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Last Updated: Saturday, 6 November, 2004, 15:30 GMT
Obituary: Fred Dibnah
Fred Dibnah portrait
Fred Dibnah, an unlikely TV star.
A steeplejack from Bolton, Fred Dibnah, who has died aged 66, became an unlikely television celebrity and was the star of 20 documentaries.

His first appearance, on a local news programme in the north west of England, led to his "discovery" in 1979, as he hung 240 feet up in the air, repairing Bolton's town hall clock.

While Fred wasn't Hollywood hero material, a BBC producer, Don Haworth, thought Dibnah's flat cap, flat vowels and eagerness to tackle hair-raising challenges would fascinate millions of television viewers.

And so it proved. Haworth's documentary about Dibnah won two awards and led to a host of other programmes over the next 25 years.

Dibnah's ascent

Fred Dibnah had little enthusiasm for the electronic revolution but was a great admirer of the Industrial Revolution and its fast-vanishing relics like the chimneys that helped to make his name.

He never blew them up, saying: "With dynamite, they're all 200 yards away, hiding."

Instead, he developed a more intimate relationship with the stacks, getting to know them from head to foot by climbing to the top and chipping away at the bottom with his hammer and chisel before consigning the giants to the past as they crashed to the ground.

Fred Dibnah climbing a chimney
Fred Dibnah began climbing chimneys as a child
It could be a lengthy process. "You've got the bloody weather to contend with," said Dibnah.

But while the explosives experts would sometimes have to make an insurance claim, Dibnah was proud that his chimneys always fell where he intended, although there were one or two occasions when cars were dented by bricks falling from the top when he was making repairs.

Despite his apparent lack of fear, he said he often "got the jitters". And, given his love of such structures, sometimes he would persuade owners that it was cheaper to repair a chimney than demolish it.

Steam engines were his great passion, so much so that they put paid to his first marriage. His wife, Alison, left him in 1985, taking their three daughters with her and complaining: "He is married to his engines."

Love of the past

The following year, he met Sue, 20 years his junior, whom he met at a steam-engine rally. They married in 1987, only to divorce in 1996. In 1998, Fred Dibnah married his third wife, Sheila.

On television, with few factory chimneys remaining, he was given the opportunity to indulge himself by presenting programmes about his engineer-heroes, such as Thomas Telford, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the Stephensons.

Dibnah with Stephenson's Rocket
His passion for steam engines cost him his first marriage
"They accomplished magnificent feats with norra lot", he said. "Now we've got everything and we can't even make the trains run on time".

Fred Dibnah was made an MBE in 2003, a year after he demolished his last chimney stack, and in recent years he devoted most of his time to re-creating the age of steam at his Bolton home.

He bought a steam hammer for 10 and then caused his neighbours great anxiety by sinking a mineshaft in the back garden.

Fred Dibnah made no apology for living in the past. He felt he might have been "a reincarnation" from Victorian times.

For many people, he epitomised the affection they felt for the architecture and machinery of Britain's once great manufacturing empire.

An unusual television star

TV's Dibnah loses cancer battle
06 Nov 04  |  Manchester
In pictures: Fred Dibnah
06 Nov 04  |  Photo Gallery
Illness forces Dibnah to cancel
02 Sep 04  |  Nottinghamshire
TV's Dibnah reveals cancer battle
21 May 04  |  Entertainment
Fred Dibnah honoured
31 Dec 03  |  Manchester


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