Bolton Evening News tribute

Posted On November - 8 - 2004

Town says farewell to Fred Dibnah

FRED Dibnah, Bolton’s celebrity steeplejack who died on Saturday, was a bluff, no nonsense man, who despite being terminally ill with cancer battled on to the end.

He died, surrounded by his family and friends, just weeks after completing his final TV series made as he toured the country on his beloved steam traction engine.

The steeplejack turned TV star had stopped chemotherapy treatment for prostate cancer after just one session because he said it made him too ill.

He continued smiling through the pain and managed to complete filming the 12 part TV series which will be screened in the New Year.

In July this year Fred even drove his steam traction engine to London to collect his MBE from the Queen but he had to park his eight tonne green, black and gold restored traction engine in a nearby barracks.

At the time he said he couldn’t wait to get out of his posh morning suit and back into his work clothes and flat cap and resume filming his tour around the country.

But in September, shortly after filming ended, he was at home in Radcliffe Road, the Haulgh, when his condition deteriorated. He was taken to Bolton Hospice where he died at midday on Saturday.

Married three times, he leaves behind his wife Sheila, three daughters Jayne, Lorna and Caroline and two sons, Jack and Roger.

Fred was one of Bolton’s most colourful and eccentric characters, known for his trademark flat cap and permanently oil-stained hands.

His enthusiasm for the age of steam and pride in the role played by Lancashire in the industrial revolution, along with his unmistakeable northern accent, endeared him to millions of television viewers.

As his death was announced on BBC 24 presenter Peter Sissons remarked: ” They don’t make them like that any more.”

And bosses at the BBC, who worked with Fred on his last TV series, hailed the Bolton steeplejack’s unique influence as tributes continued to pour in today.

Catherine Hall, production manager with View from the North, the company which filmed his new series to be shown on BBC 2, paid tribute to Fred’s continued bravery.

She said: “He was ill when we were filming but you would never have known. He wasn’t a complainer. He was a lovely man with time for everyone and what you saw was what you got. He was full of life and enthusiasm and that is why he was so well loved. We used to have a nightmare sometimes because he would spend so long talking to fans and signing autographs. People loved him because he was a down to earth working class man who clearly loved the subjects he talked about. He was just a great bloke and a unique character and he will be sorely missed.”

Roly Keating, Controller of BBC Two, said: “Fred Dibnah has been a much-loved BBC Two face for more than two decades and he is very much part of the channel’s heritage.”

Richard Klein, a BBC commissioning executive, who produced Fred’s last two series, always remained a big fan of Fred’s vigour and enthusiasm.

He said: “Fred Dibnah was a terrific character who had a passion for Britain’s heritage. He, more than anyone, helped to bring our engineering history alive — making us aware that steam and coal were two of the main locomotives that made Britain great. On paper, they are inanimate things, but Fred loved them so much, so passionately and so boyishly, that only the stoney-hearted would have failed to enjoy his terrific shows. He will be deeply missed. I, for one, have always felt privileged to have worked with a true television original.”

Today tributes praising the down-to-earth Boltonian, who claimed he was “born 70 years too late”, continued to flood in.

Top Bolton comedian Peter Kay said: ” It’s very sad news. He was one of a kind and now he has gone I think there will be no one else like him. He was enthusiastic about a way of life that has virtually disappeared now. Also, the way he championed Bolton over the years was fantastic. As a kid I used to watch and tape all of his programmes. I used to love watching him travel around Bolton.”

Bill Richards, a close friend of Fred’s for nearly 40 years, said: “He was a real character and could talk to anyone from the age of nine to 90 and keep them interested. He knew how to relate to people and the knowledge that he had in his head was phenomenal. His history of Bolton was incredible and I’m glad we’ve got plenty of it on film to remember him by. I will remember his friendship, nothing was too much trouble for Fred. He was a lovely man who never lost his temper with anybody. He was a genuine bloke.

Mayor of Bolton, Cllr Prentice Howarth, said: “It has come as a shock, because I saw Fred in the hospice a few weeks ago and he was cheery. Fred was a character. He was very forthright and had strong opinions, and was someone you couldn’t help but admire. His programmes did a lot for the heritage and history of Bolton and the North-west. It is very sad, because characters like Fred are not born every day, and losing someone like him is a big loss to the town.”

Cllr Barbara Ronson, leader of Bolton Council, paid tribute to Fred Dibnah’s legacy, calling him a “mighty character”.

