Fred Dibnah’s Chimney Drops
For over 20 years Fred, Master Steeplejack and expert chimney feller, would often relate to Alan dramatic stories of steeplejacking lore and particularly chimney drops in either the Engine Shed or the ‘hen-hut’ workshop.
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Nationally renowned Master Steeplejack, Fred Dibnah was born on the 29th April 1938 in the Lancashire cotton town of Bolton. Even as a young lad, Fred was considered by his family and also his contemporaries as being a little odd, rather eccentric, for the young Boltonian eschewed the normal football and similar sports-related pastimes in favour of the world of steam engines, boilers and in particular the numerous cotton mill and factory chimneys that were as ubiquitous as blades of grass. For the young Fred Dibnah was captivated by the gigantic, gleaming steam engines with their enormous whirling flywheels that powered the cotton mills and that were jammed cheek by jowl into Bolton’s townscape. Fred also had a profound interest in the many classes of steam locomotives that regularly clanked by close to his boyhood home in Burden Park, and he regularly visited Bolton Loco Depot, where he would spend hour upon hour, fascinated, watching and studying the various steam shunting locomotives and goods engines stabled at the sheds. Fred clearly loved all aspects of British industry and was fascinated by the numerous ancient coal pits with their distinctive headgear that he saw when taking a regular walk along the towpath of the Manchester, Bury and Bolton Canal. Indeed, many years later when he became famous, he would delight his audiences with his colourful reminiscences and adventures regarding the Lancashire coal mining industry.
Fred’s greatest passion however, was industrial chimneys and steeplejacking, which had thrilled him from being a small lad when he had witnessed, during the local wakes weeks when the cotton mills closed, the sight of steeplejack’s’ red-painted ladders running up the sides of the towering mill chimneys and the tiny ‘Lowry-esq’ figures, the steeplejacks ‘dancing around’ on the platform some 200 feet up in the sky.
By the early 1960s the cotton industry and its ancillary trades were in a severe downward spiral of decline. The demise of this once prominent industry (in the nineteenth century the boast of Lancashire’s millowners was: ‘England’s bread was won by Lancashire’s thread’), was excellent at first for the young Fred Dibnah whose ambition and most fervent desire was to become established as a steeplejack. The numerous mill and other industrial chimneys scattered all over Bolton and the other neighbouring Lancashire cotton towns all radiating out from the hub: (Manchester, known as the cottonopolis), which for decades had been beautifully engineered and subsequently regularly repaired, would from now on require to be demolished. Fred regarded these mill chimneys as monuments to the industrial age. He held these towering structures with great affection and he often related stories about the ‘hard men’, the chimney builders who erected them and of the men also, who maintained and repaired them: the steeplejacks. As Fred eloquently put it, “these chimneys had served their masters well; they were no longer loved and had therefore to be done away with: demolished”. But to just place an explosive charge in the chimney’s base and blow them down when they came to the end of their lives, did not appeal to Fred, for to him there was another more traditional way of felling these chimneys that embodied respect for the old time chimney builders – and would demolish them with great aplomb and not a little drama.
Fred Dibnah’s procedure for carrying out a chimney felling was the result of a well considered demolition plan, based on traditional Victorian practice known in steeplejacking parlance as ‘gobbing out and pit-propping’. Fred termed it as ‘the science of back’ards construction’.
By the employment of this tried and tested procedure, Fred almost made it into an art, because from the early 1970s his fame as an expert chimney feller became renowned. His deep-seated knowledge of chimney construction and of steeplejacking lore, his charismatic and competent showmanship rapidly made him nationally famous: particularly following those memorable early BBC television programmes. His name became synonymous with the stereo type no-nonsense, straight-talking Northern character, and of craftsmanship, hard graft and of daring-do.
Fred’s later television series particularly made his character blossom, his passionate and oftimes comical descriptions of how the complexities of historic mechanical wizardry were built and how they operated, thrilled his television audiences nationally. He was a most brilliant, natural speaker, and especially gifted in being able to ‘paint a picture’ in his distinctive Boltonian accent. Fred was awarded two honourary degrees: the first was from The Robert Gordon Institute of Technology, Aberdeen, and the second from The University of Birmingham. Thereafter, he was Doctor Fred Dibnah. In July 2004, Fred was awarded the M.B.E. for services to television and broadcasting. On the 6th November 2004, Fred died after bravely battling with bladder cancer since autumn of 2001.
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- Hardcover: 200 pages
- Publisher: Sledgehammer Engineering Press Limited; 1st edition (Oct. 2008)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0953272516
- ISBN-13: 978-0953272518
- Product Dimensions: 21.8 x 30.5 x 1.7 cm