Mad about machines

As a boy, TV steeplejack Fred Dibnah used to go for bike rides with his father along the towpath of the Bolton, Bury and Manchester canal. The route would take them past dramatic industrial landscape. Dibnah’s home town of Bolton was still, in those days, a forest of chimneys: ‘Bolton had a cross-section of spinning, […]

As a boy, TV steeplejack Fred Dibnah used to go for bike rides with his father along the towpath of the Bolton, Bury and Manchester canal. The route would take them past dramatic industrial landscape. Dibnah’s home town of Bolton was still, in those days, a forest of chimneys: ‘Bolton had a cross-section of spinning, textile mills and engineering works, with names like Musgraves and John and Edward Wood,’ he recalls.

Dibnah developed a fascination for the steam engines and Victorian machinery he first saw then. He little imagined that within half a century much of this industrial heritage would have disappeared. ‘It was sad to see the end of these wonderful and weird creations from when we were world leaders,’ he says.

Starting next Thursday a six-part BBC2 series, Fred Dibnah’s Industrial Age, attempts to evoke the spirit of that era through a grand tour of UK industrial heritage sites.

But it also sets out to redress the balance in favour of a neglected era of history and pay tribute to the enthusiasts who first started the industrial heritage movement in the 1950s and 1960s, when heavy industry was fast disappearing.

‘I felt there were a lot of good industrial archaeology sites around the place and that there was a series to be made to show people what there was,’ says series producer/director David Hall of production company The View from the North. ‘But also it’s quite a serious history series on a neglected era, highlighting what an important contribution Britain made.’

Dibnah was approached to present the series, Hall says: ‘Because we realised he’s got a wealth of knowledge about all things mechanical connected with the Industrial Revolution, which he conveys with a lot of enthusiasm.’

The series reveals that Dibnah does indeed have a natural talent for this, combining his enthusiasm with a refreshingly down to earth style. For example the blunger, which mixes clay with water, at Wetheriggs pottery, Penrith, is described as being ‘like a big Kenwood Chef’.

The first programme also shows that Dibnah, a man best known for demolishing Victorian chimneys on TV, is a conservationist. ‘It will be a surprise to most people that he’s not just someone who pulls down chimneys but is actively involved in restoring them,’ says Hall.

The introductory programme features the steam-driven machinery in Dibnah’s back garden which he uses, for example, to roll iron bands used in restorations for strengthening brick chimneys. And it revisits some of the restoration projects he has undertaken, including a steam engine at Glen Cleevan in North Wales and the steam-powered pottery in Cumbria.

Later programmes cover mills and factories, iron and steel, mining, and railways. The final one on shipbuilding, scheduled for 25 March, finds Dibnah leafing through 19th century bound volumes of The Engineer, where he discovers an advert for steam engine maker Robey and visits a collection of restored engines at the Robey Trust in Tavistock, Devon.

He doesn’t try to get too technical: ‘If you’re a peasant-type person like me,’ he says self-deprecatingly, ‘who can explain in normal language to people that’s not over bright, they’re less likely to bugger off to the pub than if you have a boffin who loses them in the first few minutes.’

Hall says: ‘We’ve not got into technicalities at all. It’s pitched at a wide range of viewers and with a lot of technicalities a lot of people would get lost. We’re more concerned with how innovative we were as an industrial nation in a period when we led the world.

‘All these machines were still working within Fred’s lifetime and it all started to disappear very quickly. Just a few enthusiasts said we really need to do something about this… If it hadn’t been for a small body of people there’d have been nothing left to show for it.’

The series is part of the BBC’s Millennium History project, which focuses on significant events of the last 1,000 years, and is backed up by a book and helpline for people who want to get involved.

Asked to pick highlights, Dibnah chooses the winding engine at Astley Green pit in Astley, Manchester, by Foster, Yates & Thorn, and a 4,000hp rolling mill engine at the Museum of the Cutlery Trade in Sheffield. He would have had the time of his life with a machine shop at The Welsh Slate Museum, Llanberis, had health and safety regulations not prevented him. The shop is full of machines driven from a shaft from a 50ft water wheel: ‘If I were let loose in there I could make a locomotive,’ he says.

Meanwhile, he has plenty of other projects on the go, ranging from steeplejack work to sinking a 100ft shaft behind his house to install his winding engine and pithead gear.

He’s not too impressed by modern ideas like the world wide web: ‘Even though this high technology’s wonderful, it’s bloody boring. You can get much more information out of a book than a computer. The beauty of a Victorian engine is that it had to work, but it also had to look good.’