Fred Dibnah

Fred Dibnah

Biography and career

Fred was the son of Frank and Betsy Dibnah (née Travis). He first became famous as a result of his profession as a steeplejack; although being a traditional repairer of tall buildings he also earned a reputation for chimney felling—mainly through a TV documentary where he was nearly crushed by a falling mill chimney. Bolton has become famous for the soot and grime produced by the town's multitude of mill chimneys, but the decline of the cotton industry meant that many of the obsolete landmarks had to be demolished as the cost of maintaining them became prohibitive.

Having mastered his trade repairing chimneys, Fred became aware of the demand for a cost-effective demolition method and offered to remove them without the need for explosives. His technique was to cut an ingress at the bottom of the chimney, support the brickwork with wooden props and then burn the props so that the chimney fell, hopefully in the intended direction. Alongside his demolition work he also continued to work as a steeplejack. He has always maintained that, although most famous for demolishing chimneys, he much preferred to repair and preserve them.

At the age of 40 he came into the public eye when the BBC broadcast a short news item about his work on Bolton Town Hall. His warm, earthy manner combined with his endless enthusiasm and broad Bolton accent endeared him to viewers, and the BBC made a one hour documentary, Fred Dibnah—Steeplejack, the following year. This featured Fred at work, both repairing and demolishing chimneys. Much of it was taken up by his monologue while climbing chimneys and spires, but the highlight was his demolition of a tall brick chimney, his running from the collapse, and his boyish glee at the spectacle.

Fred died on 6 November 2004, following a three-year battle with cancer. Thousands of people lined the streets of Bolton on the day of his funeral as his coffin was taken through the town on the back of his favourite traction engine, driven by his son, with his steamroller, Betsy, following.

TV presenter

Fred Dibnah's rough-hewn Lancastrian manner (and his ever-present flat cap) belied his gentle, self-taught philosophical outlook. He went on to write and present a number of series, largely concerned with the Industrial Revolution and its mechanical and architectural legacy.

Steam enthusiast

Fred was also an enthusiastic steam fan and had his own Aveling & Porter traction engine built in 1912 and an Aveling & Porter Steam Roller "Betsy", (Reg No: DM3079), built in 1910. This engine was initially named "Alison" after his first wife, but after the breakdown of his marriage, he renamed the engine "Betsy" after his mother.

He also maintained a fully steam-powered workshop in his back yard utilising old machines and tools otherwise destined for the scrapheap. On one occasion he remarked he always had steam up in his garden.

Mining

In 2002, Fred began to dig a demonstration coal mine in the back garden of his Grade II listed house in Bolton. However, the local council turned down its planning application and work on the project had to cease.