In an interview with Mark Davis, engineer and author Alan McEwen, who runs Dandelion Stone Troughs and Architectural Antiques at Cowling, West Yorkshire, tells of his friendship and his shared interests with northern hero Fred Dibnah.
When Alan McEwen was a lad in a Lancashire village, he wasn’t interested in football like most, but he was fascinated by steam engines, factories, railway bridges, Meccano and engineering books.
He started work at 15 in a boiler factory, became an expert in boiler repairs and for a dozen years ran his own specialist company.
It was almost inevitable that at some point he would cross paths with Fred Dibnah, legendary steeplejack, steam enthusiast and TV personality dedicated to honouring Britain’s industrial heritage.
Alan and his team were working at a boilerhouse in Worsley, installing hundreds of tubes in a 35-ton boiler, when he first met Fred.
“The noise was absolutely ear shattering, and it was time I had a break. I told my gang I was just going to have ten minutes out in the mill yard. The mill yard was deserted and I looked across and I could see this enormous 200 foot mill chimney, typical of south Lancashire, made of brick.
“My eye went to the top of it, then down to the bottom and there’s a Land Rover and a small, flat-capped, individual leaning over the bonnet with a flask which I later learned was coffee. I gravitated over to him and a voice said: ‘You’re t’buggers who’ve been making all that noise all morning. It’s bloody deafening. I can hear you on top o’ t’chimney.’
“We started chatting and he looks at my badge on my boiler suit and he says: ‘Aah, McEwen boilermakers. Boilermakers! A rare breed. What are you like at putting white-hot rivets in wi’ bloody great guns?’
“I said to him ‘Yeah, we’re very good at that. We’re experts at it. We do steam locomotives like on the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway over at Haworth.’”
“He said; ‘I’m rebuilding a steam engine at home and I could just do wi’ being taught how
to put rivets in. Would you fancy coming to my house?’”
“I said: ‘Yes, most certainly’.”
A fortnight later, Alan visited Fred’s house in Bolton, with its yard full of sheds and machinery, and was captivated with what he saw.
“There was a certain old fashioned atmosphere emanating from the buildings and from the fact that everything was there like it used to be in the engine houses of the sixties and earlier.
“I liked Fred. He was a character. What you saw was what you got. There was nothing greatly unusual about him for those times. Lots of the pubs at weekends were full of plasterers and joiners and engineers and builders who all looked the same – flat caps and Woodbines in, swilled ale down their throats like there was no tomorrow. Fred was very similar to that, but he was also a good reader. And to say that he had no education is wrong. He was brilliant at technical drawings in Indian ink, and his copperplate writing was unimaginably good.
“We just hit it off. I think it was the fact that he wasn’t interested in sport, he was interested in ale, and particularly in old boilers”
“We just hit it off. I think it was the fact that he wasn’t interested in sport – ditto for me – he was interested in ale, and particularly in old boilers. Our friendship gathered at a pace, and I would turn up every fortnight or so. If I was in Bolton I’d give him a quick call. It’d be ‘Come down, Al, kettle’s on, we’ll have a brew together in t’shed’.”
Fred told Alan he had been fascinated by Bolton’s abundant factory chimneys since he was a toddler.
“It was a natural curiosity and flair,” Alan says. “From when he’d go down to Bolton on the tram from where he lived, and seeing all these matchstick men running around on lolly sticks stretched across the tops of chimneys 200-250 feet up, that’s what he wanted to be.”
In 1978, Fred was filmed by the regional BBC on Bolton Town Hall, and before long his jolly northern tones were reaching a national audience as he perched on precarious platforms up tall chimneys to repair them, or felled the stacks with a final comment: “Did yer like that?”
Alan adds: “Fred was born with a gift of having a tremendous head for heights. He could be on a 300-foot chimney and he’d just dance round the top. It wasn’t bravado. It was 100 per cent genuine total lack of fear. Long before the cameras came on the scene, before he was
discovered by the BBC, he’d be dancing round the tops on his own for days on end.
“He was also a master craftsman whether it’d be stone, slate, tile, brick, in metal, in timber.”
Alan McEwen is the author of the bestselling book Fred Dibnah’s Chimney Drops. The only detailed work on Fred’s chimney toppling adventures.