‘When I married it was going to be for love and it was’

Sheila Dibnah with her new book  about  life with her late husband, Fred.
Sheila Dibnah with her new book about life with her late husband, Fred.
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Sheila Dibnah has heard all the jibes at her expense. There’s no fuel like an old fuel is one favourite. “Cruel but clever,” she concedes.

“What did you see in the millionaire Fred Dibnah?” is a cheaper shot.

For the record Fred had £600 in the bank, as he was the first to point out, when they married.

Toppling industrial chimneys and presenting programmes about industrial Britain had made him a household name - but earned him a pittance.

“If Fred had beer money he was happy,” says Sheila. “He was short changed. He was thrilled when money started coming in.

“He’d tell others she’s not after me for my money, cock, because I’ve nothing.

“But he had charm, charisma and that spark was there.

“He was 20 years older but I was smitten. I’d never met a man like Fred before. I felt I could be myself with Fred, I didn’t have to be frightened if I put weight on, or got a spot , or was seen without makeup.

“Being dressed up and having my slap on is not my default setting.

“We both came from Bolton, we liked the same things. I used to like to sniff and lick spanners when I was a child, I was entranced by man hole covers, loved gas mantles.

“Other people only saw the differences between us, never the similarities.

“Only the other day my mum said ‘you and Fred would have been made for each other, if other people hadn’t interfered.’ It wasn’t hearts and romance but what we had was real.”

The jibes were at her expense - in every sense.

Fred, celebrity steeplejack, champion of the industrial North, wrote her out of his will on his deathbed.

Sheila says his papers contained reminders to redraft his will. “I think he was egged on.”

The rot had well and truly set into their relationship with the bladder cancer that claimed his life.

Fred accused Sheila of poisoning him. “I had apothecary’s jars - one for arsenic, empty of course. What had been a joke between us became twisted with his illness.

“Morphine levels had been hiked up. He was drinking. The hospice gave me a bag with about 40 cans of Guinness and four bottles of wine in it. I hadn’t brought them in. What with the pain, morphine, booze and steam mafia mates hating my guts - he wasn’t thinking straight.”

Some gloated when she was disinherited. Gold digger, screamed some tabloid headlines. On the day of Fred’s funeral, locals and fans turning out to line the streets of Bolton, a national paper declaimed his “lavish lifestyle.” Fred, the “champagne steeplejack,” had swilled claret rather than pints and “scoffed” vegetarian food rather than pies - under his wife’s influence.

Membership of The Sunday Times Wine Club has a lot to answer for, muses a far from merry widow.

They say revenge is a dish best served cold - even a vegetarian one.

Sheila has cooked up a storm with her book A Cast-Iron Will (2QT Publishing, £14.99) out this week - signing sessions to come locally.

It’s a proper book, not vanity press, or a self published online ego indulger.

Sheila stresses it’s not about revenge. “It’s about setting the record straight.”

As straight as it can be within legal constraints. Under final terms of settlement Sheila is subject to an order barring her from discussing the nuts and bolts of her “reasonable provision claim” against Fred’s estate.

We’re at Sheila’s home in central Blackpool, the home she feared she might lose.

This is where she cried herself to sleep at the height of the costly and lengthy legal wrangle over Fred’s will. It’s where she lives with son Nathan who once saw Fred as a second father but now can barely bring himself to speak of him. “What happened hurt us both deeply.”

The house was in a pretty grotty state when Sheila bought it with Fred’s blessing - and restored it herself. “I put so much of myself into it. It was one of the few things I could keep. Fred’s friends would have been happy to see me turned out onto the streets.”

She lost the former gatehouse at Bolton which had been home for her and Fred until his death. It was sold in 2009 for £180k and transformed into the Fred Dibnah Heritage Centre. It’s now back on the market at £899,950 leasehold.

Blackpool became her bolt hole. It had been her childhood retreat, her workplace when assistant to stage hypnotist Peter Casson, where she lived during her first marriage. She lived in Switzerland for years, working as a dancer, and turned down an Arab millionaire’s marriage proposal there.

“He pursued me relentlessly but I didn’t love him. I’m no gold digger. When I married it was going to be for love. And it was.”

The house was Sheila’s project just as “Betsy” was Fred’s. As love triangles went Betsy was not to be messed with - a mighty Aveling and Porter steam roller restored to running order and named after Fred’s late mother. A key part of the processionals at his funeral.

Sheila became Mrs Dibnah No 3 in the summer of 1998.

She joined him at steam rallies, even on a test drive of The Big One, and once scaled a 200ft industrial chimney - in heels -to show him she could do it.

“I turned up at one rally, all hair, nails,heels, and a man came up and said what are you thinking of, you’ve got no place here. That’s what I was up against. I didn’t like some of Fred’s hangers-on because they were using him. The irony is a man who couldn’t see the harm in people ended up hating me.”

Sheila pinpoints the turning point in the marriage. On the same day Fred was told he had cancer Sheila got a call from her mother saying her father had fallen from the roof while doing a repair. He suffered irreparable brain damage and other injuries. “I had to leave a man I loved who had just been told he had an aggressive form of cancer to be at the side of another man I loved who was dying.

“Fred understood. It was only after his mates got at him he began to say I left because I didn’t care. That was the beginning of the end for us.”

Fred redrafted his will and disinherited Sheila on October 15 2004. He died on November 6. “The others started to make plans for his funeral. It was like I didn’t exist. I offered no resistance. My home felt like unfamiliar territory.

“I’d helped with his business affairs, but we weren’t wealthy. He used to say I could be bossy with folk who wanted him to do stuff for ‘nowt’. He used to tell me ‘you’ll get it all, cock’ but he had two former wives and five children.

“The most I expected, on his death, was to be treated fairly. In the event the only winners were the lawyers.”

Sheila asked for reasonable provision.

The legal wrangle lasted for six years. Sheila struggled to make ends meet.

She threw herself into the fund raising campaign for a bronze statue in memory of Fred in Bolton town centre. “I didn’t do it to make myself look better or play the celebrity widow’s card but because Fred deserved better.”

Today she makes a modest living as an award winning public speaker. She does a brilliant impression of her late husband. She draws upon a wealth of anecdotes.

“I’m there to entertain and celebrate the good things we had - and his real legacy, how he changed the way people saw the industrial North.

“And the more I talk about the good times the more the bad ones fade away into the background.”