PETER WITHERS is one of a kind—literally.
The larger-than-life 68-year-old is WA’s last master steeplejack; the bloke they send up to repair or build the state’s industrial chimneys and church steeples.
The Chook spotted Mr Withers halfway up the old Robb Jetty abattoir chimney in North Coogee this week, his bosun’s chair an indicator of an old-school approach to the job as modern steeplejacks tend towards light-weight abseiling gear.
“I’ve been doing it 53 years!” his voice booms down.
Mr Withers adeptly descends the chimney’s ladders to continue the interview, the boom barely dipping at ground level.
State-owned developer LandCorp asked him to repair the chimney’s tuck-pointing and metal bands, with a couple rusting and falling away, he says. It’s in preparation for the massive housing development LandCorp is in the process of getting through planning authorities.
The job will take about 40 working days, with Perth’s scorching hot days about the only thing that puts him off.
“When my hat blows off, it’s time to call it a day—it’s only fallen off three times in 53 years,” he says of the strong winds he encounters in his high-altitude calling.
It’s not the first time he’s repaired the chimney, as he worked on it while the abattoir was still operating and later after the site was taken over by WA’s heritage council.
The council insisted he use the same lime mortar as the chimney was built with, but he’s now happy LandCorp’s given him free rein and he’s tuck-pointing with cement, which he says will last much longer.
Mr Withers says when the abattoir closed the chimney was to be demolished, but it was on too many shipping charts as a landmark and would have needed to be replaced, so the government of the day decided it would be cheaper to simply keep and maintain.
Mr Withers did his apprenticeship in his English home of Bradford, and the craft took him around the world before he moved to Australia in the 1970s.
And while the thought of scaling the chimney induced winces from the Chook’s vertigo-suffering reporter, the steeplejack says it’s just a piddling little structure.
“I worked for a German company doing cooling towers on power stations. We wouldn’t touch anything less than 500 feet (152m),” he says with a cheeky smile.
So what will happen to the state’s chimneys when he retires, given he looks after Cockburn Cement and much of Kwinana.
“I don’t give a fat rat’s arse,” he says—a couple of times.
He’s expecting a Chinese buyer will make a bid for the business, but only as a means of getting a business visa.
Despite this, being the only person in WA with the qualifications, he reckons being a steeplejack is “a licence to print money”.
by STEVE GRANT