Steeplejacks, or ‘steeple climbers’, as they were once known, belong to an old and respected profession that has been around as long as there have been tall chimneys and towers needing cleaning and repairs. Perhaps the earliest record of a steeple climber is in the Bayeaux Tapestry, created in the 1070s, where the scene called ‘The Return’ appears to show a man holding a weather vane as he climbs a church steeple.
Entertaining the Crowds
Having absolutely no fear of heights, these people used to perform acrobatic stunts from the top of local church steeples during fairs and carnivals to great acclaim, which earned them the nickname ‘steeple flyers’. Then, after the end of the celebration, they would be asked to repair problems and make good any damage (often caused by their stunts!). One famous such occasion is depicted in a Hogarth painting of 1725, when an Italian named Violante decided to return to ground level from the top of London’s St Martin’s Church, Charing Cross, by sliding head first down a rope across St Martins Lane to the Royal Mews. A few years later, in 1739, an English ‘steeple flyer’, Robert Cadman, attempted a similar stunt in Shrewsbury and fell to his death when the rope failed.
An article in the London Chronicle in June 1767 includes comments about affixing iron hooks called ‘dogs’ into the stonework and using a bosun’s chair (a wooden seat on ropes that can be raised and lowered by the user), both still used in modern times. However, abseiling techniques are more popular than the bosun’s chair nowadays. To begin, a steeplejack will climb a ladder to a suitable point, then place a pair of ‘dogs’ by chiselling holes and knocking the dogs in with wooden pegs to fix them.
Once the dogs are in place, ladders are lashed to them and the steeplejack moves on and up to the next, eventually giving access to the full height of the structure. Once the ladders are in place the steeplejacks use them as base points to install scaffolding for use while performing whatever repairs, cleaning works, etc, are required.
THE Steeplejack, Fred Dibnah
Despite the fact that he passed on in 2004, many people still know of Fred Dibnah, MBE, the man who brought the profession of steeplejacking into the public eye. There are very few hardy souls who can watch, without wincing, a video of him, at 50 years plus, climbing a ladder all the way up a 200-foot chimney with no safety lines or harnesses! When he then stops occasionally to hook a leg around the ladder and pick at loose brick or crumbly mortar, before continuing up apparently without effort, all the while chatting to the camera â€“ well, it takes your breath away!
If you’d like to learn more about Fred and the fantastically brave men like him, you could do worse than look him up on the internet there are several videos of him at work on www.youtube.com, and many stories about him on his own site at www.fred-dibnah.co.uk and elsewhere.
The Association of Technical Lightning & Access Specialists (www.atlas.org.uk) represents the interests of professionals in the lightning protection and steeplejack industry. Since it was formed in 1946 it has worked to improve conditions for its members and to ensure high quality service by increasing their technical abilities and skills. So, whether you are an owner of a tall structure needing work, or a newbie who’d like to begin training as a steeplejack via an apprenticeship, ATLAS is probably the best place to start.