Fred Dibnah really was one of life’s characters. Just an ordinary Northern bloke, by a strange quirk of fate he ended up a national treasure.
After finishing his national service in the Army in 1962, the native of Bolton became famous as a steeplejack. Although he became famous for demolishing buildings, usually factory chimneys, he also repaired them. The decline of Bolton’s cotton industry meant that there was a never-ending stream of chimneys needing felling. An admirer of the workmanship that had gone into their construction, Fred felled them the old-fashioned way. Eschewing dynamite, he cut into the chimney, propped it up with wood, and then burnt the wood away. He was also fascinated with all things Industrial, and not surprisingly his hero was Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
Fred also became famous for his steam engines. Over time he built up a full-scale steam driven workshop in his back garden to work on his engines, a steam roller and a traction engine. He was so devoted to his engines that his first two wives ended up leaving him! In 2002 Fred even went as far as to sink a mine shaft in his back garden, with full pit head gear and incline railway.
After the real-life documentaries following his life, Fred also presented a number of fascinating series covering his love for Industry, Architecture, and steam. Diagnosed with cancer in 2001, Fred refused to receive chemotherapy so he could tour Britain in his newly restored Aveling and Porter Traction Engine, and collect his MBE from Buckingham Palace in style. He died in 2004, and his funeral was a real Victorian affair, even down to the steam engine carrying his coffin! Theres a statue of Fred in Bolton City Centre, and his back yard workshop is reportedly going to be turned into a working Heritage Centre. Lets hope so!
The steam world purists might belittle him at times, but what he had that the vast majority of them will never have was worth its weight in gold – charisma. Whats the use of knowledge if you can’t pass it on? He wasnt perfect – as his first two wives would no doubt testify – but who is? How many people are interested in industry, architecture, heritage…. just from watching Fred? How many people out there would be interested in those things, but just dont know it?
I wish I had got to meet him. If everyone devoted themselves to a cause like Fred did, the world would be a much better place. Keep an eye on the Cable channels, his programmes are often repeated and are well worth a watch.