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My life as a Steeplejack

Updated on March 20, 2014

Steeple-jacking a Beginning

When I left School, the British band UB40 was singing about being one in ten, three million unemployed and rising.

I remember things being that bad there were queues outside bread shops, like some depressed eastern block country, yet they were not queuing for bread, but work - one position - fifty applied.

After leaving basford hall college Nottingham, I went against my father's wishes, and applied for a job at the firm he worked, which just happened to be advertising for three Steeplejack mates.

As a teenager, the experience was exiting, walking into the company's yard on a Monday with your suitcase in hand, not knowing where you would be going, and which part of the country, and how high you would be working. This was kept a secrete and chalked on a large blackboard along with who you would be working with, another important factor I later learned.

UB40 One In Ten

One in Ten
One in Ten

A popular song in the 80's about the state of employment in the UK.

 
Image Shearart
Image Shearart

Whittington Hospital Islington London

Two of us 'Sprogs' as we were called, were sent down the inside of the chimney in bosun's chairs, armed with sweeping brushes, and told to sweep the sulpha/soot off the full length of the barrel, so it could be inspected for potential repairs.

The joke was that, we were told that the chimney had only just been turned off, and was still hot inside, so take all our clothes off and wear only boiler suits (refusal would have been met with hostility).

After hours of choking, sweat and burns, we emerged at the bottom, black as soot. The showers removed most of it except around our: necks, arm pits, nipples, lower region cracks. They were burned black and took months to fade, at that point I realised I didn't know everything as a teenager.

Steeple-jacking seemed natural to me as my grandfather was a steeplejack, my uncles and my father too, but he wanted me to be a chef. I think he was a little anxious that I would embarrass him, which made me all the more determined to succeed. I just had to overcome the fear of falling to my death and landing on some ornate wrought iron railings.

To add an extra flavour to the difficulty level, My father was a senior Foreman, and those steeplejacks who he had trained and traditionally worked hard, ridiculed, and I'm going to use Steeplejack parlance of the day - Slagged off. I was assigned to them, payback was tough, quitting wasn't an option, they tried, and eventually I earned their respect and they became friends.

Foot wear

Timberland PRO Men's Pitboss 6" Steel-Toe Boot,Black,12 M
Timberland PRO Men's Pitboss 6" Steel-Toe Boot,Black,12 M

No reason why you can't look good at work, especially if you are in an industry that draws a crowd.

 
Image Shearart
Image Shearart

Day To Day

Working on power stations, mills, concrete and steel chimneys, cooling towers, and installing lightning conductor systems. To restoring Churches in the middle of a verdant country side on the edge of a small village, were all, week to week stuff and sometimes we would be given some unusual work.

The miners' strike was on and next to a lot of pits in Yorkshire, loomed Coalite sites, churning out smokeless fuel, piles of it, some striking miners (allegedly) would appropriate some smokeless coal for their home fires.

The boss being an entrepreneur volunteered our services; the job was to enclose the whole place with 10ft steel roofing sheets, which seemed miles. Now and again an angry mob would stand there attempting to intimidate us, and things got worse when they found out we were from Nottingham, adding insult to injury, as Nottingham was considered scab pit country.

Our foreman had a word with them, and we were surprisingly left alone after that. I found out years later that a couple of the sheets weren't fixed as well as they should have been -- fancy that.

Meanwhile, every time we exited the motorway to enter Nottingham, the police pulled us over and asked us if we were flying-pickets, we nodded our black soot covered faces no -- this was cutting into our pub time -- the police didn't believe us.

Don't look now

Don't look now
Don't look now

India Mills Ornate Chimney

http://www.flickr.com/photos/tpreece01/3713869
http://www.flickr.com/photos/tpreece01/3713869

One of my fondest memories, and again, still a teenager, was working on a famous chimney in Darwin Lancashire, the rumours were that it had a huge stone overhang that forced the weight onto your arms as you climbed over, and some firms had backed out and ran scared, but this is an industry full of untruths, generated in the pub, at least in those days.

Nevertheless, it does put weight on your arms, and it is the moment of truth climbing over the top, especially when the top of the ladder hasn't been tied yet. For me, the excitement factor was driving from Bolton coming down the hill and seeing it for the first time.

The boiler man was a tablet of touristic information, and apparently the chimney was designed on the tower in St Marks Square Venice; mill owners would compete by building the most ornate chimneys, this one costing 14,000 pounds.

We worked on the chimney for a few months, scaffolding the top and rigged cradles on it. I was impressed so much with Lancashire and the friendliness of the people, I moved there.

The mill and chimney are steeped in history and can be found by clicking the link arrow below.

