Fred Dibnah - Bolton's beloved Steeplejack

  • 2 March 2023
  • blog

Big Fred Dibnah, the backstreet mechanic himself. Where to start? Well firstly I'd like to say before beginning at Thomas Smith, I'd seen videos of Fred Dibnah, without knowing who he was. I think it might be a generational thing. Given at the time of writing I'm 25 and at the height of Dibnah's TV popularity, I was learning the alphabet and being told you can't eat playdoh (it says non-toxic to be fair). I can't really blame myself for not knowing much about him.

But since my first day here at Thomas Smith Fasteners, I've been told various stories and shown multiple videos for Fred's. His life and career are something which should be more commonly known by the youth of today (myself included). So here we go, the story of Fred Dibnah and why he holds a place in the hearts of Thomas Smith Fasteners and the nation.

‚ÄčThe Early Years

Fred Dibnah was born in Bolton on the 29th of April 1938 to Frank and Betsy Dibnah. A normal working-class Bolton lad, Fred developed a love for steam engines from a young age. He also was fascinated by chimneys and the people working on them. He became a joiner and then his most known role a steeplejack. A reyt northerner with his northern routes. He was quoted to say "them fancy London types don't know the pleasure of eating Fish and Chips with their fingers". And he's right, they've got nowt moist in them chippies.

Fearless Fred Dibnah

So after serving two years in the military, Fred became a steeplejack. He began with the aim of saving as many chimney's as possible. Now when we discuss these chimneys, we aren't talking about the ones on top of your house. We're talking industrial chimneys, the highest in the UK being 850ft at Drax Power Station erected in 1969. That's roughly 2 and a half times the size of the shard or 7 times The Statue of Liberty. Fred definitely wasn't scared of heights and often bemoaned health and safety procedure demonstrating his fearlessness even more.

Fred chose his profession to "preserve chimneys, however finished up knocking most of them down". The sheer bottle Fred Dibnah had in the video below is mind-blowing, he looks over his shoulder almost as if certain death isn't there. And the most scary bit he's laughing while he runs away. Fair play to the guy but there's no chance I'd be laughing. I'd probably have a heart attack. Bafflingly he was only ever injured once, falling off of a stepladder whilst decorating.

Chimney Destruction

Dibnahs’ Love of British Industry

Fred became known across the country as a steeplejack when he was featured on the BBC in 1979. Tasked with demolishing a chimney brick by brick with very little safety equipment. Fred not only loved being a steeplejack, he loved British Industry.

His love of steam and engines was widely coveted across the BBC, where he made documentaries about British Industry. Enamored by steam engines, he purchased his first engine an Aveling and Porter steam roller for £175. Dibnah began his restoration work having to make many of the parts himself. He would then take this to steam fairs across the country with his family in tow.

His love of steam, rail and all things industry was palpable. So when the BBC were looking to make documentaries on British Industry, who better then the enigmatic Fred Dibnah. His eccentricity and passion is felt throughout his TV career when discussing all matters in the field.

Where does Thomas Smith Fasteners fit in?

Well I’ll tell you. As detailed in a blog post from December 2020, Fred Dibnah visited our Atherton factory on the road to pick up his lifetime achievement award. He was given the grand tour of our Atherton factory, beginning in the offices, before visiting the production line and warehouse.

Fred often visited us for his engine parts and a brew. He used our services as we provided specials that were and still are hard to get your hands on. Well, that and the brews. He was popular amongst our staff with his natural charisma and love for the industrial age. Following his visit to our factory where he was supplied with all the goods he needed, Fred headed to London to pick up his lifetime achievement award. Fred proudly displayed his honorary degrees from both Aberdeen and Birmingham, whilst also receiving an MBE from Queen Elizabeth II.

In Memoriam

Fred sadly passed away on the 6th of November 2004, he is fondly remembered for his work as a steeplejack, backstreet mechanic and TV personality. His work is honored by the Fred Dibnah foundation in Bolton, as well as his very own statue on Bolton’s, Oxford Street. Whether remembered for his fearlessness, charisma or love of steam engines, he showed the world what British Industry is all about.

For more information on Fred’s life and journey visit The Fred Dibnah Foundation.

Fred Dibnah (1938 – 2004)