Fred Dibnah

Fred Dibnah

Infobox Person
name = Fred Dibnah

image_size =
caption = Statue of Fred Dibnah in Bolton
birth_date = 28 April 1938
birth_place = Bolton, Lancashire, England
death_date = Death date and age|2004|11|6|1938|4|28|df=yes
death_place = Bolton Hospice, Greater Manchester [Independent on Sunday, [ Steeplejack Fred Dibnah dies at 66] , 2004-11-07.]
education =
occupation = steeplejack, engineer, TV presenter
spouse = Alison ( 1967–1985) Susan Lorenz (1987–1996) Sheila Grundy (1998—) [BBC News, [ Obituary: Fred Dibnah] , 2004-11-06.]
parents = Frank and Betsy Dibnah (née Travis)Hall, David. (2006) "Fred: The Definitive Biography of Fred Dibnah", London: Bantam Press (ISBN 0593056647)]
children = 5
Fred Dibnah MBE (28 April 1938 – 6 November 2004), born in Bolton, Lancashire, was an English steeplejack, engineer and eccentric who became a television personality, a cult figure [ BBC Shropshire - An Evening with Fred Dibnah] . URL accessed 24 April 2007.] and, latterly, a national institution. [ - Fred Dibnah's TV documaries] . URL accessed 24 April 2007.]

Biography and career

Fred Dibnah was the son of Frank and Betsy Dibnah (née Travis),Hall, David. (2006) "Fred: The Definitive Biography of Fred Dibnah", London: Bantam Press (ISBN 0593056647)] who both worked at a bleach works. After leaving school he briefly attended art college, then worked as a joiner before being called up for National Service in the army with the 14th/20th King's Hussars, as keeper of the regiment's horses and hounds. He left the army in 1962 after serving in Germany.

He first became famous as a result of his profession as a steeplejack; although being a traditional repairer of tall buildings he also earned a reputation for chimney felling—mainly through a TV documentary where he was nearly crushed by a falling mill chimney. Bolton has become famous for the soot and grime produced by the town's multitude of mill chimneys, but the decline of the cotton industry meant that many of the obsolete landmarks had to be demolished as the cost of maintaining them became prohibitive.

Having mastered his trade repairing chimneys, Dibnah became aware of the demand for a cost-effective demolition method and offered to remove them without the need for explosives. His technique was to cut an ingress at the bottom of the chimney, support the brickwork with wooden props and then burn the props so that the chimney fell, hopefully in the intended direction. Alongside his demolition work he also continued to work as a steeplejack. He has always maintained that, although most famous for demolishing chimneys, he much preferred to repair and preserve them.

In 1978, at the age of 40, Dibnah came into the public eye when the BBC broadcast a short news item about his work on Bolton Town Hall. His warm, earthy manner combined with his endless enthusiasm and broad Bolton accent endeared him to viewers, [ Manchester Evening News - Tribute to Fred Dibnah] . URL accessed 24 April 2007.] and the BBC made a one hour documentary, "Fred Dibnah: Steeplejack", the following year. This featured Dibnah at work, both repairing and demolishing chimneys. Much of it was taken up by his monologue while climbing chimneys and spires, but the highlight was his demolition of a tall brick chimney, his running from the collapse, and his boyish glee at the spectacle.

Dibnah died on 6 November 2004, following a three-year battle with prostate cancer. Thousands of people lined the streets of Bolton on the day of his funeral as his coffin was taken through the town on the back of his favourite traction engine, driven by his son, with his steamroller, "Betsy", following.

TV presenter

Fred Dibnah's rough-hewn Lancastrian manner (and his ever-present flat cap) belied his gentle, self-taught philosophical outlook.Hall, David. (2006) "Fred: The Definitive Biography of Fred Dibnah", London: Bantam Press (ISBN 0593056647)] He went on to write and present a number of series, largely concerned with the Industrial Revolution and its mechanical and architectural legacy.

Steam enthusiast

Dibnah was also an enthusiastic steam fan and owned an Aveling & Porter traction engine built in 1912 (Reg No: TA2436), and an Aveling & Porter Steam Roller "Betsy", (Reg No: DM3079), built in 1910. This engine was initially named "Alison" after his first wife, but after the breakdown of his marriage, he renamed the engine "Betsy" after his mother, Dibnah's thinking being "Wives change but your mother will always be your mother."

He also maintained a fully steam-powered workshop in his back yard utilising old machines and tools otherwise destined for the scrapheap. On one occasion he remarked he always had steam up in his garden.


In 2002, Dibnah began to dig a replica coal mine in the back garden of his Grade II listed house in Bolton. He had already assembled the wooden pithead gear, and was planning to sink a 70–100 ft shaft below this into the hillside. At the bottom of the shaft, a horizontal tunnel would have led out to the steep side of the valley above which his garden sits. The intention was to have a narrow gauge railway running along the tunnel, back up the hillside on a rope-hauled inclined plane, returning to the pithead. The ultimate aim was to be able to demonstrate the basic working of an early colliery.

Using traditional shaft-sinking techniques and the labour of mining friends, Alf Molyneux and Jimmy Crooks, the pit was constructed in the style of an 1870s colliery and its shaft was sunk to a depth of 20 feet. However, in 2004 the local council turned down Dibnah's planning application, and work on the project had to cease.

