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On this day in history in 1938, was born Fred Dibnah.
Dibnah was a joiner, a steeplejack, an engineer and eccentric, who became a national icon in the late Twentieth Century.
Dibnah was born on 29th April 1938, at Bolton, Lancashire, the son of Frank and Betsy Dibnah. After a brief but adequate education at a local school, Dibnah was apprenticed to a joiner, and after serving his time, moved to another profession, a steeplejack, a repairer and maintainer of tall buildings. He became noted for his agility in climbing church spires and mill chimneys, and his total lack of anxiety in the face of such apparent peril.
As the cotton trade declined in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Bolton’s multitude of mill chimneys became obsolete, which necessitated their demolition. The cost of dynamiting these structures was often prohibitive, but they could not remain standing for safety reasons. Dibnah perfected a cheap and efficient method of felling these structures. He would make a large cavity in the lower part of the structure, removing bricks and replacing them with wooden props. Once the lower section of one side of the brickwork had been replaced, the wooden props were burned and the chimney would collapse, hopefully, in the right direction.
Dibnah came to public notice, when the BBC televised a news item on his work in maintaining the structure of Bolton Town Hall. The combination of Dibnah’s nonchalant attitude to apparent danger and his unbridled enthusiasm for his profession, delivered in an earthy Bolton accent, endeared him to the public and convinced the BBC to commission a documentary entitled Fred Dibnah – Steeplejack. The programme, aired in 1979, introduced Dibnah at work, climbing church spires and chimneys while delivering an unscripted commentary on the delights of tall buildings and the lamentable state of affairs which necessitated the destruction of so many of them.
This programme was to be the first of many. A series of television programmes appeared regularly, establishing Dibnah as a television celebrity. The early programmes concentrated on the toppling of chimneys, which occasionally involved Dibnah scuttling from the collapse and personally addressing the audience with the gleeful expression "Did yer like that?" Other programmes dealt with his work as a steeplejack, climbing dizzy heights which would make the average viewer quail, while casually remarking "A man who says he feels no fear, is either a fool or a liar." Subsequent programmes dealt with steam engines and their contribution to the Industrial Revolution. He would say "I realise that steam engines aren't everyone's cup of tea, but they're what made England great." In a later series, Fred Dibnah’s Buildings of Britain, he explored British architecture, from the perspective of the men who did the building, rather than those who ordered the construction. He was noted to remark that ‘Anybody who destroys anything made of stone should be prosecuted. It is not all beautiful, but it took a man all day to make one stone.’
Dibnah received two honorary doctorates given, for what he said, was ‘back street mechanicing’. In 2004, he was awarded the MBE. Dibnah died on 6th November 2004. At his funeral, the coffin was borne by his favourite traction engine, closely followed by his steamroller. Dibnah is buried in Bolton, where he born, and lived out his life’s work. [Tonge Fold Cemetery, Cemetery Road, Bolton BL2 6AQ]
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