Image Source

Looking west from India Mills Chimney

http://www.flickr.com/photos/21913923@N03/5883996278/in/set-72157626944226537
http://www.flickr.com/photos/21913923@N03/5883996278/in/set-72157626944226537

One day whilst working on the chimney a fella dressed in a suit approached and asked if we would take some aerial shots of his auto sales garage and surrounding area, at the end of the shift we did. His wife had a shock when she went to collect the photos as we had including three naked backsides. Luckily they had a sense of humour.

Image Source

Steeplejack's names carved into the stone below one of the urns including mine.

Don't look down

Don't look down
Don't look down

Climbing over the overhang

http:// www.flickr.com/photos/21913923@N03/5880839427/in/set-72157626944226537
http:// www.flickr.com/photos/21913923@N03/5880839427/in/set-72157626944226537

Climbing onto the slippy stone plinth usually covered in Pigeon excrement

http://www.flickr.com/photos/21913923@N03/5880761285/in/set-72157626944226537
http://www.flickr.com/photos/21913923@N03/5880761285/in/set-72157626944226537

Steeplejack Origins

This book was written by a real steeplejack and so this is a must read if you are interested in learning more about the industry especially from a historical point of view.

Steeplejack Origins
Steeplejack Origins

A look back at the history of British Steeplejack industry origins

 

Fred Climbing India Mill Chimney

Fred Dibnah, In His Own Words

Did You Like That?: Fred Dibnah, In His Own Words
Did You Like That?: Fred Dibnah, In His Own Words

Don Haworth Television producer in the 70’s and 80’s made 19 documentaries about Fred Dibnah winning a BAFTA award for the first one, this book written by Don Haworth is close to being Fred’s autobiography.

 
Image Shearart
Image Shearart

Fifteen Minutes of Fame

Bob-a-job week was the week cub-scouts would knock on your door and sell you a ticket that would entitle you to have some work down: Wash the car, sweep the yard and my personal favourite, weed the garden.

My uncle was in the paper for giving a cub- scout a sweeping job at the top of a high tower on bob-a-job week, in the late 70's. Steeplejacks were often in the paper, on this occasion we were invited to sit in front of the film camera.

Several of us, from different firms, were filmed by the college working on various chimneys, and invited to a lunch at a county pub to help produce a recruitment video - OMG how embarrassing.

Don't give a steeplejack your camera or interview him after a couple of pints.

Gaz top 'a children's TV presenter' was interviewing us all and the brief was simple, relax and be honest.

Some anecdotes from the older steeplejacks, started out pleasant until 'cut we can't print that' and then asking us questions about wages and working conditions, whilst drinking pints of beer down, before the wasps landed in them, in the mid-day sun - what did they think they were going to get?

Not all of us gave a bad account of ourselves, but if they had briefed us on what they wanted, and said keep the language down, and don't mention lodging away stories, they might have had a chance, on a personal note I had an extra cringe as the sound man was my neighbour.

To be fair, they were honest and relaxed.

More Fred

White collar workers

May your arms get stronger as your legs weaken

Removing Ladders on a Church Spire

Removing Ladders on a Church Spire

Chicago Steeplejacks

STEEPLEJILL

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Steeplejack_and_Steeplejill_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1134094.jpg
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Steeplejack_and_Steeplejill_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1134094.jpg

Considering a career in the Steeplejack industry?

Years later, I entered the world of building site management, contract management and construction project management, and in the earlier years was faced with employing site managers to supervise safety critical works in the rail sector, the majority of labour had rail experience, not construction.

I pulled in some steeplejack foreman, and they aced it, yes they were trained and did the subsequent courses, but hands on they had a natural risk assessment ability built in and that is the essence of leaders. If you as a youngster are looking to enter the steeplejack industry, I have put together some links below from the UK, United States and Australia.

Considering a career in the Steeplejack industry?

Modern Day Steeplejacks

Back in my day we worked without fall arrest systems or safety harnesses ‘free climbing.’ The video below does a good job of demonstration how things have moved on, placing safety as number one using structure, risk assessment and clear communication.

Scottish Steeplejacks

High Rise Maintenance

Refurbishing Victoria centre flats in Nottingham, considered an eyesore for years, we used cradles and bosun's chairs to completely clad and stone dash the outside, including installation of window sills, concrete repairs and sealant works.

Books by this Author - Streaking For Mother

A cynical, famous underwear model, and infamous international Rugby player, despondent and guilt ridden because of a terrible mistake, finds redemption from helping the Streakers who ruined his chances of a world record.

After moving in with this bunch of dysfunctional guerrilla marketeers he discovers all isn't what it seemed and finds out his life is being controlled by his estranged mother from beyond the grave.

His mother is also the patron of a large pawn brokers and the Streakers Matriarch who believe her absence is temporary. It soon becomes apparent to Ashley she has left him with no choice but to help them move on with their lives and come to terms with her untimely death.

Ashley has made enemies too. He is viciously attacked, sent threatening message, and attempts are made to destroy him in the media - both professionally and personally. With his new house mates by his side, they must discover and deal with his pursuer Streaker style.

