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13 November 2014

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You are in: Hampshire > History > Local History > Saving the Cathedral

William Walker

William Walker

Saving the Cathedral

A century ago, Winchester Cathedral was saved by the heroic work of William Walker, a diver who worked tirelessly to shore up the historic foundations and preserve one of England's greatest buildings.

The story goes back to 1905 when experts discovered that parts of Winchester Cathedral were under serious threat of collapse.


The Cathedral's archeologist Dr John Crook explained why the the building was in such peril:

"There were large cracks in the masonry.  One of the pillars in the crypt in the eastern end of the Cathedral was forcing itself through the earth beneath so the vaulting was collapsing there. 

"The west front of the Cathedral was in a terrible state with bits of masonry falling off.  Its conceivable that if nothing was done, the South wall could have toppled over."

Dr John Crook

Dr John Crook

Civil engineer Francis Fox and architect Thomas Jackson were swiftly brought in.

The causes of the problems went back to when the Cathedral was expanded using beech logs as a foundations in the 13th century.  This proved inadequate and over the centuries walls began leaning outwards and rotating.

Fox and Jackson's solution was to remove these beech logs and pump in concrete to firm up the foundations.  This was to be achieved by tunneling down to a layer of gravel under the Cathedral walls.

Water in the cathedral crypt

Water still floods into the cathedral's crypt

The only snag was the Cathedral was built on a high water table - water still bubbles into the crypt today.  It meant the trenches quickly filled with water so it would have taken years to underpin the whole cathedral while pumping solid material from under the walls could undermine them further.


Fox's brainwave was to employ a diver to descend into the murky water to temporarily shore up the walls by putting concrete underneath them.

235 pits were dug out along the southern and eastern sides of the building, each about six metres deep.

Shoring up the foundations took a Herculean effort by William Walker - a leading diver of his day who had trained at Portsmouth's naval dockyard. 

He worked tirelessly from 1906 until 1911 supporting the Cathedral using more than 25,000 bags of concrete, 115,000 concrete blocks and 900,000 bricks.

He worked in almost complete darkness in the peaty water 13 feet above his head which was filled with sediment.

As Dr John Crook explains: "It was a fairly heroic achievement ... he was clearly doggedly determined to finish the job."

The entire workforce

The entire workforce who saved the cathedral

After Walker finished his work, the groundwater could be safely pumped out and the concrete Walker had put into place was able to bear the foundation walls. Bricklayers were then able to restore the damaged walls.

The diving industry was still in its infancy but Walker used the best gear available - a Rubberised canvas suit with round diving helmet, and heavy boots - the whole suit weighed around 200lbs.


William Walker has become a hero in Winchester folklore.  There are several statues of him in and around the Cathedral and each St Swithin's day prayers of thanksgiving are offered for the work of William Walker along with Francis Fox and Thomas Jackson.

Walker was awarded the MVO (Member of the Royal Victorian Order) by king George V who said that he had "saved the cathedral with his own two hands".

A diving suit on display

A diving suit on display

However Walker was a quiet, modest hero - he cycled home 150 miles to Croydon and back, each weekend to see his family.

As Dr Crook explained, despite his celebrity status, the success of the work wasn't entirely down to Walker: "There were hundreds of people working on the Cathedral, but 'the diver' inevitably became the great focus of attention when people talked about the works on the Cathedral."

last updated: 22/09/2008 at 16:59
created: 06/06/2008

You are in: Hampshire > History > Local History > Saving the Cathedral

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