Category Archives: Industrial Revolution

Sponsor a Brick at the Fred Dibnah Heritage Centre

Back in 1999, the late Fred Dibnah applied for planning permission to turn his famous Bolton house into a heritage centre, but was refused. It was one of Fred’s last wishes, and a new campaign has been launched to help make it a reality. Planning consent has been granted for Fred’s former home to be transformed into a Heritage Centre. But to meet all of the legal requirements for a visitor attraction, such as toilets and disabled access, there is a lot of work ahead.

To raise funds a ‘Sponsor a brick’ campaign has been launched. By sponsoring a brick with donation of £10 you will get a free entry into a Spot the Ball competition if you are in the UK, and the lucky winner will get £7,500 Cash, with a runner-up prize of £2,500. The third prize is a half days Land Rover experience (care of land Rover UK) for 3 people. There are also 10 other runner up mystery prizes.

Not only will the campaign be raising funds towards building the Fred Dibnah Heritage Centre, but 25p from every Brick sponsored will go towards Cancer Research. This is very fitting, as Fred himself was a victim of cancer.

The Heritage Centre is also keen to hear from companies who may be interested in sponsoring the main workshop. It would be fantastic publicity for an engineering firm!

Project Manager Phil outlined work to be done:

“To just give you some idea of what is required before we can open the site to the public, the council insist that we put toilet facilities in place, these must include Disabled toilets; then we have to securely fence the perimeter to prevent people falling down the 70 feet to the river, we have to put safety rails around the exhibits, machines etc. we have to totally resurface the outside pedestrian areas and as we may at some time want to bring vehicles in this surface has to be to highway standards, and disabled friendly, the inside floor of Freds main workshop is old railway sleepers, for health & safety reasons a part of this (a walkway) has got to be covered with smooth non slip surface wherever the public may set foot, we have got several estimates in for this work which amount to £267,000. and that is just to satisfy the council. We also have to re-roof the small workshop, and the rear half of the main workshop, and we want to make this a pleasurable experience for the visitors so we want to provide pleasant seating areas which due to our wonderful climate need to be covered, and somewhere for the visitor to get a drink and a sandwich, which then requires a catering kitchen. So as you can see we need to raise something like £500,000 before we start on fettling the boilers and all of Freds fantastic machinery”

To Sponsor a Brick, or to find out more, visit the Fred Dibnah Heritage Centre website


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The Fred Dibnah Heritage Centre

I was very pleased to hear from Leon recently, who is the driving force behind the project to create a Heritage Centre at the late, great man’s house in Bolton.

Their intention is to turn the site back to how it would have been during its heyday when Fred was alive. After 4 years of being unoccupied while Fred’s will was executed apparently the house was in a poor state and it has taken a lot of work to get it up to standard.

Of course apart from the extensive steam-powered workshop in the back yard, complete with replica coal mine, the house itself is also an architectural wonder. Originally built in 1854, this was the gatehouse for the estate owned by the Earl of Bradford. Rumour has it that it was built purely as a ‘folly’. It appears from the front to be a little one floor cottage; however it is quite deceiving because it is of subterranean structure meaning that there’s a lower floor below ground level, which is level with the ground at the rear, leading to the gardens and yard. Its a grade 2 Listed Building, with a blue plaque on the wall outside.

Leon and his wife’s ultimate aim is to make this wonderful place into a Heritage Centre, where people of all ages can come and see how Fred worked. It really would be a tragedy if the history that Fred strived to create was lost for future generations. But they don’t want it to just be a museum, they want people to see it working, actually being used to make things, and do what it was designed to do.

I applaud their aims wholeheartedly, as someone who is a fan of not only Fred, but his values and what he represented. Industrial Heritage should be seen in operation, working. Especially with machinery like steam Engines – only when they are working can you appreciate the sounds, the smells, the atmosphere.

I will be featuring more about the campaign to establish and develop the Fred Dibnah Heritage Centre, but for now take a look at their website!

