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!

“Singular Plurals”


Now if mouse in the plural should be, and is, mice,
Then house in the plural, of course, should be hice,
And grouse should be grice and spouse should be spice
And by the same token should blouse become blice.

And consider the goose with its plural of geese;
Then a double caboose should be called a cabeese,
And noose should be neese and moose should be meese
And if mama’s papoose should be twins, it’s papeese.

Then if one thing is that, while some more is called those,
Then more than one hat, I assume, would be hose,
And gnat would be gnose and pat would be pose
And likewise the plural of rat would be rose.

— Author unknown

The Bean Machine

In 1894 Sir Francis Galton devised this simple machine to demonstrate the central limit theorem: Beads inserted at the top drop through successive rows of pegs, bouncing left or right as they hit each peg and landing finally in a row of bins at the bottom. Though the path of any given bead can’t be predicted, in the aggregate they form a bell curve. Delighted with this, Galton wrote:

Order in Apparent Chaos: I know of scarcely anything so apt to impress the imagination as the wonderful form of cosmic order expressed by the Law of Frequency of Error. The law would have been personified by the Greeks and deified, if they had known of it. It reigns with serenity and in complete self-effacement amidst the wildest confusion. The huger the mob, and the greater the apparent anarchy, the more perfect is its sway. It is the supreme law of Unreason. Whenever a large sample of chaotic elements are taken in hand and marshalled in the order of their magnitude, an unsuspected and most beautiful form of regularity proves to have been latent all along.



Epitaphs gathered by Gyles Brandreth for Famous Last Words and Tombstone Humor, 1989:

Underneath this pile of stones
Lies all that’s left of Sally Jones.
Her name was Briggs, it was not Jones,
But Jones was used to rhyme with stones.

(Skaneateles, New York)

Here lieth
Mary — the wife of John Ford
We hope her soul is gone to the Lord
But if for Hell she has changed this life
She had better be there than be John Ford’s wife

(Potterne, Wilstire, England)

Old Thomas Mulvaney lies here
His mouth ran from ear to ear.
Reader, tread lightly on this wonder,
For if he yawns you’re gone to thunder.

(Middlefield, Massachusetts)

Sacred to the memory of
Henry Harris
Born June 27, 1821, of Henry Harris
and Jane, His Wife. Died on the 4th
of May, 1837, by the kick of a
Colt in his bowels.
Peaceable and quiet, a friend to his
father and mother, and respected by all
who knew him, and went to the world
where horses do not kick, where sorrow
and weeping is no more.

(Williamsport, Pennsylvania)

Here lies I —
Jonathan Fry —
Killed by a sky-
Rocket in my eye-

(Frodsham, Cheshire, England)

Julia Adams.
Died of thin shoes,
April 17th, 1839, aged 19 years.

(New Jersey)

A stone in Litchfield, Connecticut, reads, “Sacred to the memory of inestimable worth of unrivalled excellence and virtue, N.R., whose ethereal parts became seraphic, May 25th, 1767.”

Total Recall

Actress Marilu Henner has hyperthymesia, or highly superior autobiographical memory, a rare condition that permits her to recall nearly every day of her life in almost perfect detail. She’s one of only six cases that have been confirmed in peer-reviewed articles.

“It’s like putting in a DVD and it cues up to a certain place,” she told CBS. “I’m there again. So, I’m looking out from my eyes and seeing things visually as I would have that day.”

Her earliest memory is of her own baptism. “My godmother was a nun, and so she’d talk about my baptism all the time,” she said. “Even as a tiny child, I could recall that event. I know people don’t believe me, but it’s really true.”

Law and Order

Perhaps because the director has a law degree from Cambridge, Jonathan Lynn’s 1992 film My Cousin Vinny is widely praised for its realistic depiction of courtroom procedure and trial strategy.

Joe Pesci plays an inexperienced Brooklyn personal injury lawyer trying to save his cousin from a murder charge. But instead of relying on surprise witnesses and other unlikely dramatic gambits, “[t]he movie is close to reality even in its details,” writes plaintiff’s attorney Max Kennerly. “Part of why the film has such staying power among lawyers is because, unlike, say, A Few Good Men, everything that happens in the movie could happen — and often does happen — at trial.”

Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals judge Richard Posner calls the film “particularly rich in practice tips: how a criminal defense lawyer must stand his ground against a hostile judge, even at the cost of exasperating the judge, because the lawyer’s primary audience is the jury, not the judge; how cross-examination on peripheral matters can sow serious doubts about a witness’s credibility; how props can be used effectively in cross-examination (the tape measure that demolishes one of the prosecution’s eyewitnesses); how to voir dire, examine, and cross-examine expert witnesses; the importance of the Brady doctrine … how to dress for a trial; contrasting methods of conducting a jury trial; and more.”

“You can use the movie to discuss criminal procedure, courtroom decorum, professional responsibility, unethical behavior, the role of the judge in a trial, efficient cross-examination, the role of expert witnesses and effective trial advocacy,” writes John Marshall Law School professor Alberto Bernabe. And “[a]lthough Vinny is certainly no role model when it comes to knowledge of the law, legal analysis and ethical behavior, law students could learn from him as to how to use legal thinking in the complexity of actual law practice.”

Lynn suggested that lawyers like the film because “there aren’t any bad guys”; the judge, prosecutor, and defense are all simply seeking justice.

In 2008 the ABA Journal ranked the film third on its list of the “25 Greatest Legal Movies,” and in 2010 it ranked Vincent Gambini twelfth among “The 25 Greatest Fictional Lawyers (Who Are Not Atticus Finch).”

Not So Fast


In 1700 the body of John Dryden was arrested pending payment of his debts.

Before 1804 the cadaver of a debtor could be held hostage by the creditor until the dead person’s loved ones could pay the arrears.

Finally in the case Jones v. Ashburnham, Lord Ellenborough declared that the practice was “contrary to every principle of law and moral feeling. Such an act is revolting to humanity, and illegal, and, therefore, any promise extorted by it could never be valid law.”

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.

Square Deal

From Recreational Mathematics Magazine, 1961, a magic square of cards:


Each row, column, and main diagonal contains an ace, king, queen, and jack and all four suits. There are numerous other subsquares and symmetrical subsets of squares that have the same property, including the center 2 × 2 square and the four corner squares.

(Recreational Mathematics Magazine 34:5, 24-29, via Pi Mu Epsilon Journal, “Unusual Magic Squares,” 6:2 [Spring 1975], 54-55.)