Podcast Episode 192: The Winchester Diver


Image: Flickr

In 1905 Winchester Cathedral was in danger of collapsing as its eastern end sank into marshy ground. The surprising solution was to hire a diver, who worked underwater for five years to build a firmer foundation for the medieval structure. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of William Walker and his curious contribution to saving a British landmark.

We’ll also contemplate a misplaced fire captain and puzzle over a shackled woman.


Anthony Trollope became a prolific author by simply demanding it of himself.

Wyoming’s North Two Ocean Creek drains into both the Atlantic and the Pacific.

Sources for our feature on William Walker:

Ian T. Henderson and John Crook, The Winchester Diver, 1984.

Barry Shurlock, The Winchester Story, 1986.

Frederick Bussby, William Walker, 1970.

John Crook and Yoshio Kusaba, “The Transepts of Winchester Cathedral: Archaeological Evidence, Problems of Design, and Sequence of Construction,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 50:3 (September 1991), 293-310.

Gwilym Roberts, “How a Diver Saved Winchester Cathedral, UK: And Today’s Solution?” Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers — Engineering History and Heritage 166:3 (August 2013), 164-176.

“William Walker: The Diver Who Saved the Cathedral,” Winchester Cathedral (accessed Feb. 25, 2018).

“Images of History,” Journal of Diving History 21:2 (Spring 2013), 40.

John Crook, “William Robert Walker,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Sept. 23, 2004.

“How a Diver Saved a Cathedral,” Ohio Architect, Engineer and Builder 20:4 (October 1912), 61.

“Foundations: The Use of Divers and the Grouting Machine,” American Architect and Building News 93:1689 (May 6, 1908), 147.

“Portland Cement in the Restoration of Winchester Cathedral,” Cement 13:3 (July 1912), 84.

“Winchester Cathedral,” Journal of the Society of Estate Clerks of Works 19:222 (Dec. 1, 1906), 182.

“Diving at Winchester Cathedral,” American Architect 90:1607 (Oct. 13, 1906), 120.

Charles William Domville-Fife, Submarine Engineering of To-Day, 1914.

J.W. Overend, “Saving a Cathedral With a Diver,” Scientific American 108:19 (May 10, 1913), 428.

“Toilers Beneath the Sea,” Popular Science 3 (1912), 1580.

“Hidden Service,” Expositor and Current Anecdotes 13:5 (February 1912), 302.

“A Great Feat,” Advance 62:2392 (Sept. 7, 1911), 303.

David Newnham, “Statuesque Mistake,” Times Educational Supplement, May 30, 2003, 5.

Jonathan Petre and Hazel Southam, “Cathedral to Replace Statue of ‘Wrong Man’,” Telegraph, May 27, 2001.

“Another Statue in Aid of Cathedral Hero,” [Southampton] Southern Daily Echo, Dec. 21, 2001.

“Croydon Man Helped to Save a Gothic Cathedral,” Croydon Advertiser, May 15, 2014, 32.

Andrew John Davies, “Site Unseen: ‘Diver Bill’, Winchester Cathedral,” Independent, Oct. 4, 1996, L2.

Sally A. Fall, “Winchester Cathedral Owes Debt to Diver,” San Diego Union, June 26, 1988 G-3.

“Diver Who Saved a Cathedral,” New Zealand Herald, Nov. 1, 2011, C.4.


In this diagram, from Popular Science, 1912, two men operate a large pump at ground level. Below them, standing on a platform just above the water level, the diver’s assistant pulls in and pays out the diver’s air and signal lines as he moves about the trench. Walker, at the bottom, holds a bag of concrete that’s just been lowered to him. The trenches were generally longer and narrower than depicted here, and the water would have been impenetrably clouded with sediment.

Listener mail:

“Police Want Anyone Who May Have Seen Toronto Firefighter on His Journey Across U.S. to Come Forward,” CBC News, Feb. 14, 2018.

Jeff Farrell, “Skier Who Went Missing From New York Mountain Slopes Ends Up Six Days Later in California Still Wearing Ski Clothes,” Independent, Feb. 15, 2018.

“Skier Lost in New York Doesn’t Know How He Got to California,” Associated Press, Feb. 14, 2018.

“Toronto Firefighter Who Disappeared in New York and Wound Up in California, May Have Travelled Across U.S. Thanks to Friendly Truck Driver,” Toronto Star, Feb. 14, 2018.

Sofia Tancredi, “Anorexia Through the Ages: From Sainthood to Psychiatry,” E/I Balance, March 3, 2013.

Muriel Darmon, Becoming Anorexic: A Sociological Study, 2016.

Jane E. Brody, “HEALTH; Personal Health,” New York Times, May 19, 1988.