The Fred Dibnah Heritage Centre


Filed under Industrial Revolution, Museums

Guest Blogging for the Historic Dockyard

I’m very happy to announce that soon I will be beginning a guest spot the blog of Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

I will be writing about the Dockyard, its buildings, the people who have worked there, its ships, the Royal Navy, events going on there and all manner of things to do with Portsmouth and the Navy. Its difficult to know where to start – there are so many interesting stories and subjects, and loads of little gems that few people know about!

The Historic Dockyard is the largest maritime visitor destination in the UK, in the home of the Royal Navy and the country’s principal Naval Port. Home to HMS Victory, HMS Warrior, the Mary Rose, the Royal Naval Museum, Action Stations and the Dockyard Apprentice Museum, it is also one of the south-coasts busiest tourist attractions and a vital part of Portsmouth’s Heritage.

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Time Team

(l-r) Tony Robinson, Phil Harding, Mick Aston

(l-r) Tony Robinson, Phil Harding, Mick Aston

Unless you’ve lived on a different planet for the past 15 years, you can’t fail but to have seen the hugely popular archaeology TV show, Time Team. It can be seen on Channel 4, and repeats on the Discovery Channel.

First broadcast in 1994, it showcases a team of archaeologists and associated experts as they go about investigating archaeological sites. The real crux of the programme is that they supposedly have only three days to carry out the dig. In fact much of the work is done before and after the three days. They have investigated everything from Paleolithic, Neolithic, Roman, Saxon, Medieval and Industrial Revolution through to second world war sites. They have also produced programmes on excavations in America and the Carribean.

The show is presented by Tony Robinson, of Blackadder fame. As well as an acomplished actor, he’s also got an enthusiasm for archaeology. The main expert is Professor Mick Aston, a nutty professor if ever there was one, with shocks of clown-like hair and day-glo stripey jumpers. Historian Robin Bush used to cover the research side of things, and proved to be unlike many archivists in that he actually had a personality. The show also uses some fascinating geophysical survey technology.

The real gem of the series has to be Phil Harding. Like something out of a Thomas Hardy novel and with the broad wessex accent to match, he is a dirt archaeologist and is always getting involved in the re-enactments and reconstructions. With long hair and short shorts, hes quite a character.

Time Team usually get involved with the local community. I have to admit to being a bit disappointed, however, when earlier this summer they carried out an excavation in Portsmouth and cosied up with Portsmouth Grammar School. Why not invite some less privileged young people who might not normally get that kind of opportunity?

Time Team has made a lasting impact on British archaeology. The archaeologists involved with Time Team have published more scientific papers on excavations carried out in the series than all British university archaeology departments put together over the same period.

A lot of the establishment figures have never been to happy about Time Team, reasoning that it dumbs down archaeology, and no doubt they dont like anything that interests normal people. As someone who thinks that it is the right of anyone and everyone to be interested in history, this smacks of elitism. If these authority figures really loved their subject, then they would be glad that people find an interest in it.

If you dont like people being enthusiastic about history, go and work in a factory.


Filed under Ancient History, Architecture, debate, Industrial Revolution, Local History, Medieval history, Museums, On TV, social history

Portsmouth Dockyard

Portsmouth Dockyard

Portsmouth Dockyard

Portsmouth is one of the three main operating bases of the Royal Navy, as well as Devonport in Plymouth and the Clyde/Faslane. Its the base for two thirds of the Navy’s surface fleet, as well as home of the oldest dry dock in the world.

Portsmouth’s importance goes back almost a thousand years. The first major settlement in the area was the Roman and then Norman Castle at Portchester. By the time of King Henry VIII, however, Portsmouth Harbour had began to silt up, so a new naval base was created at the mouth of the harbour, including the first dry dock in Europe. Constructed in 1496, this was situated around the area of the modern day no.1 basin.

As the British Empire grew and the Royal Navy’s commitments abroad multiplied, the important of Portsmouth as a naval base and dockyard exploded. In particular, when Britain was at war with France, Portsmouth was crucial due to its location. Thousands of shipwrights, riggers, caulkers, sailmakers, and all manner of specialist trades worked in the Yard.