She said: “He was true ambassador for Bolton and many people associated the town with Fred. We do treasure our characters and Fred’s passing away will be a sad loss for Bolton. His commitment to helping charitable causes in the Bolton area will also be missed. His enthusiasm was infectious and everybody wanted him on their side. Fred had a talent for the unexpected and liked to do things a little differently. He are very sorry to lose him and respect the work he did for Bolton during his life.”

David Crausby MP said: “It is a great loss to Bolton. Fred was one of the more important local characters. These days, people like Fred are increasingly rare. He will be sorely missed, not just by the people of Bolton, but by the nation as a whole.”

Dr Brian Iddon, MP, said: “I’m shocked and saddened by Fred’s death, and want to send my condolences out to his family. Fred helped to put Bolton on the map and was one of the town’s true local characters. He will be sadly missed not only by the people of Bolton, but the rest of the country.”

Brian Tetlow, chairman of the Bolton and District Civic Trust, said: “It’s terribly sad news. I’ve known Fred for many years and admired his devotion to industrial heritage and particularly the age of steam. We were very grateful that he addressed our annual meeting this year. He’s unique, not just to Bolton but to Britain and the world. Our thoughts are with his wife and children.”

Derek Mills, chairman of the Bolton Historic Building Committee, said: “He’ll be very sadly missed. Everybody who ever met him has got very fond memories and I think people will share with me the thought that he put Bolton on the map with his splendid television programme. He knew what he was facing and dealt with it very bravely.”

Former Mayor of Bolton and Labour leader Cllr Cliff Morris said: “He was one of Bolton’s characters. He was a leader in his field and will be very sadly missed.”

John Phillp,secretary of the Northern Mill Engine Society, of which Fred was honorary president, said: “He was a big supporter of ours for many years and his death is a great loss. He was a great character and made no concessions when he was on TV. What the viewers saw was exactly how Fred acted in real life. He put Bolton on the map probably more than any other individual.”

Erwin Bottomley, manager of the National Coal Museum, said: “Fred was one of the most interesting people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. I spent some time chatting to him and found his knowledge of industrial history second to none.”

The pair were introduced around three years ago at the museum, near Wakefield, when Fred was carrying out filming work for a new series on the BBC.

The museum contains England’s only underground mine and attracts 120,000 visitors every year.

Mr Bottomley said: “He was such a down-to-earth chap, with no airs or graces. We talked about everything from steam engines to mining. His enthusiasm knew no bounds and I would always hear about him on top of steeples. He mentioned his desire to dig a mineshaft in his back garden. It would be a fitting memorial for Fred.”

The steeplejack was never afraid to speak his mind on those people he believed were removing the landmarks of Britain’s glorious industrial past.

More than four years ago Fred hit out at proposals to close down Salford Mining Museum because of a lack of cash.

The larger-than-life steeplejack called for the museum to be moved to Astley in a bid to preserve the memory of an age when Britannia ruled the world.

Friend Alf Molyneaux, aged 63, hailed the steeplejack’s enthusiasm, and recalled that Fred’s love of mining and steam engines soon saw himself “bitten by the bug”.

He said: “I’ve been a great pal of Fred’s for a few years. I met him in the pub and though I didn’t initially know anything about steam engines, he soon changed all that. His enthusiasm was infectious and he told me about his steam engines and the mine in his back garden. I asked if I could take a look and he was more than happy to show me.”

Alf joined Fred on his final trip around the country filming his new TV series, Made in Britain.

His farewell tour of the country saw them travelling on the no nonsense steeplejack’s much loved 1912 traction engine.

Alf said: “During that tour we had some great times and went to some wonderful places. But it was the people we met I will remember. People would stop and talk to us wherever we were and Fred always had time for them. People loved him. He was a real nice bloke, what you saw on the TV was what you got in the yard when he was working. He could tell a great story and have a great laugh. He had time to speak to anyone, he loved meeting people and talking to them about all sorts of different things. I will miss him tremendously and so will thousands of other people around the country.

Many friends remember Fred as a great storyteller, who, armed with a glass of wine or a Guinness, could keep avid listeners entertained for hours on end.

Photographer Keith Langston, who accompanied Fred on his final trip, called him a “people person”.

He said: “You had to be near him to appreciate how other people felt about him and reacted to him. When we were filming in London even foreign tourists were asking him for autographs. He always had a smile on his face, but over the last few months you could see just how brave he was, because behind that infectious smile was pain. He will be missed but never forgotten.”

(Bolton Evening News)

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