Site Unseen: `Diver Bill', Winchester Cathedral

The great Anglican cathedrals seem so permanent and enduring a part of our landscape that it is hard to imagine a Britain without them. Durham, Canterbury, Wells, Salisbury and many others will surely be here for eternity and a day.

Troops of dutiful visitors and tourists make their own modern pilgrimage, armed with guidebooks and audio cassettes stuffed full of facts and figures. The ornate tombs of kings, bishops and nobility are carefully noted and described. It is all very serious and heavy.

But tourists making their careful way around Winchester cathedral - admiring the lengthy nave, the Norman font, the chantry chapels - are suddenly brought up sharp by a little 18in-high statuette of a man in distinctly non-ecclesiastical garb.

Look more closely and, good grief, it is someone in diving costume. Here? In Winchester Cathedral, among the bishops? Some mistake, surely? Not so. For this is "Diver Bill", the intrepid workman who earlier this century saved the cathedral from ignominious collapse.

Winchester Cathedral was built on marshland with insubstantial foundations, and by 1905 parts of it were cracking and one wall was gently subsiding. Experts discovered that the layer of peat beneath the building had compacted over time. As a matter of urgency, the peat had to be removed and replaced by concrete blocks.

It was soon discovered that the work would be best carried out by one man diving beneath the wet foundations and laboriously doing it all by hand. William Walker, "Diver Bill", undertook this task. Starting in May 1906, the five-year job saw him handle some 25,800 bags of concrete and 114,900 concrete blocks.

The work was incredibly tiring - each of Walker's boots weighed 18lb, his helmet 40lb - and the work was carried out in complete darkness. Slowly, he underpinned the foundations of the Cathedral. By August 1911 he had finished.

Although he was honoured at a thanksgiving service the next year, sadly he perished in the influenza epidemic that swept across Europe at the end of the First World War in 1918.

In 1964, however, a statuette in his honour was unveiled, and it stands today in the shadow of many an eminent divine who would doubtless be surprised to discover that their bacon had been saved by the efforts of this modest workman.

Here, at least, one of the "poor bloody infantry" is remembered for posterity.

ANDREW JOHN DAVIES

`Diver Bill', south-east corner, Winchester Cathedral, near Bishop Langton's Chapel.

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