inscription of the tomb itself reads “This monument was erected by his Brother Edward as a token of love and affection A.D. 1868.” With William dying in 1851 there is no possibility of him being entombed within the pyramid, yet these tales still continue to eclipse his work as a railway contractor. It is unclear as to when these rumours began to surface; William’s obituary, printed by the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1852 cite him as “one of the men of the new era.[6] Here William is remembered for his work as a civil engineer, as not as some apparition that haunts the streets of his burial.

This phenomena is extremely interesting; it shows that Mackenzie’s life, no matter how it impacted the city in one way or another, is not seen to be of standard interest to the modern public and has been exaggerated and embellished in order to incite interest and excitement. The stories surrounding this civil engineer and his pyramid are evidence that, indifferent to our achievements in life, we have no control over who will remember us or how it is that we will be remembered.

 

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Mackenzie’s tomb on Rodney Street, in Liverpool city centre

 

 

[1] Construction History Vol. 13, William Mackenzie and Railways in France, Pages 17 – 18 (1997)

[2] William Mackenzie, The Diary of William Mackenzie, the First International Railway Contractor, Thomas Telford Ltd., Page 47 (2000)

[3]Tom Slemen, Haunted Liverpool 4, The Bluecoat Press, Page 43, (2000)

[4] Tom Slemen, Haunted Liverpool Ghost Walk, The Bluecoat Press, Page 87, (2005)

[5] Tom Slemen, Haunted Liverpool Ghost Walk, The Bluecoat Press, Page 90, (2005)

[6] Institution of Civil Engineers Volume 11 Page 105

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