No beer at Fred Dibnah festival

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Fred Dibnah’s statue being unveiled in Bolton on Tuesday 29th April 2008. The sculptor, Jane Robbins, points out a detail to the Mayor, Mrs Barbara Ronson.

Photo Terry Wha (cc) Creative Commons, Attribution 2.0

(click to see the rest of Terry Wha’s pictures of the ceremony)

Explaining Fred Dibnah to a British audience, is about as pointless as telling people that Shakespeare was a playwright. However, BTWT has a goodly proportion of its readership living outside the British Isles, so here for their benefit is a thumbnail sketch of this larger than life figure.

Fred was born on 28 April 1938 in Bolton, the son of Frank and Betsy Dibnah, who worked together in a factory. After leaving school he briefly attended art college, then worked as a joiner before being called up for National Service. He was demobbed in 1962 after serving in Germany. He had been fascinated by chimneys and steeple jacks while still at school. He started working for a building company, but in his spare time he taught himself the craft of steeple jacking.

In 1978, at the age of 40, Fred came into the public eye when the BBC broadcast a short news item about his work repairing the clock on the tower of Bolton Town Hall and the producer, Don Howarth, made a one hour documentary, Fred Dibnah: Steeplejack, the following year. This featured Fred at work, both repairing and demolishing chimneys. Much of it was taken up by Fred philosophising while climbing chimneys and spires, The highlight was his demolition of a tall brick chimney. The documentary won several awards and Fred’s career as a TV personality had begun.

A series of 8 half-hour programmes followed observing Fred at work and, the cameraman climbing with Fred to dizzy heights. Fred also had restored a steam roller which appeared in the programmes. A further 6 half-hour programmes which also showed the effects of becoming a TV personality. In 1992 Don Howarth filmed Fred for the last time, made The Fred Dibnah Story in four 30 minute episodes. It was broadcast by the BBC together with a book of the same name in 1994. Six more series were to follow, directed by the BBC’s David Hall: Industrial Age (1999), Magnificent Monuments (2000), Building of Britain (2002), Age of Steam, (2003), Dig with Dibnah (2004), Made in Britain (2005).

With the income Fred received from his TV work, he built up his workshop in the garden of his house. It was equipped with vintage machinery that Fred had salvaged and powered by steam. Later on he was to start sinking a mineshaft in his garden to demonstrate mining techniques of the Victorian age, but the project was halted when neighbours, terrified that Fred’s mine would effect their houses complained to the local Council. It would be fitting if Fred’s garden workshop could be saved for posterity, as a permanent memorial to Fred, but without the agreement of all of the parties concerned, and a major sponsor, rather unlikely.

Though Fred was a national celebrity, but he could still be seen at traction engine rallies, where he would bring his steam roller and live-in trailer. Many will remember Fred a pint in one hand a hot meat pie in the other talking the night away about his beloved steam engines. No one has done more than Fred to promote the magic of steam and the value of Britain’s industrial heritage to a non specialist audience. So its apt that today’s Fleetwood Tram Festival should be dedicated to Fred’s memory. It’s just a little ironic that the Wyre Borough Council has decided to ban the consumption of alcohol in the open air in Fleetwood for the day.

More about Fred Dibnah:

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