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Working high overhead: Steeplejacks

Published: 15 December 2021

Photographs in the Daily Herald Archive help us understand how tradespeople shaped 20th-century Britain. In this story, we explore images of steeplejacks—workers with specialised knowledge of how to work high overhead.

During the 20th century, expanding cities, new technologies, and changing lifestyles generated demand for new housing, offices and infrastructure—increasingly built to towering proportions. The booming construction industry depended on skilled workers capable of navigating great heights.

The photographs in this story, taken from the Daily Herald Archive, showcase the skills of the workers-on-high who continue to meet the labour demands imposed by towering buildings and monumental structures. Named for their historical role maintaining ecclesiastical buildings, ‘steeplejacks’ are the skilled tradespeople who assess, maintain and construct tall buildings, structures and towers.

What is the Daily Herald Archive?

The Daily Herald was a British national newspaper published between 1912 and 1964. At one point, it was the top-selling newspaper in the world, with a monthly circulation of more than 2 million.

Every photograph and negative taken for the newspaper was stored in a picture library, categorised and filed for easy access should they ever be needed again. This amazing collection—comprising 3.5 million photographs, contact sheets and glass negatives—is the Daily Herald Archive, which we now care for at the National Science and Media Museum here in Bradford.

This story is based on a selection of images from the archive.

What are steeplejacks?

The steeplejack trade has been around for a long time—since at least the 11th century if the Bayeux Tapestry is any indication.

Bayeux Tapestry, Scene 26, Edward's funeral

Look closely. Can you see the figure scaling the church to affix a weathervane to the top of the steeple in the ‘Return’ scene?

Steeplejacks are named for their work on church spires and the high towers of civic buildings. Their work is widely varied, including everything from constructing new structures to maintenance, repair, and specialised restorations. Steeplejacks are even involved in demolition work. The skill that unites this trade is knowledge of how to perform a diverse array of tasks at great heights.

Take the steeplejack shown in the photograph below. He scaled the steeple of Chigwell Parish Church, Essex, because the weathercock needed re-gilding. While aloft, he discovered an infestation of deathwatch beetles and ended up doing an extermination job as well.

A steeplejack treats infested woodwork on Chigwell Parish Church © Hulton Archive/Getty Images
A steeplejack treats infested woodwork on Chigwell Parish Church, Essex, 1938

Tools of the trade

Until well into the 20th century, steeplejacks were mainly itinerant labourers who relied on acrobatic skills and a bit of showmanship to earn their livings. Check out W.E. Mackney performing for the crowd in the first photograph below! At 15st 3lb, he claimed to be the heaviest man in the world to climb the flagstaff at Westminster Abbey.

21st-century steeplejacks benefit from new materials and equipment to make their work safer, but the basic tools of their trade remain recognisable. These include:

  • Systems of ladders and ropes that are lashed to ‘dogs’. Dogs are metal hooks that can be driven into a structure as anchors. In the second photograph below, two steeplejacks use the tools of their trade—a ladder affixed to the roof with dogs—to replace the weathercock on St James’ Church, Bristol.
  • Scaffolding, simple or elaborate, that can be used as a foothold or suspension point. In the third photograph below, two steeplejacks are standing braced on simple wood scaffolding while demolishing the St Mary Magdalene church steeple at Colchester, Essex.
  • Bosun’s chairs suspended from buildings, ladders or scaffolding. In the fourth photograph below, a steeplejack adjusts the ropes of his bosun’s chair to scale the Victoria Tower flagpole at the Houses of Parliament, London.

Tools of the trade - gallery

Technical innovations

Steeplejack testing a bosun's chair © Hulton Archive/Getty Images
George Gale tests a new type of bosun’s chair, 1955

While the tools of the steeplejack trade may remain recognisable, there have been innovations along the way to make a dangerous job safer. Like this bosun’s chair.

In the photo on the right, George Gale tests a new type of bosun’s chair. The chair was commissioned by A.E. Beaumont (of the Brixton-based steeplejack firm of the same name) in collaboration with the British Standards Institution. Instead of a simple wooden seat suspended from ropes affixed to each corner, the new chair featured an enclosed ‘cradle’ and safety straps.

In the 21st century, lightweight abseil equipment has largely replaced bosun’s chairs.

