Posted by: Colin Wiles12/06/2012
I’m setting off for Manchester shortly, but I thought I would leave you with one of those quirky housing stories that this blog is fond of.
I believe I first became aware of the Mole Man of Hackney in the nineteen-eighties, when I lived in Hackney Wick. But I may be wrong, for this is a story that is so Gothic, so bizarre, that it seems to belong more to mythology than to real life. Charles Dickens would have loved this case of a classic English eccentric who, quite literally, undermined the peace and tranquility of his neighbours. Iain Sinclair, the chronicler of hidden London, devotes a chapter to the Mole Man in his recent book: “Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire”.
In brief, William Lyttle was a civil engineer who bought a pair of semi-detached houses in Mortimer Road, De Beauvoir Town, Hackney in the early seventies. He started building rickety extensions in the garden, which was soon filled with assorted car wrecks and piles of junk. But he also had a strong desire to “improve’ his property by creating new spaces beneath the house. Unbeknown to his neighbours and using only a shovel and a homemade pulley system he tunnelled into the soft London clay and built a vast network of tunnels beneath and beyond the property, stretching for 20 metres in all directions, some going down ten metres. Some of them were big enough to stand up in. He planned a leisure centre and a sauna, but it was only when a bus fell into a hole in the road outside the property that the Council became aware of his activities. After years of legal action he was finally evicted by Hackney Council in 2006 and ordered to pay £350,000 towards the cost of remedial works. Hackney’s engineers took away 20 tonnes of material from the property and estimated that he had excavated 100 cubic metres of soil.
After his eviction, he was put up in a hotel for three years and then re-housed on the top floor of a council block. But he continued his excavations and knocked holes into several of the walls, causing a huge amount of damage, until he was found dead of natural causes in 2010 aged 79. His Mortimer Road property is now to be auctioned and is expected to fetch £750,000.
For myself, I can think of little worse than the thought that someone was digging beneath me and undermining my house, unseen and unheard. Conventional anti-social behaviour can be dealt with eventually, but William Lyttle’s activities were of a different order completely. Part of me believes that he must have been THE neighbour from hell, (or at least from the underworld!), but I also admire his eccentric individuality. But was his obsessive behaviour any different from that of Joseph Williamson, the man who built the strange network of tunnels under Liverpool? Lyttle could devote just his own labour to the task, but Williamson had an army of unemployed workers at his disposal.
From Inside out
An independent look at the housing sector and beyond from Colin Wiles