Britain’s favourite steeplejack, the late great Fred Dibnah, was stopped in his tracks by a troublesome tomcat on December 7th, 1983.
Bolton-bred Fred, who rose to national prominence through a series of TV documentaries on his life as a traditional steeplejack, was surprised to find a ginger tomcat waiting for him on his latest assignment – a 200ft mill chimney.
The fearless feline, called George, had apparently climbed partway up Fred’s ladders overnight, but as he climbed up to retrieve it, the cat took fright and just kept on climbing higher and higher. Eventually it reached a narrow ledge about six feet from the top, but even then Fred couldn’t catch it, as it kept backing away, out of his reach.
Whatever he tried, the ginger tom refused to budge from his precarious perch. The traditional solution for cats stuck in trees – calling the fire brigade – wouldn’t wash in this case, and try as he might, Fred could not catch the petrified puss.
Nor could he get on with his job while George was in the way. After an emergency meeting with the RSPCA it was decided to leave George be in the hope that a cold lonely night without food might persuade him to come down.
“If we leave it up there all night it might get so fed up and hungry that it might come down on its own,” said a frustrated Fred. “Failing that it is holding my job up. I have got a few hundred pounds at stake and I cannot be held up with a cat.”
But as any cat lover will tell you, they’re better at going up than coming down. Sure enough, when Fred returned the next morning George was still there… and he wasn’t alone. By now news had spread and gathered around the foot of the chimney (where a net had been hastily erected in case George fell) was a crowd of spectators and two local TV news crews.
Eventually a cat-catching expert from Manchester was raised to the top of the chimney strapped to an extra-long extending ladder drafted in by the fire brigade. After tempting George within arm’s reach with a series of fishy treats, he managed to grab the cat by the scruff of the neck. But with one hand clinging to the ladder and the other clutching the hostile hissing cat, he suddenly realised he was now stuck!
It was left to Fred to climb up the chimney on his ladders and help bundle George into a cage before finally bring the bedraggled moggy back to terra firma. After a 30-hour delay, Fred could at last crack on with his work.
Known for his grimy flat cap, round gold-rimmed spectacles and broad Bolton twang, Fred starred in several documentaries since first appearing on television in 1979. Initially they focussed on his work restoring and preserving historic buildings, or demolishing relics of the north’s industrial heyday – especially mill chimneys – using traditional methods.
Later series turned more to his passion for steam, Victorian engineering and industrial archaeology, revealing Fred to be a man of hidden depths and many talents. He became an accomplished presenter and much-loved celebrity, filming his final series touring the UK on his traction engine just weeks before his death from cancer in November 2004, at the age of 66.
• You can hear Fred telling the story of George the ginger tom in his own inimitable style by clicking here.