Report of General Monthly Meeting

September 13th: David Farthing - William Walker - Winchester Cathedral Diver


I was asked to give a vote of thanks to David and how pleased I was to do so. I did some work for the Clerk of Works at the cathedral [The one before Carlton Bath the current Clerk] and knew some of the back story to the information that David spoke of. However the depth of knowledge that David Farthing holds reaches toward encyclopaedic. The Clerk of Works at the time of the recue 1906-1912 was Edwin Long.

The Cathedral is our gem stone and holds such a wealth of information that it brings visitors back time and time again. The visitor may however never know the information that was provided by David to the U3A on that day.

David’s main theme was on the Williams who did the support works to stabilize the Cathedral. Their names were William Walker and William West.

We were informed that they dug 250 pits below the cathedral walls to inset the support materials. When he mentioned 250 pits I thought of Margaret Thatcher. These however were pits below the walls that were sinking into the gravel peat and silt upon which the cathedral was built. Quite a good name for solicitors I thought. Gravel Peat and Silt!

Once the pits were dug out they did of course fill with water as the water table is so high around the cathedral and therefore a dry diving suit was needed. Dry diving suits are watertight and pumped with air from a pump on the surface. Dry suits are still used today. Not the one shown however.

William Walker
William Walker

Once dressed in the suit William Walker was winched down on a hoist and took bags of lean mix [A mixture of concrete with low cement content] down into the water filled pit. Often manoeuvring by touch alone in the dark water-filled pit William Walker carried the bags into position below the cathedral structure. Once positioned the lean mix would absorb the water in the pit and turn the mixture into a solid concrete block.

It is these blocks, one atop the other that the cathedral now stands on. Stack of blocks after stack of blocks he would have to build below the cathedral to ensure that the concrete sank into a reasonable solid base so as to support the building above.

All of the time in the pit he was supplied by air from the surface pump operated by William West his work colleague. If something went wrong with the pump no work could be done. Once in the pit the only means West had of communicating with Walker was by tugs on a rope attached the Walkers suite. What the code was is not recorded but tramping around under a collapsing building in the dark flooded pit would we suspect need a good code to say “get me out of here!”

William would of course come to the surface to have snacks, lunch, cups of warming tea and to smoke his pipe. The Williams would have a code between them to know what was wanted. ‘Put the kettle on I’m freezing down here!’ could have been one set of tugs on the rope. We do not know.

We now know thanks to David Farthing that William Walker had other interests. He had 12 children but died aged 49 from the Spanish Flu epidemic.

There are images of William Walker. However the one that stood in the Cathedral for many years was in fact the face of the Architect. The Architect put on the suit to go down and inspect the works when the photographer turned up to take the press photos. The bronze commissioned by the Cathedral turned up with the face of the Architect.

There is now however a good representation of William Walker outside the Refectory entrance. He receives acknowledgement at last.

I hope this small note gives David Farthing his acknowledgement for the enthusiasm he continues to have for his subject which exuded from him during this very interesting talk.

William Morrison