The adventure was filmed for a BBC documentary, "Dig with Dibnah", [ IMDb - Dig with Dibnah (2004) (TV)] . URL accessed 24 April 2007.] first shown on 8 January 2004.

Awards and honours

Dibnah was awarded an MBE in the 2004 New Year's honours list. In Summer 2000 he was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Technology for his achievement in engineering by Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. [ Awarded honorary degree by Robert Gordon University] . URL accessed 24 April 2007.] He was awarded an honorary Doctor of the University by the University of Birmingham on 19 July 2004. [ Awarded honorary degree by the University of Birimingham] . URL accessed 24 April 2007.]

A life-sized bronze statue of Fred Dibnah was erected in Bolton town centre in 2008. Jane Robbins was commissioned to provide the sculpture; its unveiling took place on 29 April 2008 on what would have been Dibnah's 70th birthday. [ [ Fred Dibnah sculptress is chosen Bolton Evening News 25th September 2007] ]


See imdb name | id=0225139 | name=Fred Dibnah
*"Fred Dibnah's World of Steam, Steel and Stone" (2006)
*"Fred Dibnah's Made in Britain" (2005)
*"Dig with Dibnah" (2004)
*"Fred Dibnah's Age of Steam" (2003)
*"Fred Dibnah's Building of Britain" (2002)
*"Fred Dibnah's Magnificent Monuments" (2000)
*"Fred Dibnah's Industrial Age" (1999)
*"The Fred Dibnah Story" (1986)
*"Fred Dibnah: Steeplejack" (1979)

A celebration of Fred's love of railways is featured on the "Fred Dibnah's Railway Collection" DVD which contains nearly six hours of unseen footage shot for the BBC. The footage follows Fred as he explores Britain's railway workshops, museums and preservation lines.

"Fred Dibnah's Steam Collection" is a celebration of Fred's love of steam, to be released on 27 December 2008.


*"Did yer like that!?"
*"Mmmm. Aye. Oh aye. Y'know?"
*"A man who says he feels no fear is either a fool or a liar."
*"I realise that steam engines aren't everyone's cup of tea. But they're what made England great."
*"The modern world stinks."
*"We've become a nation of con men, living by selling double-glazing to each other."
*"Steam engines don't answer back. You can belt them with a hammer and they say nowt."
*"I set out as a steeplejack in my youth to preserve chimneys. I've finished by knocking most of them down."
*"Height gives you a wonderful feeling of grandeur. You're the king of the castle up here."
*"I have a wash more now than I used to y'know... I have a shower every night."
*"I'm just a bum who climbs chimneys."
*"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."
*"Steeplejacking's a bit of a spasmodic job, so you can play with your steam engine instead. It's a bit like being very rich."
*"If you make one mistake, it's half a day out with the undertaker."
*"It's a funny thing, this celebrity. If you don't wave back you're a miserable bugger, if you do wave back you're a big-headed bugger. I don't know."
*"The thing is nowadays, you'll have 20 men working, yet 60 men telling them 'You can't do that, you ain't got a tin hat on'".
*"Teaching boys to bake cakes? That's no way to maintain an industrial empire."
*"By 'eck it were grand."
*"Them fancy London types don't know the pleasure of eating chips with fingers."
*"That's Bolton's biggest chimney that... and I climbed it for a ten bob wager. Never did get the ten bob though."
*Fred also previously received two honorary doctorates ..... They were both given by the relevant engineering faculties, but Fred always told people that they were for "back street mechanicing".
*"I prefer the past to the present. Because life today, with all its modern technology, isn't very good, is it? And the future looks even worse."
*"I've never fell off a big chimney. You'd only fall off one of them once, like."
*"Engines aren't the same anymore. You only get the oiled, greasy feeling with old engines."
*"Aye, well - nobody's been killed, but it's bloody knackered up their fancy day tomorrow, like. Fell down a day early!" (after a chimney that he was preparing for demolition fell down spontaneously a day too soon)Fact|date=October 2008


External links

* [ The Official Sheila Dibnah Website]
* [ Fred Dibnah's website]
* [ Fred Dibnah on]
* [ The Fred Dibnah Fanclub - Lots of biographical detail, audio clips of Fred talking about his life, and photos]
* [ A brief biography of Fred Dibnah]
* [ Meet the original reality TV star (The Westmorland Gazette)]
* [ Fred Dibnah - Some Personal photographic memories] .
* [ Fred Dibnah Tribute site with many pictures]
* [ Bolton Evening News tribute]
* [ Fred Dibnah's Made in Britain (BBC History TV Series)]
* [ TV's Fred Dibnah loses cancer battle (BBC News)]
* [ Fred Dibnah Obituary (BBC News)]
* [,,60-1348881,00.html Fred Dibnah's Obituary in The Times - probably his most biographically informative obituary on the web]
* [,,1345735,00.html Fred Dibnah Obituary: Steeplejack who became a television celebrity (The Guardian)]
* [ Obituary: Steeplejack Fred Dibnah dies, aged 66 (The Telegraph)]
* [ Photos of Fred Dibnah's grave in Tonge Cemetery]
* [ Dibnah house to be auctioned off]

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