Steeplejack's memories of first meeting with teenage Fred Dibnah
AS Tom McFarlane toiled for three days laddering and scaffolding a Bolton mill — working to remove its cast iron top — a teenager just starting out in the trade watched intently from the sidelines.
Over the course of the job, the young man picked the steeplejack’s brains about his work, observing his methods and learning the tricks of the trade.
More than 50 years later, sitting at home in Farnworth, the 88-year-old recalls the first time he met the lad who would go on to become the most famous steeplejack in the world — Fred Dibnah.
“Fred would come and watch me on the chimneys when we were younger,” he said. “I have worked on most of the local chimneys at some time or other, and all the churches.
“He used to come and watch me work. He was interested as a little boy in chimneys so it was his whole life. He turned out to be the greatest in the world really.
“My lad John used to go drinking with him. Fred was glad to see him because of knowing me.
“He was a very friendly man. It was a real shame when he died. He helped put Bolton on the map.”
Fred went on to be the country’s most influential steeplejack. He was a television personality and was even honoured by the Queen, receiving an MBE in 2004, just months before he died, aged 66.
He remained friends with Tom and his son John up until his death and Tom was even interviewed for David Hall’s biography of Fred.
Tom began his career aged 16 before joining the Navy in 1942 where he was an anti-aircraft gunner. But he returned to his first love when the war was over.
He started working for Fred Mills and worked on nearly all the church spires in the borough as well as chimneys in Darwen and Blackburn.
“When I left school, St Gregory’s in Farnworth, I was the youngest in the family and worked as an errand boy at the grocers from 14,” he said.
“But a lot of my friends were getting a lot of money working in the mills so I decided to leave the grocers job and started work at Fred Mills the steeplejack until I joined the Navy.
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