William Walker: The diver who saved the Cathedral

When huge cracks started to appear in the early 1900s, the Cathedral seemed in danger of complete collapse. Early efforts to underpin its waterlogged foundations failed until William Walker, a deep-sea diver, worked under water every day for six years placing bags of concrete. You’ll find a small statue of him at the far end of the Cathedral.

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What was the problem?

In the early 1900s, large cracks began to appear in the Cathedral’s massive walls and vaulted (arched) ceilings. Some were wide enough for owls to roost in. Chunks of stone were falling to the ground.

Winchester lies in a valley of the River Itchen, and the Cathedral sits on peaty soil with a high underlying water table. You can still see a distinct lean in some walls at its east end.

The architect brought in to advise, Thomas Jackson, decided it was time for action. He would deal with the problem of subsidence once and for all by underpinning the building’s medieval south and east walls with modern new foundations.

Why was a diver called in?

Jackson planned to dig narrow trenches underneath the walls of the building and fill them with concrete. These would need to reach 4 metres (13 feet) below the water table to be effective.

At first, it seemed Jackson’s plan would prove unworkable. As fast as the workmen dug, water flooded into their trenches. Even a steam pump couldn’t hold it back long enough.

It seemed nothing could be done to stop total collapse. Then the project’s engineer, Francis Fox, had a brilliant idea. If the water couldn’t be held back, why not use a deep-sea diver to do the work?

So William Walker, an experienced diver working at Portsmouth dockyard, was called in.

Was the recue operation a success?

From 1906, Walker laboured under water below the Cathedral for six hours a day at depths up to 6 metres (20 ft). He worked in total darkness, using his bare hands to feel his way through the cloudy, muddy water.

His huge, heavy diving suit took a long time to put on. So when he stopped for lunch, he’d just take off his helmet. He also sometimes smoked his pipe, which he thought would kill off any germs.

It took him six years to excavate the flooded trenches and fill them with bags of concrete. When he’d finished, all the groundwater could be pumped out and the subsiding walls safely underpinned by bricklayers

By 1911, the team of 150 workmen of which he was part had packed the foundations with an estimated 25,000 bags of concrete, 115,000 concrete blocks, and 900,000 bricks.

Finally, a line of imposing buttresses was added to the south side of the cathedral, and the building was safe at last.

What happened to him?

A special service of thanksgiving was held on St Swithun’s Day 1912, after which Walker was presented to George V and Queen Mary. He was later made a Member of the Royal Victorian Order (MVO).

Sadly, he died aged just 49, during the great Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. Since then, the inspiring story of this modest, hard-working man has captured public imagination and his fame has steadily grown.

You’ll find a small statue of him in his diving suit, holding its massive helmet, at the far end of the building.


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