In June 2014 a friend asked me over to his new home in Bolton for meal. I set off early as I wanted to make two visits first to Fred Dibnah’s home and grave. I knew they were close to one another: home at BL2 1NU and grave at BL2 6AQ.
So here I am outside his home is now a heritage centre (you can book tours around it.) The place was quite, closed, empty but I could see through the railings Fred’s engineering/steam and pit head clutter. I’d seen this former Victorian Gatehouse on the television many times when a camera a crew started filming his life as a steeplejack but it looked much larger on screen somehow. It was also on a sort of corner of main road so not where the camera had portrayed it to be.
Fred was one of life’s palettes of agreeable colours and his mild chirpy enthusiastic manner endeared him to anyone he encountered. You don’t seem to get so many characters nowadays; society seems to produce dulled monochrome robots too frightened to be themselves.
I can remember watching programmes about him on television – felling lofty chimney’s either a brick at a time or getting them to fall like giant with an accuracy that argued much experience (he dropped 99 before he died.) Those were days before videos so you had to eagerly wait for repeats to see Fred’s chimney-dropping feats again.
When asked what was the most dangerous thing about climbing a ladder to the top of a chimney he said pigeons. Easily spooked they dart out of crevices in the brickwork with a speed that that can loosen a man’s grip on a ladder (and loosen his bowels, too.) He said “you only fall off a chimney once” before “having an afternoon out with the undertaker.”
As life as a steeple-jack tapered off and he lost demolition jobs to companies who would rid a chimney with explosives, he took to after-dinner speaking and making television documentaries.
He was married five times but died of cancer at only 66. Eleven days after he died thousands turned out on the streets to see his coffin taken to the Tonge Cemetery - naturally pulled by a steam engine. The Fred Dibnah Appreciation Society keeps the name aflame.
Fred and his brother Graham…