Although the importance of the Navy to Portsmouth is well known – and indeed, we can imagine the many thousands of men and indeed women who worked in the Navy and the Dockyard – something that is so often overlooked is the huge infrastructure of supportive industries needed to support shipbuilding and maintenance. Supplies had to be shipped in from far afield – Timber from around the country, Pitch, Hemp and Tar from the Baltic, Coal from North East England and South Wales, and all manner of food and drink. And for many years, the East India Company used Portsmouth as an operating base. Many of the Dockyard’s wonderful storehouses and Boathouses date from this period.

Isamabard Kingdom Brunel’s father, Marc Brunel, established the Block Mills in the Dockyard in the early 19th Century, the first mass-production line in Britain. Other great engineers who have worked at Portsmouth include Thomas Telford and Samuel Bentham.

As the wooden walls of Nelson’s Navy gave way to the great Ironclads of the late Victorian Navy, a new set of skills had to be acquired. The Dockyard expanded massively in the late Victorian era, known as the ‘Great Extension’. During this time, the Yard was the biggest Industrial estate in the world.

Ships made of iron plate, new bigger and heavier guns, steam propulsion, led to new trades. From the launching of the Dreadnoughts, and the two World Wars, Portsmouth was at the heart of Britain’s defence. After 1945 however and the withdrawal from much of Britain’s overseas commitments, the contraction of the Navy meant a gradual winding down of the Dockyard, until it was privatised in the 1980’s. Despite this, the yard put together a magnificent effort to ready ships for the Falklands War, some of which were made ready and sailed for war as little as 2 days after the Argentinians invaded. The oldest part of the Dockyard is now a Heritage area, with HMS Victory, HMS Warrior, the Mary Rose and the Royal Naval Museum open to visitors.

The Dockyard had an incredible impact on Portsmouth and its culture. Whole families have worked in the yard, including many of my family and ancestors. My dad still has quite a few of his Dockyard tools in the shed! Uniquely, Dockyard workers have always been known as Dockies, and not Dockers as elsewhere.

Finally, there is a tale that one day all of the items in Portsmouth that have been stolen from the Dockyard will grow legs and walk back there. Given that so many tools and materials have mysteriously ‘walked’ out of the Dockyard in the first place, one wonders if Portsmouth woud fall apart if this was ever to happen!


Filed under Architecture, Falklands War, Family History, Industrial Revolution, Local History, maritime history, Museums, Napoleonic War, Navy, World War One, World War Two

Book of the week # 8 – The Spirit of Portsmouth

The Spirit of Portsmouth - Webb, Quail, Haskell and Riley

The Spirit of Portsmouth - Webb, Quail, Haskell and Riley

A city like Portsmouth is always going to be a difficult one to write about. Its got to be nigh on impossible to ever try and write a book about one place, and to be able to say definitely that it is THE history of a town or a city. Let alone a city as momentous, pivotal and diverse and Portsmouth.

Among the plethora of books about Portsmouth, this is probably the closest to a definitive history that you will get at present. Rather than attempting to give a narrative view of Portsmouth, which would take forever and would be very disjointed, the authors take a more thematic approach, offering chapters on Portsmouths geography, the dockyard and Navy, Religion, Government, Leisure, and its future. It is an admirable collection of chapters, particular Ray Riley’s chapter on Wooden Walls and Ironclads, which draws on his wealth of expertise in this area. It also focusses particularly well on Portsmouth’s early development as a town. Another aspect that makes this book invaluable is its considerable bibliography and endnotes, which are a helpful guide to Local History sources.

Reading from a distance of 20 years, it does show its age, however. Modern local history would probably make far more use of ordinary people’s contributions, and would look further than the grand developments and big personalities. This is very much a ‘top-down’ approach, particularly the importance given to religion and Government. Neither is it definitive, and would probably serve more as an intriduction and signpost to other more detailed works, such as the various Portsmouth Papers. But is is a very important contribution to Portsmouth’s Historiography none the less, and hopefully provides a very useful model for a 21st Century version.

Click here to buy The Spirit of Portsmouth

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Filed under Ancient History, Architecture, Book of the Week, Industrial Revolution, Local History, Medieval history, Napoleonic War, Navy

Fred Dibnah MBE

Fred Dibnah MBE

Fred Dibnah MBE

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.


Filed under Architecture, Industrial Revolution, On TV