Plaque unveiled for William Walker

March 19, 2018

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On Saturday 17 March 2018 The Very Reverend Catherine Ogle, Dean of Winchester, joined The Bishop of Croydon, The Worshipful Mayor of Croydon, Councillor Paul Scott and John Hickman at 118 Portland Road in Croydon to unveil a commemorative plaque for William Walker who once lived there and famously saved Winchester Cathedral ‘with his own hands’.  Members of William Walker’s present family together and the Historic Diving Association were also in attendance.

The construction of the Norman Cathedral at Winchester was started in 1079.  It is one of the largest cathedrals in Europe, with the longest nave and greatest overall length of any on the continent.  The foundations of Isle of Wight stone were laid on a bed of oak logs on a peat bog.

Almost imperceptibly during the following 800 years this magnificent building suffered subsidence.  Late in the 19th century cracks widened; and with falling masonry narrowly missing people it was realised that the cathedral was in danger of collapse.  An architect, Sir Thomas Jackson, Bt., R.A was engaged by the cathedral authorities to attempt a rescue operation.  At the forefront of this work was a deep-water diver, William Walker who lived in Portland Road.

Beginning in 1906 William Walker took a train to Winchester each Monday.  Wearing a 200 lb. deep-water diving suit, he worked six hours a day in 235 peat-water filled pits/trenches some 20 feet deep, in total darkness shoring-up the walls.  At the end of the week he travelled home by bicycle.  It took William Walker five years to complete the work, but once done the ground water could be pumped out and bricklayers were able to underpin the subsiding walls.  William Walker was at the front of a team of 150 workmen who packed some 25 000 bags of concrete, 115 000 concrete blocks and 900 000 bricks into pits beneath Winchester Cathedral thereby saving this now Grade I listed building.

For his heroic work William Walker was made a Member of the Royal Victorian Order (MVO) by George V.  He continued his deep-water work, but unfortunately died aged 49 a victim of the influenza pandemic of 1918.  After a funeral service in St. Mark’s church, South Norwood, he was buried in nearby Beckenham Cemetery.  William Walker is remembered by a statue erected in the cathedral grounds; additionally a tablet placed on his grave by Winchester Cathedral authorities in the 1960’s bears the inscription, ‘The diver who with his own hands saved Winchester Cathedral.’

The Very Reverend Catherine Ogle, Dean of Winchester, said: ‘We are very pleased to join William Walker’s family and the local community for this special occasion. It is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the special link between William Walker and Winchester Cathedral.’

This will be the sixth plaque on the fifth site (the first reinforced concrete subway in the world at Norwood Junction having two plaques) of The South Norwood Heritage Trail project commemorating people, places and events of local and national significance.  The aim of the trail is to both recognise and bring to life historic contributions made in, and by, the local community.