Fred Dibnah’s ode to Britain’s steamy heritage
Fred Dibnah was a great British eccentric. His career as a steeplejack, climbing and bringing down chimneys, was anachronistic even as he started out. His passion for antiquated machinery and Victoriana was unusual, too.
Not surprisingly, then, his five-bedroom property in Bolton, Lancashire – where he stored the curios and artefacts from more than 40 years of collecting – is not your typical family home. Now reinvented as the Fred Dibnah Heritage centre, it is for sale for £1.25million.
After Don Howarth’s BBC documentary Fred Dibnah, Steeplejack was broadcast in 1979, Dibnah became famous for his fearless, no-nonsense character and warm Northern manner. He originally trained to repair and build chimneys, but learnt that there was far more business in knocking them down. In his native Bolton, 70 mills were closed between 1957 and 1965, with dozens standing derelict, waiting to be removed.
The fashion, as it is now, was to use dynamite. Dibnah thought this was wasteful and inelegant, so eschewed it in favour of his more traditional method. He would gradually remove one side of a chimney’s base by hand, propping it up with wooden blocks. These would then be set on fire. As the wood burned away, the chimney fell in the direction of the weakened part.
This dangerous-looking process (though Dibnah maintained it was perfectly safe), combined with his telegenic delivery, made for compelling viewing. He went on to present many documentaries of his own, on everything from Isambard Kingdom Brunel to his beloved traction engines. By the time of his death in 2004, he was a national treasure, synonymous with a working-class sensibility, which was disappearing as fast as the mining industry.
Dibnah always hoped that his home in Bolton would become a museum, where his life’s passions could be preserved. Yet after his death it lay dormant until 2008, when it was bought by Leon Powsney, an insurance broker. With his wife, Jan, and a team of dedicated volunteers, Leon has transformed the five-bedroom house. It is now a place where visitors come to celebrate the great man’s life.
“Over the past four years, we have put a tremendous amount of work and money into the property,” explains Leon. We bought it for £185,000, but it was pretty much derelict because it had stood empty since Fred died. We had to spend £7,000 on curtains and blinds before we moved in, and then two months just cleaning it out. After that it took us about a year to secure planning permission to create the heritage centre.”
Dibnah might have been much loved around the country, but it seems he could be a less-thanperfect neighbour. “He was basically running a blacksmithing company,” explains Leon. “There was banging, riveting, smoking: you name it. I spoke to some of his neighbours and they said that as soon as they put the washing out it would turn black from all the smoke coming out of Fred’s garden.”
Visitors to the house today are given a tour of the yard and Fred’s machinery. There is a circular saw, massive lathes, planer, a band saw, hydraulic hammer and 7ft drills. All powered by steam. The garden also contains a 70ft mine shaft, which Fred put in so people could see how a mine worked, and a 50ft chimney. “Doesn’t everyone have a 50ft chimney in their back garden?” Leon asks, wryly. Inside the house is a gift shop and a small tea room.
“At the moment the museum turns over about £100,000,” he explains. “But the potential is there always dreamt of having a little place in Spain – and there’s never been a better time to buy one. We want some privacy, too. This will always be Fred’s home.”
Maybe. But for the millions of fans of his work, the chance to share Fred’s home could be too good to miss. Add in a corner of Britain’s industrial heritage, as well as a healthy profit, and this house in Radcliffe Road, The Haulgh, could be far more than just a “going concern”.
The Fred Dibnah Heritage Centre is on the market for £1.25million through Intelligent Business Transfer (0800 612 7718; intelligentbusinesstransfer.co.uk)
Real character: clockwise from above, Leon Powsney, who restored the house; the yard filled with Fred’s machinery; the man himself; and inset, his initials in glass