Pigeon Conspiracy
Pigeon Conspiracy

Fatherly advice. con-man.

 

Comments, questions and lens love are all welcome

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    • profile image

      jpgell 3 years ago

      nice to read some jacks tales the names on india were faulkners men john pope will be there to

      tommy keogh ladderd it in the 90s he found a pigeons leg and id ring left by a falcon he rang the pigeons owner who was proper upset his race bird was dead

    • Mark Shearman profile image
      Author

      Mark Shearman 3 years ago from Alicante Spain

      @IanTease: Thanks Ian, I look forward to your lens on Fred.

    • IanTease profile image

      IanTease 3 years ago

      Really enjoyed this lens, have always been fascinated by this trade. I do a lot of roofing work but have never tackled anything seriously tall like a mill chimney, though I'd love to. Plan to do a lens on Fred at some point in the near future, especially after enjoying this lens so much.

    • lgOlson profile image

      L. Olson 4 years ago from Northern Arizona

      Wow, is all I can say. Oh..and thanks for writing this! I am in awe of what you and men like you throughout history have done, creating and working on buildings.

    • blestman lm profile image

      blestman lm 4 years ago

      Amazing lens. Just the thing for a teenager needing local adventure I would think. I am afraid I would have been one of the "slackers" because I would have spent a lot of time looking over the countryside

    • Mark Shearman profile image
      Author

      Mark Shearman 4 years ago from Alicante Spain

      @anonymous: A bet you knew John Summers Phil Shearman great to hear from you thanks for your comments

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      enjoyed it,it brought back memories.I was steeplejack in NOTTINGHAM for FURSE McDONALDS AND F.S.ALLANS in the 70s

    • Mark Shearman profile image
      Author

      Mark Shearman 4 years ago from Alicante Spain

      @Dressage Husband: Working in between wind gusts is like great comedy - timing. Falling or having an accident was viewed as incompetence. Thanks for visiting.

    • Dressage Husband profile image

      Stephen J Parkin 4 years ago from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada

      I am amazed you were ever allowed to climb without harnesses or being tied on in any way! It would only need one huge gust of wind at just the wrong time to carry someone away from safety.

      Very brave or foolhardy?

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      really interesting! loved reading about your experiences

    • OhMe profile image

      Nancy Tate Hellams 4 years ago from Pendleton, SC

      I had no idea what a Steeplejack was so found this very interesting and educational. Thanks

    • kindoak profile image

      kindoak 4 years ago

      That's a seriously tough job. I get a pain in the gut just by looking at those overhang images!

    • Titia profile image

      Titia Geertman 4 years ago from Waterlandkerkje - The Netherlands

      OMG I suffer from fear of heights at about 2 meters up above ground level. Can't imagine being up there and climbing steeples.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      What an interesting job but you do need to have strong legs and lots of courage.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Way too above the ground for me. Great lens!

    • Scarlettohairy profile image

      Peggy Hazelwood 4 years ago from Desert Southwest, U.S.A.

      Wow, way too scary!

    • Blackspaniel1 profile image

      Blackspaniel1 4 years ago

      I believe this is the only such lems I have seen/

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Whew, you must be very brave and strong to do this kind of work.

      I admire people who do the work that most would never do. :)

    • profile image

      webscribbler 4 years ago

      Whew, sounds like a hard way to earn a living.

    • profile image

      jura 4 years ago

      It's kind of remind me my life when I was young.

    • kabbalah lm profile image

      kabbalah lm 4 years ago

      This has to be one of the toughest jobs period.

    • bofirebear profile image

      bofirebear 4 years ago

      I enjoyed this. My question is when you were a steeplejack did that mean you got high all the time?

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      It obviously takes real courage to be a steeplejack. Enjoyed your lens!

    • Deadicated LM profile image

      Deadicated LM 4 years ago

      Yikes! I'm afraid of heights. Great Lens never heard of a Steeplejack till now; thanks for teaching me something new.

    • Mary Crowther profile image

      Mary Crowther 4 years ago from Havre de Grace

      Enjoyed reading your lens! Angel Blessings!

    • blessit3 profile image

      blessit3 4 years ago

      YIKES! Interesting lens, blessings to you!

    • profile image

      reasonablerobby 4 years ago

      brilliant lens really interesting, you wouldn't get me climbing so high though

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Very interesting, things have moved on a bit from my day. Thanks for promoting my book.

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 5 years ago

      You are very brave for having done this kind of work.

    • Mark Shearman profile image
      Author

      Mark Shearman 5 years ago from Alicante Spain

      Hi, thanks for visiting.

    • IMKZRNU2 profile image

      IMKZRNU2 5 years ago from Pacific Northwest

      Very interesting lens...as someone that is deathly afraid of heights there is NO way I will ever be a steeplejack!