This pre-medieval cathedral has a rich, long history and experienced a turbulent past. Below, Fahim Imam-Sadeque will discuss how the cathedral came about and the events that led to the need for an ingenious solution to keep it from sinking into the underneath swamp.
The building that stands at the site of the Winchester Cathedral today was constructed between 1079 and 1532. But, the first building built on the site was a small building just north of today’s cathedral that was built by King Cenwalh of Wessex in c. 648, called the Old Minster.
Eventually, that building became the cathedral for the newly-established Diocese of Winchester back in 662. Church expansions were constructed in the late 900s before it was rededicated in 993.
In 901, the site was expanded with the construction of the New Minster under Alfred the Great, though Edward the Elder, his son, was the one to complete the project. For years, the two monasteries stood next to each other.
More expansions happened throughout the next few hundred years. Luckily, the Winchester Cathedral survived the ruling of King Henry VIII, who dissolved the Catholic Church in the country, becoming head of the new Church of England.
By the 20th century, it became very obvious that the structure of the Winchester Cathedral was not stable. In fact, there was a serious threat that it would collapse. There were huge cracks in the walls, and some were large enough for people to climb into. The building walls were leaning, while stone was falling off the walls.
The dean of the cathedral at the time, William Furneaux, brought in one of the leading architects at that time, Thomas G. Jackson, who discovered the building was sinking into the soft ground below. He believed there were foundation problems that were causing the issues.
Jackson brought in Francis Fox, an engineer, to help with the problem. Eventually, they discovered that the Winchester Cathedral was constructed on a “floating raft.” Layers of beach trees were laid diagonally on top of each other. While some were found intact, plenty of others rotted and then collapsed, forcing the cathedral to shift and sink.
The restoration team began to dig trenches to lift the raft using brick and concrete. When that idea didn’t work, they began using the “Greathead Grouting Machine,” designed to fill in the cracks. But, water started pumping into the building at a fast pace.
Deep-Sea Diver to the Rescue
Fox knew he needed help with the project, and he turned to an unlikely source — deep-sea diver William Walker. In 1906, as Fahim Imam-Sadeque explains, Walker arrived on the scene from London. He was considered among the most experienced divers in all of the United Kingdom at the time.
His job was to level the trenches of the building by diving into the flooded waters. He had to remove the peat topsoil first, then plug the water by laying cement bags.
It was an enormous undertaking. The suit itself weighed 200 pounds when it was dry. The trenches he was diving into were completely black, meaning Walker had to feel where he was going with just his hands. The entire process took six years to finish, with Walker working about seven hours almost every day.
When Walker was finished, he saved the building by laying more than 115,000 blocks of concrete, 250,000 concrete bags, and 900,000 bricks.