There are men who can run as fast as gazelles and women who can dive to great depths holding their breath for up to twenty minutes. But one man from Bolton could defy gravity.
Back in 1976 BBC North West broadcast a short item about a steeplejack who combined death-defying working practices with a down to earth outlook on everyday life. They commissioned a full length programme and the Cult of Dibnah was born.
For a man with such a great love of Victorian chimneys he spent a lot of time knocking most of them down. Refusing to use dynamite, Dibnah would roll up at some backstreet factory, fag in hand, and do a cash only deal with a managing director called Arthur. From then on the chimney was doomed.
Dibnah was trained as a joiner, but became a steeplejack, fixing church spires, weather vanes and generally fettling anything more than fifty feet above the ground. His idea of health and safety as his chimneys plunged to a rubble-strewn death was an old car horn honked to warn onlookers to watch out for the approaching dust cloud.
At the start, Dibnah’s first wife Alison had the honour of lighting the fire created in the hollowed out cavity at the base of the chimney. In later years the wives would play a lesser role in Dibnah’s business, but multiple marriages gave lie to the belief that women didn’t like greasy men.
Dibnah was full of grease, oil, mortar, probably made of the stuff. He created a home in a disused gatehouse to the north of Bolton and dug his own mine shaft in the back garden. As he ran out of chimneys and relied more on his tv celeb income he concentrated on steam engines and recreating Victorian engineering techniques around the gaping chasm of his shaft.
The spell he cast over television audiences straddled the 80s and 90s like the Forth Bridge, felling his chimneys in an unwitting parallel to a wider felling of British manufacturing. But Dibnah rarely uttered a word about economic policy and the decline of industry. Perhaps he knew he was one of the legions who came along after the factory closures to remove the evidence that there was ever a factory on the site.
It took as much effort to bring a chimney down the Dibnah way as it did to put it up in the first place. Brick by brick, a daily grind to his workplace (average altitude 200 feet), climbing ladders attached to the chimneys with old rope and optimism. At the top he would mooch about on a lattice of planks – god knows how he got them up there – or simply straddle the brickwork, legs dangling over both precipices.
Cynics would say Fred Dibnah was an anachronism, a caricature of northern working class stoicism. But as I said, he was a man who defied gravity, physically and culturally; soaring in popularity despite being unassuming and in many ways humble. It’s true he could have made programmes about modern engineering marvels, but he loved the Victorians and appreciated engineering from all periods including the 21st Century.
Gravity finally caught up with him when he was buried rather than being fired into space or left in a mausoleum built on the roof of Bolton Town Hall. And if you’re wondering what the reason is for this article, I had a conversation at work in which a couple of younger colleagues had no idea who Fred Dibnah was. They probably don’t know what a steeplejack is or what you put in a sideboard or how hydraulic pressure can lift a boat out of a canal, or how a man can climb chimneys all his life without ever falling off the top of one. It always baffled me.