AN ORGANISED group of lead-thieves is thought to be behind 12 attacks on 11 church roofs in Somerset over the past month.
The incidents have lead the incumbent of one church affected to call for a serious rethink of the planning and heritage regulations that require listed buildings to have stolen lead replaced with the same material.
“Why are we putting something of value and so easily removable on our roofs?” the Rector of St Andrew & St Mary, Pitminster, near Taunton, the Revd Jim Fallon, asked. The Grade I church was targeted twice in 12 days.
“That’s what the church has got to be thinking about,” he continued. “My community are saying to me that we must remove the reason thieves are attracted to our church roof. Let’s stop the stupidity about this. Let’s stop putting a valuable commodity on our roof when there are very practical and innovative roofing materials now.
“We used lead hundreds of years ago because we didn’t have anything else. Today, there are modern alternatives that even look like lead. It is our community that has to raise the money, and they are not going to do it for someone to come along and steal it again in a month’s time.
“The churches are waking up to this, but it’s the planning and heritage people who are asleep.”
Bath & Wells diocese estimates the total cost to replace the churches’ lead at around £95,000, and puts overall roof repairs, excluding damage to interiors, at £350,000. The thieves have attacked the roofs on stormy nights, so that noise is covered up. Once the lead has gone, rain has penetrated the buildings and caused huge damage.
In a statement, Historic England said that it “fully appreciates the frustration and damage caused by crimes affecting historic places of worship, particularly metal theft”.
It continued: “When lead or copper roof coverings have been stolen, we understand it may be too risky to replace with the same materials. We have found that the most appropriate and long-lasting alternative is terne-coated stainless steel; although for some buildings zinc, slates, or tiles may be options. A good specification and experienced contractors are key to ensuring the performance of the replacement roof covering.
John WhittakerBuilders cover the roof of St Mary and St Andrew, Pitminster
“We have commissioned technical guidance about using terne-coated stainless steel for church roofs to address commonly raised questions.”
The Church Buildings Adviser for Bath & Wells diocese, Emma Brown, said: “It is important that parishes are supported after lead theft, as the consequences to the building and community are significant and far-reaching. We are working with insurers, police, and local authorities to enable parishes to recover, make repairs to their building, and to combat this heartless organised crime.”
Mr Fallon is still awaiting a repairs estimate for his church, but expects it to run well into five figures. The thieves removed all the lead from the south aisle of the 12th-century church in the early hours of 27 February and returned on Monday to strip the north aisle.
“It was heartbreaking” he said. “You could see daylight through the wooden roof-slats. There is lot of water damage internally as it rained for two days afterwards.
“It seems to be a pattern developing across the diocese. They strike early in the morning; they move very quickly: I reckon they can do it in less than half an hour. They know what they are doing. This is a well-organised, planned attack on our churches; it’s not a local thing.”
Neighbours disturbed the second attack on St Mary and St Andrew, Pitminster, and the thieves fled empty-handed. “The community talks about feeling violated: it is that serious,” Mr Fallon said. “The real damage is to the parishioners who have been worshipping there and the local people who care about the church. They are really distraught. It hits deep.
“But good comes out of bad; communities rally; they pull people together. The response has been very positive, which keeps my energy going.”
On Thursday of last week, Grade I listed St Peter and St Paul, South Petherton, was targeted, but the thieves were disturbed by the churchwarden Steve Harrison, who had been alerted by a neighbour.
“I made my presence well and truly announced, driving round with my headlights on and flashing a torch, as I didn’t know if I was going to meet a problem or not,” he said. “They realised they had been rumbled and scarpered. We reckon about 90 square metres was stripped over the south aisle. The lead was recovered, but it’s no use to us now: the only thing we can do is sell it for scrap, which is a long way short of what it will cost to replace.”
John WhittakerThe Revd Jim Fallon (right) and John Whittaker cover the organ in St Mary and St Andrew, Pitminster
He praised the “army” of people who arrived with mops and buckets, and the builder who had secured the roof with a plastic cover by mid-afternoon, so that the church was ready for the Sunday service.
“We had lots of messages of support, you would not believe how important that is to buoying our spirits, and offers of practical help and fund-raising,” he said. “You realise there is an affection for the church which is felt by all sorts of people. That is quite humbling.”
The other nine churches in the diocese which have been targeted were the Blessed Virgin Mary and All Saints, Meare, near Glastonbury; St Martin’s, Kingsbury Episcopi; Holy Cross, Middlezoy; the Blessed Virgin Mary, Barrington; St John’s, Wellington; St Edward’s, Goathurst; St Giles’s, Bradford-on-Tone; St Thomas à Becket, South Cadbury; and St Peter’s, Ilton.
Chief Inspector Martyn Cannon of Avon and Somerset Policesaid: “These incidents can cause a lot of distress to communities. Officers have been visiting churches to provide reassurance and security advice around CCTV to try to prevent further thefts. We would ask the public to be vigilant and report any suspicious behaviour.”
Information and advice can be found at historicengland.org.uk/advice/caring-for-heritage/places-of-worship/places-of-worship-at-risk/metal-theft.