Upon This Rock

Hast thou entered into the springs of the sea? Or hast thou walked in the search of the depth?

—Job 38:16


The Old Minster at Winchester Cathedral was built in 645 AD. By the year 1000 there was a cathedral there about one-third the size of today’s. But the site was swampy and peaty, so the Normans cut and laid birch logs as fill for their own additions, which were finished in 1093. Over the centuries, a retrochoir, presbytery, and the long western nave were added, making it the longest Gothic cathedral in Europe.

But as its wooden foundation rotted in the high water table from the nearby river, the tons of massive stonework began to subside and pull apart. By the early 1900s the east end of the cathedral was in imminent danger of collapse; owls were able to roost in the cracks in the vaulted ceilings. An architect called for new foundations under the east and south walls, but steam pumps, the best technology of the time, could not keep water out of the excavated trenches. An engineer suggested using a deep-sea diver to place sacks of concrete in the voids.

William Walker was one of the most experienced divers in England and was hired for the job in 1906. He spent six years feeling his way around in the muck under the cathedral, placing tens of thousands of sacks of concrete, one by one, to shore up the church.

How to convey the experience of six years sunk in that silt and dark, peering through the faceplate of a brass skull, like a homonculus in a cyclops? Because the water depth was never greater than 20 feet, Walker incurred no decompression obligation, so he was in his bulky dive dress six hours a day and took off only his helmet for lunch and a smoke. At the end of each day he walked out to a bench and was undressed by tenders, like a child by its mother. It is said he cycled 70 miles home on weekends and caught the train back for work on Monday.

Monday morning: Nearly weightless in the water but still this burden: not a fish. The hiss and gurgle of the mammal immersed. Never mind what they were doing in Edinburgh or Paris. Never mind books of the time, The Education of Henry Adams, White Fang, or Puck of Pook’s Hill. Never mind Gorgas’s eradication of yellow fever, Nernst’s third law of thermodynamics, or whether Walker’s dead wife’s sister loved him. He leaned into it, broke the suction of the silt, plodded along in a controlled, continuous falling. Human voices came down the umbilical—words of encouragement, reassurance, promises, questions, blasphemies. All those bags of concrete: the holy virtue of fortitude.

When Walker had done his job, engineers and 150 workmen were able to seal everything up with more concrete, nearly a million bricks, and more than 100,000 concrete blocks. A buttress was added to the south wall, and the cathedral was saved.

Walker apparently said he did not think his was particularly difficult work. Maybe it wasn’t, comparatively—he was not subject to water currents, waves, wind, or marine life. But his was quite literally the rock upon which the church was built, and he laid it while wearing 200 pounds of copper, lead, brass, and canvas. An odd salvage, all around.

Walker was presented to the King and Queen in 1912. Shortly afterward, he was made a Member of the Royal Victorian Order. He died in the flu epidemic of 1918, at 49 years of age, a mere six years after his work on Winchester Cathedral. Like most workers, he is largely forgotten. His grave in London has a stone that reads, “The diver who with his own hands saved Winchester Cathedral.” The Cathedral has placed a small statue of him “at the far end of the building,” and his story is mixed in at their website with pages for Izaak Walton and Jane Austen, the latter having died nearby on a visit. On Saturday there was a small memorial service at the Cathedral for Walker, on the centenary of his death.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.