Fred Dibnah

Steeplejack who became a television star

Northern to his fingertips, with a flat-cap to reinforce the stereotype, Fred Dibnah was one of those "ordinary people" who became a television star for just being himself on screen, long before the days of "reality TV".

Fred Dibnah, steeplejack and television presenter: born Bolton, Lancashire 28 April 1938; MBE 2004; three times married (two sons, three daughters); died Bolton, Greater Manchester 6 November 2004.

Northern to his fingertips, with a flat-cap to reinforce the stereotype, Fred Dibnah was one of those "ordinary people" who became a television star for just being himself on screen, long before the days of "reality TV".

Dibnah, a Bolton steeplejack, complete with boiler-suit and watch on a chain, found fame for knocking down the chimneys of the mills and mines that once represented Lancashire's status as the textile capital of the world, and the irony was not lost on him. "It's OK for environmentalists," he once mused, "but very sad for me." Looking at a map of the county, he could reel off exactly where hundreds of the mills and mines once stood.

Alongside this respect for industrial heritage was a lifelong passion for steam engines from a bygone age that endeared him to millions. "I realise that steam engines are not everyone's cup of tea, but they're what made England great," he would say. In his workshop at home, he kept a renovated 1904 fixed engine that powered his machines and tools such as lathes, saws and drills, all driven by belts from a 125ft shaft.

Dibnah was "discovered" in 1977, when he repaired Bolton Town Hall's clock and a reporter, Alistair McDonald, arrived to interview him for BBC North West's regional news programme. The steeplejack recalled:

I had a plank going from the tower and across the face, so there he is inside the tower, looking out, and I am standing out on the plank, 200 foot up, showing off the new stone pillars we had made for the job. "Are you coming out, then?" I asked, pointing to the plank. His reply is unprintable, as they say, but we did the interview anyway and it went out at the end of the evening news.

As a result, Don Haworth, a BBC producer in Manchester, approached Dibnah with the idea of making a documentary on him as part of a series about people with unusual occupations. In Fred Dibnah, Steeplejack (1979), he was seen demolishing or repairing factory chimneys, steeples and towers, and waxing philosophical about his job. He always preferred restoration work, although the sight of toppling chimneys was undoubtedly one of the attractions to viewers.

Dozens of programmes followed over the next three decades. When word spread that "Fred's doing a dropper", Dibnah attracted huge crowds and he became one of the most unlikely celebrities. His appeal, he believed, was that he did not use dynamite in his work. Instead, he cut a mouth out in the bottom of the chimney, propped up the opening with sticks of wood, then burned them by lighting a large fire. "With dynamite, they're all 200 yards away, hiding," he chortled.

Born in Bolton in 1938, Dibnah grew up watching steam trains from his bedroom window, which overlooked the nearby railway line. His interest in steam power was widened through visits to see the various contraptions, pulleys and belts at a local bleach factory, where his father worked.

Dibnah studied at Bolton College of Art during his schooldays, then started his working life as a joiner. As he gained an interest in high buildings and the techniques of steeplejacking, Dibnah took up the occupation himself to earn extra money at weekends, mainly on small jobs of up to about 100 feet high, such as repairing weather vanes and lightning conductors.

However, his youthful looks worked against him. "No one would, on seeing this young fellow at their door, think of him as being capable of climbing the chimney, let alone repairing it," Dibnah recalled. So he was helped by his former art-school teacher, who knocked on doors and booked him jobs so that he was up the ladder before anyone could object. After two years' National Service with the Army in Germany, most of it spent deploying his joinery skills on renovating a farmhouse and barns at an army camp, Dibnah returned home and decided to make steeplejacking his full-time job.

He travelled around on a 1927 AJS motorcycle, bought before his National Service with the then large sum of £60, which he had received for pointing a mill-owner's house, and used a pair of binoculars to examine chimneys for damage before persuading their owners to give him the job of restoring them to their former glory. Dibnah began to have doubts about whether he would make a living from his chosen occupation, but repairing the weather vane on a Bolton church proved to be the turning-point and work kept coming his way.

After being featured in the 50-minute documentary Fred Dibnah, Steeplejack, which won a Bafta award as Best Documentary, he was the subject of four series - Fred (1982), A Year with Fred (1987), Life with Fred (1994) and the six-part biography The Fred Dibnah Story (1996) - and was in demand as an after-dinner speaker.

He also undertook major steam-engine restoration projects at a sawmill in Parc Glynllifon, in Gwynedd, and Wetheriggs Pottery, near Penrith, Cumbria, and appeared as an odd-job man arriving to repair a weather vane on top of Mr and Mrs Kellogg's house in a 1996 television commercial for Cornflakes. "I've got to look at it in an admiring way and that's it!" said Dibnah as he prepared to travel to South Africa for filming. "But let me say that it is well worth my while. It beats climbing chimneys."

Then, the BBC elevated Dibnah to the role of presenter for a string of new series. He toured Britain to celebrate its industrial heritage in Fred Dibnah's Industrial Age (1999), highlighted the country's greatest buildings and feats of engineering in Fred Dibnah's Magnificent Monuments (2000), examined the craft and engineering skills that were part of its history in Fred Dibnah's The Building of Britain (2002) and traced the development of steam power in Fred Dibnah's Age of Steam (2003).

For a one-off special, Dig with Dibnah (2004), he tried to reconstruct a part of Britain's industrial past in his own back garden, by digging a 100ft-deep mine shaft, complete with pit-head gear and steam-powered winding engine.

In September this year, ill-health forced him to stop filming a new series, Fred Dibnah's Made in Britain, in which he was touring heritage sites on his newly restored 1912 Aveling & Porter steam tractor. Three years earlier, a tumour had been found in his kidney. When the cancer spread to his bladder and bowel, doctors told him it was incurable.

Dibnah received honorary doctorates from the engineering departments of the universities of Birmingham and Aberdeen.

Anthony Hayward



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