Joe Smith, the Rochdale Steeplejack

Over many years, TV audiences got to know Fred Dibnah and watched him shin up chimneys to repair them or set explosives to demolish them. His personality became celebrated by many but whilst he made a great name for himself as a Lancashire character, Rochdale can claim, as with so many things, that they were there first. Rochdale had its own celebrity steeplejack in the 19th century in the form of Joe Smith and given the number of coal-fired factories at the turn of the 20th century it should come as no surprise that the profession of steeplejack was a critical one in the mill towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire. However, there were steeplejacks and steeplejacks ! Rochdale’s man was something special.

And yet Joe Smith was not born in the town but in Coventry in 1845, moving up to Rochdale in the 1870s having been a steeplejack from the age of 18.  Unwilling to follow his father in the profession of shoemaker, he first became a scaffolder before making his profession the maintenance of industrial buildings. 

Physically, Joe Smith was small but strong, attending a gymnasium daily where he exercised with dumb bells to build up arm strength and becoming expert on horizontal and parallel bars. Described by Falconer in 1902 as a ‘typical north-countryman’ he was muscular, lithe and active not only in his youth but all the way into his 50’s and 60’s. A life-long teetotaller and non-smoker, Smith always maintained that ‘alcohol and heights don’t mix !’

Professionally, Smith won contracts throughout the North of England to ensure the safety of the chimneys, working on buildings as high as 300 feet. At that time, mill-owners were understandably concerned about the cost incurred in the time it took to repair weather-worn chimneys so they often employed Joe Smith who could ladder some of the highest chimneys in 2 hours. Masonry on the chimneys would become weathered and cracks appear so Smith’s job was to repoint them, sometimes from bottom to top. This work, of course, was perilous, Smith driving iron dogs into the chimney and then lashing 21-foot ladders to them before repeating the process with more fasteners, then another ladder and so on to the top of the stack. He did the same on church spires in the process of maintaining them or fixing lightning conductors to the structure.

Sometimes the chimneys proved quite a challenge. The factory chimney of Dobson and Barlow in Bolton for example was 357 feet high, in 1897 the tallest in England and second tallest in the world. Allegedly it contained one million bricks and needed scaffolding lashed in a long series because it was so high. Charles Blondin, the great tightrope walker once refused to scale such a chimney, saying that it was too dangerous, but Smith did it and finished the job on time. Then there was the ‘leaning tower of Heywood.’ This was the chimney of Brook Mills owned by Colonel J J Mellor who claimed that it was out of straight due to ‘a violent gale exerting its full force’ when it was being built. Although the owners claimed that it hadn’t moved in 40 years, it stood 7 feet from the perpendicular but this didn’t bother Joe Smith who maintained that working on it was as safe as on the straightest tower.

Smith was a courageous, some would say foolhardy climber. There was the famous time on John Bright’s birthday, when he climbed the 265 feet of the wooden spire of the old Town Hall in order to fix an 18 foot banner on the statue of St George which stood at the top. Records suggest that Joe scaled up the lightning rod before climbing onto the shoulders of St George with the flag.

Although Smith never had an accident in all his years as a steeplejack, others were not so careful. On one occasion he was working at the top of a chimney on Sutcliffe’s Corn Mill when his workmate tripped and started to fall over the edge.  His reflexes and strength being what they were, Smith grabbed him by the ankle and held him but the other man struggled in panic so much that Smith had to hit him with a crowbar before lowering the groggy man to safety with a rope.

Alongside his work as a steeplejack, Joe Smith also was employed in entertainment, being proprietor and manager of the Circus/Hippodrome in Rochdale and also director of the Bolton Theatre Co Ltd. Furthermore, he was one of the earliest hot air balloonists. Celebrated in 1898 by a book written about him – ‘The Lancashire Steeplejack’ – Smith played up to his local fame by travelling about the country in a luxurious Pullman coach. He died in 1903 at the age of 50 of a heart attack following pneumonia but had he been alive today, no doubt Joe Smith, the Rochdale steeplejack, would have had a TV series, best-selling books and would have achieved national treasure status.   

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