Fernando Espi Forcen, “Anorexia Mirabilis: The Practice of Fasting by Saint Catherine of Siena in the Late Middle Ages,” American Journal of Psychiatry, April 1, 2013.

Wikipedia, “Fasting Girl” (accessed March 10, 2018).

“Sarah Jacobs: The Fasting Girl,” BBC Wales, March 14, 2011.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Steven Jones. Here are two corroborating links (warning — these spoil the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

The Devens Literacy Test

This test was administered to recruits at Fort Devens, Mass., during World War I. The idea is to measure reading comprehension, but the questions take on a surreal poetry:



Below 6: Illiterate
6 to 20: Primary
21 to 25: Grammar
26 to 30: Junior high school
31 to 35: Senior high school
36 to 42: College

Three additional versions of the test are given here.

Podcast Episode 191: The Longest Flight

timm and cook 1

The world’s longest airplane flight took place in 1958, when two aircraft mechanics spent 64 days above the southwestern U.S. in a tiny Cessna with no amenities. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the aerial adventures of Bob Timm and John Cook as they set a record that still stands today.

We’ll also consider a derelict kitty and puzzle over a movie set’s fashion dictates.

See full show notes …


  • Queen Victoria and her future husband, Albert, were born with the help of the same midwife.
  • Ulysses Grant and Harry Truman had the same meaningless middle initial.
  • SLICES OF BREAD is an anagram of DESCRIBES LOAF. (Dean Mayer)
  • France’s longest land border is with Brazil (via French Guiana).
  • “A creed is an ossified metaphor.” — Elbert Hubbard

(Thanks, Tony.)

Podcast Episode 190: Mary Patten and the Neptune’s Car


In 1856, an American clipper ship was approaching Cape Horn when its captain collapsed, leaving his 19-year-old wife to navigate the vessel through one of the deadliest sea passages in the world. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of Mary Patten and the harrowing voyage of the Neptune’s Car.

We’ll also consider some improbable recipes and puzzle over a worker’s demise.

See full show notes …

Occupational Hazard


In his 1874 Lives of the Chief Justices of England, John Campbell tells this anecdote of Lloyd Kenyon, Chief Justice of England and Wales from 1788 to 1802:

In those days retiring-rooms for the use of the Judges were unknown, and a porcelain vase, with a handle to it, was placed in a corner of the Court at the extremity of the bench. In the King’s Bench at Guildhall the students’ box (in which I myself have often sat) was very near this corner. One day a student who was taking notes, finding the ink in his little ink-bottle very thick, used the freedom secretly to discharge the whole of it into my Lord’s porcelain vase. His Lordship soon after having occasion to come to this corner, he was observed in the course of a few moments to become much disconcerted and distressed. In truth, discovering the liquid with which he was filling the vase to be of a jet black colour, he thought the secretion indicated the sudden attack of some mortal disorder. In great confusion and anguish of mind he returned to his seat and attempted to resume the trial of the cause, but finding his hand to shake so much that he could not write, he said that on account of indisposition he was obliged to adjourn the Court.

Happily for Kenyon, “As he was led to his carriage by his servants, the luckless student came up and said to him, ‘My Lord, I hope your Lordship will excuse me, as I suspect that I am unfortunately the cause of your Lordship’s apprehensions.’ He then described what he had done, expressing deep contrition for his thoughtlessness and impertinence, and saying that he considered it his duty to relieve his Lordship’s mind by this confession. Lord Kenyon: ‘Sir, you are a man of sense and a gentleman — dine with me on Sunday.'”

Podcast Episode 189: The “Wild White Man”


In 1835, settlers in Australia discovered a European man dressed in kangaroo skins, a convict who had escaped an earlier settlement and spent 32 years living among the natives of southern Victoria. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the extraordinary life of William Buckley, the so-called “wild white man” of colonial Australia.

We’ll also try to fend off scurvy and puzzle over some colorful letters.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 188: The Bat Bomb


During World War II, the U.S. Army experimented with a bizarre plan: using live bats to firebomb Japanese cities. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the crazy history of the bat bomb, the extraordinary brainchild of a Pennsylvania dentist.

We’ll also consider the malleable nature of mental illness and puzzle over an expensive quiz question.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 187: A Human Being in the Bronx Zoo


The Bronx Zoo unveiled a controversial exhibit in 1906 — a Congolese man in a cage in the primate house. The display attracted jeering crowds to the park, but for the man himself it was only the latest in a string of indignities. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the sad tale of Ota Benga and his life in early 20th-century America.

We’ll also delve into fugue states and puzzle over a second interstate speeder.

See full show notes …