A Legend on Ladders

A Legend on Ladders

07th September 2015

While browsing the internet recently we came across a video showing Fred Dibnah climbing a chimney stack with no safety rope!  Fred was an English steeplejack and television personality who came to public attention back in 1978 when he was filmed by a regional BBC news crew as he carried out repairs to Bolton Town Hall.  The BBC went on to broadcast an award winning documentary about Fred as he worked on chimneys and went about his daily family life – it was a roaring success.  This was in part due to Fred’s gentle philosophical attitude and his enthusiasm for his favourite hobby, steam.  He was so popular with viewers that he went on to feature in several more TV programmes, including one on Britain’s industrial history and a series about the Industrial Revolution and how the mechanical and architectural innovations changed our way of life.

Fred Dibnah was born in Bolton in 1938, to parents who both worked in a bleach factory.  During his childhood he was fascinated by the sights and sounds of the local industries and the many chimney stacks that were located in his local area, watching the steeplejacks work as he walked to school each day.  Fred was an imaginative and innovative child and once designed and made a rudimentary diving suit out of a crisp tin, a car inner tube and some pipes!  He actually go kicked out of the local swimming baths when he tried to use it there.

Although Fred spent three years in Art College (he was reckoned not to have sufficient reading and writing skills to study other fields), most of his work was based on industrial themes like pithead gear, machinery and spinning mills.  After leaving college at the age of 16 he spent a short time working at a funeral parlour before moving on to a local joinery.  The first time Fred used ladders on a job was when pointing the gable end of a customer’s house – he lashed several short ladders together with ropes and hardboard!  His employer expanded to include property repairs.

However, Fred was still fascinated by the trade of the steeplejack and at the age of 17 he climbed Barrow Bridge for a 10 shilling bet – securing two Union flags to the lightning conductors.  The incident was picked up by the local rag, the Bolton Evening News but the prank was attributed to students.

Not long afterwards, Fred decided to replace the chimney stack on his mother’s house with one that he designed himself – this chimney now has a preservation order on it.

Following his National Service, Fred had difficulty finding work in Bolton which was in a post-industrial decline so he bought his own set of ladders and went into business for himself, repairing or dismantling chimneys and was spotted by Alistair MacDonald who interviewed him when he repaired the clock tower on Bolton Town Hall.  The subsequent documentary, Fred Dibnah, Steeplejack won a BAFTA award and thus began Fred’s years in the spotlight.

In 2004 Fred was awarded an MBE for services to heritage and broadcasting and carried on with his filming work until his sad death from cancer in November, 2004.