From churches to chimneys

Fuelled by the industrial boom of the 19th century, factories, power stations and other sites of industry required workers capable of navigating great heights. It wasn’t glamorous, but steeplejacks increasingly found steady employment on chimneys.

The brickwork chimneys that were typical of Britain’s industrial age, for example, needed near-constant upkeep. Brickwork needed repointing to prevent water damage and damaged bricks, at any height, needed replacement.

When a chimney reached the end of its life, wrecking balls were unnecessary if an experienced steeplejack was available. Attentive to local conditions, the steeplejack could carve a hole in the bricks at the base and set a fire to bring the chimney down in a controlled demolition.

Chimneys - gallery

Even after concrete replaced brick as the favoured medium for building chimneys, steeplejacks were in demand for essential maintenance.

The men in the photos below are painting the four chimneys of Battersea Power Station, London. Each chimney requires a 110-gallon coat of a special rubberised paint that must be applied every 5 years as essential protection from the weather. In the first photo, 49-year-old steeplejack Harry Walker is completing the essential work on a tight schedule. He told reporter Peter Batt of the Daily Herald:

The job was due to start the day after I got married—so I had to postpone my honeymoon and spend it up the chimney instead... It could have been worse. At least the view is nice.

Daily Herald (24 October 1962)

Three weeks later, the project finished ‘bang on schedule’, and Harry headed off for a honeymoon in Somerset.

Chimneys - gallery 2

Post-war reconstruction

Damages sustained during the Second World War fuelled the building industry to new heights.

For steeplejacks, bomb damage meant highly skilled restorations. The steeplejacks in the first two photographs below are at work on the Albert Memorial in London, repairing damage to the statue of the prince consort and inspecting the lightning rod on top of one of the columns.

Steeplejacks continue to clean and perform regular maintenance on the monuments that survived the war intact—a job that is far from mundane when completed from a bosun’s chair hundreds of feet in the air!

The steeplejacks in the third and fourth photos below are busy cleaning Big Ben, 316ft (96m) above Parliament Square in London. It took this team eight days to clean all four of the faces, each of which is 23ft (7m) in diameter.

Post-war - gallery

Steeplejacks at work

Steeplejack reaches new heights of fame

Lancashire-born steeplejack Fred Dibnah became a television personality after being featured in a BBC documentary in 1978.

Growing up amid the industrial landscape of Bolton, Dibnah could reportedly count 200 chimneys from a vantage point in his hometown—prime sites for a steeplejack to cut his teeth. In this short film on the BBC Archive website, you can watch Dibnah climb a chimney and describe his work.

Cleaning Big Ben

Cleaning Big Ben is too expensive to undertake frequently. In 1980, the BBC’s Peter Duncan undertook a daring ‘Blue Peter mission’ and joined the team of steeplejacks cleaning Big Ben for the first time since the 1950s. You can watch the clip, Blue Peter – Big Ben is Cleaned’, on the BBC Archive website. The video footage might be in colour, but their approach remains the same!

‘Plenty of room at the top’: Training new recruits

In 1964, Jack Lucas of the Daily Herald reported:

Buildings get taller, factory chimneys outclimb each other all the time. There are 650ft ones being built, and 1,000ft ones are on the drawing boards. But there are not enough steeplejacks to keep up with them. There is, so to speak, plenty of room at the top.

Daily Herald (30 June 1964)

A Brixton-based steeplejack firm, F.E. Beaumont, tried to answer shortages in the 1960s with a new training school. Founded in the 1880s, Beaumont’s had an 80-year history with only three fatal falls—an impressive safety record that they hoped to pass on to the next generation of steeplejacks through their new school.

Students in the new programme started in the classroom and made use of mocked-up steeples and chimneys to learn the basics of ladders, bosun’s chairs, and safety equipment. By the end of the new five-year apprenticeship, students could anticipate climbing the 365ft (111m) St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Daily Herald article titled 'The men on their way up' by Jack Lucas, reporting on Beaumont's school for steeplejacks © Reach PLC. Image created courtesy of The British Library Board
‘The men on their way up’ by Jack Lucas, Daily Herald, 30 June 1964

In the 21st century, many UK-based steeplejacks are members of the industry association ATLAS (Association of Technical Lightning and Access Specialists). Founded in 1946, ATLAS provides guidance best practices, technical skills, and health and safety standards.

Next time you’re walking in a city, remember to look up. You just might spot a steeplejack working high overhead!