FRED DIBNAH was the Bolton steeplejack whose no-nonsense love of his work, on-screen charisma and infectious enthusiasm for Britain’s heritage made him a television celebrity and one of the city’s favourite sons.
His commitment to preserving and documenting Britain’s industrial age, great architecture and machinery – especially steam engines – cost him two marriages and may have shortened his life. Having already outlived the 12-month diagnosis he had been given three years before, Dibnah refused chemotherapy for his prostate cancer in order to tour the country aboard his 1912 traction engine for a new 12-part series for BBC Two. He had to abandon this in September and return home to Bolton.
It may have been his straitened early circumstances that made Dibnah so fearless and straightforward, but it was part of his character that he recalled most of it with the same cheery nostalgia as he did the grave privations of the Victorian era. Dibnah’s grandfather, Albert Travis, was a great runner in the early 1900s. He accumulated many trophies, all of which had to be sold to pay for his medical care in later years. His father worked a ten-and-a-half-hour shift each day at the local bleach factory, while his mother was a charlady at the gasworks.
Frederick Dibnah grew up in thrall to the machines at his father’s work, to the locomotives shunting at the back of the family’s terraced house, and to the great chimney stacks which then pricked the Bolton skyline.
When Dibnah was in his early teens, his school was burgled and the keys to every classroom stolen. With the school unable to afford a locksmith, Dibnah astonished his schoolmasters by cutting a new key for each door. For the rest of his time there he rarely shone, although he was good at drawing and woodwork and relished art class for the chance to sit by a canal and sketch the chimneys. He had a brief spell at art school until the need for a wage drew him to a local joiners.
His heart, though, belonged to the chimneys which by now were mostly redundant and being toppled at an alarming rate. “Mr Rawlins, my boss at the joiners shop, was a wicked man,” Dibnah recalled. “He used to take newspaper cuttings of chimney fatalities and stick them up on the door of the office. He didn’t want to lose me because I was so useful to him.” Dibnah started working after hours and at weekends as a steeplejack, and determined to make this his trade. He soon left the joinery.
Dibner’s relationship with his chimneys was a dichotomous one. The role of caring doctor became more often that of reluctant executioner as the price of maintaining the giants grew too great for companies and local councils. While he loved the noise and danger of bringing down a stack, and would smile at excited children with his trademark phrase “Did yer like that one?”, he always felt aggrieved that these monoliths could not be preserved as part of Britain’s heritage.
Wherever possible, he tried to convince owners that he could repair a chimney for less than the cost of demolishing it, and he worked hard to keep a few particularly good specimens for posterity – such as the one he managed to get listed at Barrow Bridge in Halliwell, Lancashire.
When a chimney had to be toppled, Dibnah did it the traditional way, without explosives. Instead he would cut a mouth in the chimney, shoring it with pieces of telegraph pole and wooden chocs. He would then set a fire, burning away the wood and resulting – at least more often than not – in a very precise trajectory of fall that caused the least upset to surrounding homes.
His own steeplejack company was put on hold while he did National Service in Germany, where he was put in charge of his regiment’s hounds and horses. Living at a farmhouse, he found time there to hammer out weathercocks. He would later affix his weathercocks to northern steeples once the chimneys had gone.
He came to the public’s notice in 1978, when a local BBC unit filmed him 240ft in the air, working on Bolton’s town hall clock. Dibnah was by this time making a good living as a roofer as well as winning many specialist contracts, and his enthusiasm for his work – and his lucid, flat-vowelled commentary – made him an instant hit. One year later, Don Haworth, a BBC producer, returned to make a one-hour documentary called Fred Dibnah – Steeplejack.
This led to 19 half-hour programmes which followed Dibnah’s day-to-day travails and featured Allison, a ten-ton 1910 Aveling & Porter steamroller. Allison was named after his wife and childhood sweetheart, although it was a matter of some dispute which he loved more. During filming in October 1985, Dibnah returned home to find that his wife and three daughters had left him. He duly changed the roller’s name to Betsy, after his mother.
Dibnah married again in 1987 and had two sons, but this too was dissolved. He was married for the third time to Sheila Grundy in 1998, with whom he had another son. It seemed that this time his other love could be accommodated in the relationship, as Dibnah arrived at Mere Hall register office on Betsy.
The next year his television work truly took off, with Fred Dibnah’s Industrial Age, followed the next year by Fred Dibnah’s Magnificent Monuments and Building of Britain. Last year he completed Fred Dibnah’s Age of Steam. In these programmes he enthused about his heroes – Thomas Telford, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and George and Robert Stephenson. In all he worked on 20 documentaries. In January this year BBC Two showed Dig With Dibnah, following his attempts to construct an Industrial Age pithead in the back yard of his Grade II listed house in The Haulgh.
If there is a point where a hobby becomes an obsession, Dibnah will be forgiven for failing to see it. As the project grew, Dibnah constructed pithead machinery, made plans for a tub railway and aimed to make the shaft 70ft deep, with a 90-ft tunnel running to the banks of the River Tonge.
Although some councillors backed his application, planning for the project was turned down after complaints by neighbours. They had already voiced concerns that his garden was turning into a Victorian scrapyard, populated by machines that chugged away as if the Clean Air Act was still a hundred years in the distance. Dibnah, who knew that his time could be running out, was deeply upset. He had wanted the mine to be his memorial. “The neighbours are saying I never finish anything,” he lamented. “But neither did Brunel.”
Dibnah demolished his last chimney in 2002 and was appointed MBE in July last year. It was one of very few occasions where he was seen in public without his trademark flat cap. Until two months ago he gave just as much time as ever to his fans and was seldom heard complaining – unless it was about the shortcomings of the Information Age. He is survived by his wife, Sheila, and by his six children.
Fred Dibnah, MBE, steeplejack and television presenter, was born on April 28, 1938. He died of prostate cancer on November 6, 2004, aged 66.