CHURCHES are being urged to take measures to combat the theft of stone from their buildings, after a rise in the number of such incidents in recent months.
The leading church insurer Ecclesiastical blamed an increase in the value of stone, sparked by a rise in its popularity as a decorative feature for homes and other buildings.
Thieves are becoming bolder. Earlier this year, they stole an unusual stone — originally part of a Saxon cross dating from the late eighth or early ninth century — from inside All Saints’, Hovingham, in North Yorkshire. Despite its weight, police believe that the thief simply picked it up from a window recess, where it had rested for decades, and walked out to a waiting vehicle.
Thieves are also better organised: at a churchyard in West Yorkshire, sections of a York-stone-flagged pathway were removed in one night.
“Taking large quantities of what is a very heavy product suggests that they were organised,” a spokeswoman for Ecclesiastical said. “Extra precautions have now been taken by the church to avoid a repeat theft.”
Thieves are also more selective, leaving damaged or cracked stones behind.
The risk-management director at Ecclesiastical, Mark Matthews, said: “It is very disappointing to see thefts of stone from consecrated grounds without consideration of the damage or cost being inflicted on the church.”
The company wants churches to mark all stone in their grounds with SmartWater, a uniquely coded forensic liquid which has already been used successfully to identify stolen lead. It is almost impossible to remove, enabling stolen materials to be linked back to their owner.
Mr Matthews said: “SmartWater has already played a role in reducing thefts, and was crucial in recently reducing incidents of stone theft in West Yorkshire, a region specifically affected by this issue. We consider this to be a real benefit to our customers.”
He suggested that churches review their security procedures and take appropriate precautions. That includes asking neighbours to keep a watch on church premises, reporting any suspicious activity to the police, and noting vehicle registration numbers. They should also inform neighbours of any building work being done at the church; so, if thieves posing as contractors arrive unexpectedly, they can be checked.
When churches are closed, perimeter gates should be locked, too; and signs announcing the use of SmartWater displayed prominently. Mr Matthews also urged householders buying stone to ensure that it came from reputable sources.
In June, the Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice and Victims, Mike Penning, told the House of Commons that stone theft was reaching “epidemic” levels in parts of Britain, and should be treated as a serious organised crime. He said that specialist prosecutors would soon bring “high-profile” cases against stone-thieves, who had switched their activities after a government crackdown on the scrap-metal trade.
The MP for Colne Valley, in West Yorkshire, Jason McCartney, told the House that 132 places of worship in the Kirklees district had been robbed over the past three years. He called for a “dedicated stone-theft taskforce”, and larger fines.
Tanked-up churches at risk of theft
PARISHES taking advantage of cheaper summer oil prices to top up their church central-heating fuel may unwittingly be offering thieves a tempting target.
Often, the first indication that a theft has taken place is when the cold weather starts, and the church heating system fails to work. “The assumption is often that the boiler is at fault,” a spokeswoman for the specialist insurer Ecclesiastical said, “but regrettably the problem is often, simply, no oil.”
Claims this year are averaging about £1000, but Ecclesiastical’s Heritage Property specialist, Andrew Brown, said that the largest claim it had handled recently was for almost £55,000, after the burner had been stolen from a church’s oil-fired boiler. “The crude method used caused extensive contamination damage to the church building,” he said.
Ecclesiastical has a list of possible deterrents, such as:
• Monitor the level of oil in your tank regularly.
• Conceal the location of the tank by using hedging, fencing, or walling.
• Securely lock doors at all times if the tank is situated within a building.
• Install security lighting to cover the tank if the churchyard is overlooked.
• Ask neighbours to be vigilant and report suspicious activity to police.
• Encourage visits to the church, which reduces the time available to thieves.