Fred Dibnah (1938-2004)
Climbing the heights
Sculptor Jayne Robbins and Fred Dibnah statue in Bolton, Lancs.
photo: Bolton Council
(Revised 22 July 2013.)
When Fred Dibnah became terminally ill with cancer in his early 60s, media reports said that he had slightly more than a million pounds in the bank, five children, two ex-wives, one current wife and one step-son, whom he had not adopted.
The steeplejack, engineer, steam-engine buff and television star also had a will that he no longer liked, so he made a new one - leaving most of his estate to his children, and nothing at all to Sheila, his wife.
Many media reports also raised tantalising questions which they did not answer: Did family members unduly influence Dibnah as he lay dying in a Bolton hospice? Had he lost his mental capacity? Did his widow threaten high court action on the grounds that, as his wife, she was entitled to reasonable provision? In any event, costly litigation was averted.
If Fred's will had been sorted out in court, none of his large family would have emerged victorious, whatever the legal outcome. A million pounds does not buy a lot of legal fees and court costs. The estate might have vanished up the courthouse chimney.
Why did Dibnah cut his wife out of his will in the first place?
We may never know for sure , but Fred had disinherited family members before. When his first marriage broke down many years earlier and his wife took their three daughters, he made a new will and excluded them.
And before he entered the hospice, Fred threatened to rewrite his will after a quarrel with Sheila. But this was apparently a routine husband-wife spat that, when the dust settled, did not occasion a redrafted will.
Disinheriting people who annoy you was not invented by Dibnah.
From Bolton to Buckingham Palace
Bolton Town Hall and Clock Tower
Photo: Bolton Council
Born in Bolton in 1938, Dibnah first came to national attention in the late 1970s, when he hovered 240 feet above ground repairing the Bolton town hall clock tower. A local TV crew filmed his efforts, and a later documentary brought him national attention and widespread adulation for his folksy charm.
Over the next two decades he appeared in nearly two dozen documentaries, wrote his autobiography (The Fred Dibnah Story), and gave after-dinner talks.
He was awarded an MBE in 2003, intending to drive himself into Buckingham Palace atop a steam engine. Fearful that the heavy vehicle might damage the road surface, Fred used alternative transport.
A life of ups and downs
Dibnah and his first wife, Alison, eloped and tied the knot in Gretna Green. They had three daughters, but Alison was resentful at playing second fiddle to steam engines, and they divorced in 1985.
Two years later, Dibnah married Susan, a mother of two who was twenty years his junior. He and Susan had two sons, Jack (1987) and Roger (1991). Ten years later, she left him for another man.
They divorced in 1996 after, after another two-year hiatus, Dibnah married another woman who was twenty years younger. Sheila and her son moved into his home, a Victorian gatehouse in Bolton. About five years later he was diagnosed with cancer, and although he was expected to die within the year, he held out for three years.
When he changed his will, he knew that the end was near. He died less than a month later.
At his well-attended funeral in Bolton, his coffin was carried on one of his beloved restored steam engines, driven by one of his sons. He was buried in Tonge cemetery near his gatehouse home.
A few years later, the same engine was sold at auction, its proceeds used to settle the case brought by Sheila. The engine sold for £240,000 ( £264,000 by some accounts), double the guide price. (The buyer was Michael Oliver, a private collector with an envious stable of cars.)
Fred's gatehouse home was bought by Leon Powsney, who originally intended to live in it as an ordinary residence. But the property attracted many people eager to see the house where the famous and beloved steeplejack had lived, and Powsney turned it into the Fred Dibnah Heritage Centre.
UPDATE JANUARY 2012 Heritage Centre owner Leon Powsney wants to form a group of trustees to take over the home/museum via a form of public ownership. Powsney hopes to raise £1m, primarily from modest contributions from Fred's supporters. The goal, if reached, should enable the trustees to purchase the home from him at a market rate. The funds should also suffice for property refurbishment and a museum manager. www.freddibnahheritagecentre.co.uk