“What do you take with you when you go up there?” I asked. He beamed back and said: “Me hammer, me sandwiches and me flatclap.” Having then blessed me with a signed photo (although ‘Tom’ became ‘To’), Dibnah was straight back up there, doing one of the things he loved best.
That signed photo remains dear to me and not for sale, but if you would like your own personal reminder of the man who made steam sexy and heritage an unlikely TV hit, then get ready for the Adam Partridge auction on March 17.
The saleroom is offering the contents of the property of Fred Dibnah MBE, housed in the Fred Dibnah Heritage Centre in Bolton, in an on-site, 440-lot auction. Dibnah died in 2004 and his workshop, yard and house turned into the centre in 2010, but it is now closing.
Heritage centre proprietor Leon Pownsey says: “While I am sad to be leaving this wonderful place, I am happy in the knowledge that many of Fred’s true fans and followers will now be able to own something that belonged to him.”
The sale is being held by Adam Partridge in conjunction with Ashley Waller Auctioneers, a machinery specialist.
Dibnah is referred to by the auction house as a ‘steeplejack-engineer’ who “was one of Britain’s best loved television personalities, and remains a cult figure and a national icon”. That sums him up pretty well – a man who became an improbable but very familiar TV favourite.
In a UK facing the industrial decline of the late 1960s and ‘70s, Dibnah recognised the need for cost-effective chimney felling. He perfected a method that eliminated the need for explosives whereby he would cut into the base of the chimney, supporting the brickwork with wooden props, then burn away the props so that the chimney fell exactly where he wanted it to.
He rose to fame in 1979 when BBC Look North West interviewed him while repairing the Bolton town hall clock at a height of nearly 250ft. He subsequently became the subject of TV series and documentaries, one of which won the 1979 BAFTA award, and in 2004, shortly before his death, was awarded an MBE for services to heritage and broadcasting.
Dibnah treasure trove
Adam Partridge valuer and cataloguer Alex Hallett found himself up to his elbows – and quite possibly up to his knees – in Dibnah relics when he went to the centre to start sorting out items, with the considerable help of the Ashley Waller experts.
As for his first impression of this treasure trove, Hallett says: “It was all a bit smoky from the boiler, converted into a wood burner, and all just like you might imagine a Fred Dibnah property to be - stuff everywhere but very charming in its own way, lots of bits and bobs and knick-knacks collected over his long career, bits strewn about, bits put into place by him and custom-made for his need.”
The centre itself is "really quite quaint", adds Hallett. A bit ramshackle, “but it all just sort of works”.
Cataloguing and valuing such a one-off collection containing many unique items brings plenty of challenges, so the Ashley Waller involvement was significant, says Hallett.
But advice also came from another valuable source: “We had help from Fred’s friends, in their late 70s/80s now, who could tell us the story behind it all. This was a very nice way to do it but the cataloguing was quite stressful and tricky at times, separating the various hammers from one another and working out what the hell this is and what it does - with some of the stuff I still don’t know what it is…”
Adam Partridge has salerooms in Macclesfield and Liverpool. However, this March 17 Fred Dibnah sale is at the centre at 121 Radcliffe Road, Bolton.
See accompanying illustrations for a selection of lots from the sale.