In what is reputed to be one of the most haunted areas of Liverpool, lies the semi-derelict 19th Century Scottish Presbyterian Church of St Andrew, sitting incongruously amid the Georgian grandeur of Rodney Street. And protruding starkly from the midst of its overgrown and untended graveyard is the 15 foot high pyramidal tomb of civil engineer and engineering contractor, William MacKenzie. Clearly visible to passers-by, the pyramid tomb, exuding gothic romanticism, has fuelled tales of a ghostly apparition that stalks the streets at night, a man in a large cloak and top hat claimed to be that of the larger than life character that inhabits it. Indeed, if stories of MacKenzie are true, he really is a soul with nowhere to go. More of that later!
Before we learn of the legend of the pyramid tomb, the story of William MacKenzie’s life is far from ordinary. Mackenzie was born near Nelson, Lancashire, England, the eldest of 11 children and he died on 29 October 1851 at 74 Grove Street, Liverpool, where he had resided since 1843. William's estate amounted to £341,848 and having no children of his own, his fortune was left to his youngest brother, Edward.
Young William Mackenzie was apprenticed to a weaver, but the occupation failed to inspire him and he soon absconded. By 1811, however, he was apprenticed to Thomas Clapham, lock carpenter of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal and it was here that he discovered a profession that would shape his destiny. Moving on to the works of the Harbour, at Troon, Ayrshire, under John Clapham, the agent for the Duke of Portland; he soon gained knowledge of construction and engineering operations.
Following Clapham’s accidental death, he switched to the employ of Mr. Cargill who was constructing the Craigellichie Iron Bridge on behalf of Thomas Telford.
After returning to England in 1822, following employ as an agent in measuring, levelling, setting out, and taking account of the work on the Union Canal, between Falkirk and Edinburgh, he moved on to the Gloucester and Berkeley Canal, where he remained until its completion. By 1824 he had taken on appointments by Mr. Telford to superintend the construction of the Mythe Bridge, across the Severn, followed by improvements to the Birmingham canals where his works are still considered some of the finest of the kind in Great Britain.
These experiences honed his expertise in the field of engineering contracting, placing him in an ideal position to profit from the rapidly emerging railway systems, despite personal prejudices against the concept. His contracts included the Grand Union, North Union, Midland Counties and Glasgow, Paisley and Greenock railways. Non-railway contracts, such as Liverpool Haymarket and the Manchester and Salford Junction Canal, followed swiftly.
Mackenzie also built tunnels for George and John Stephenson on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway between Edge Hill and Lime Street. Here, the steep gradient into the city meant that stationary engines needed to remain at Edge Hill where a new station was created some 300 yards to the north east of the original Crown Street terminus. MacKenzie’s workers toiled around the clock to complete what is still regarded today as a magnificent feat of engineering. Similarly, he presided over the whole of the lines from Lancaster, to Edinburgh and Glasgow, part of the Chester and Holyhead line; part of the North Staffordshire line and the Ormskirk branch of the East Lancashire Railway.
His reputation spread quickly and, following an invite from Joseph Locke in 1840, he joined forces with Thomas Brassey in a successful tender to work on the Paris to Rouen railway. Ultimately they went on to oversee the greatest amount of railway works in France, and elsewhere, ever undertaken by one firm. Going on to make his fortune working as engineer on canal and railway projects in Spain, Italy and Belgium, MacKenzie was rightly described as “one of the most important figures in the civil engineering world of the second quarter of the nineteenth century”.
Reputations were also enhanced when on the collapse of the viaduct at Barenton, instead of contesting their liability, MacKenzie and Brassey commenced the construction as a matter of course.
While in France, he is said to have become a confidante of H. M. Louis Philippe, exercising considerable influence over the Monarch’s opinions on the benefits of public works. And at the opening of the Tours and Poitiers section of the Orleans, Tours and Bordeaux Railway, the Prince President of the French Republic, announced the intention to confer on him the Cross of the Legion of Honour.
All told, estimates of the contracts and work executed by MacKenzie make a grand total not too far shy of £20 million.
To achieve the things he did would have required an extraordinary level of determination and energy allied with abundant ability and a persuasive demeanour. By most accounts he possessed a quick and passionate temperament, combined with a kind and benevolent disposition. The intensity of his life would inevitably take its toll, however and, following an attack of gangrene that saw him lose his foot, his health started to decline and he passed away aged 57.
Largely admired by all he had come into contact with and deeply mourned by his family and friends, the English Press and the French Journals praised him as ‘one of the men of the new era’. Paradoxically, perhaps as a consequence of the sheer pace at which he approached each endeavour, his recent reputation is one of treating his staff terribly.
And what of the legend that has grown in respect of his demise?
There is more than one version of the story, but the most common told suggests that, following the death of a loved one, MacKenzie became an atheist who developed a compulsive love of drinking and gambling. Perhaps this assertion was driven by jealousy– a means to explain away his great wealth, as there is no genuine evidence to suggest he was a gambler. Nevertheless, legend has it that MacKenzie played poker with a mysterious hooded character named Madison one night. Having lost every last penny and even the shirt off his back, Madison challenges him to play one last hand with the only thing he had left, his soul. As he’s an atheist he has nothing to lose, but when the hand fails him, he realises that his opponent, claiming his soul when he is buried is actually Satan himself!
Although a staunch atheist, MacKenzie became fearful for the fate of his soul and thus requested that upon his death he be entombed above ground in the pyramid, sat at a card table with a winning poker hand in his grasp. His reasoning was that if he wasn’t actually buried, his soul could not be claimed by Satan.
Unfortunately, he forgot that his soul had to go somewhere and keeping his body above ground would keep him from heaven as well as Satan. We all love a ghost story and it follows that tales of MacKenzie’s ghost roaming the eerie churchyard and surrounding area are so readily reported today. It is somewhat regretful that most of his achievements have been forgotten amid the legend and folklore that has grown up around his pyramid tomb, but how much of the story can we believe? When he died he was certainly not penniless, as he left a £341,848 estate and a widow, Sarah. The inscription above MacKenzie's Pyramid door reads: "In the vault beneath lie the remains of William MacKenzie of Newbie Dumfrieshire, Esquire who died 29th October 1851 aged 57 years… This monument was erected by his Brother Edward as a token of love and affection A.D. 1868", clearly implying that MacKenzie was buried beneath the pyramid and that the monument itself was not erected until 17 years after his demise. Even so, the legend continues to be told and believed by many. But what do you believe, dear reader?