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Thefts of costly paving stones in north-west angers communities

04 March 2022

Staffordshire Police

The path leading to All Saints’, Grindon, after the thieves had made off with many of the slab-stones

The path leading to All Saints’, Grindon, after the thieves had made off with many of the slab-stones

A SPATE of paving-stone thefts from church properties in the north-west has left communities outraged and aggrieved.

Valuable York-stone slabs were stolen from Ormskirk Parish Church, in Lancashire, in the early hours of 16 February. The next night, similar stones disappeared from All Saints’, Grindon, in Staffordshire.

Three weeks earlier, on 24 January, St Cuthbert’s, Halsall — just three miles from Ormskirk — had been raided. The cost of replacing the stones at St Cuthbert’s is estimated to be £13,000.

Such “heritage crimes” have prompted fears at other churches in the area with paths made from the same material.

Police have recommended the installation of lighting and security cameras, and the use of SmartWater identification marks that show up under ultraviolet light. Such measures could deter thieves, as well as make it easier to identify and recover stolen goods.

PC Tony Finneron, of the Staffordshire Moorlands Local Policing Team, is encouraging those whose churches are at risk to contact local police to discuss what measures to take.

Ecclesiastical Insurance echoed this advice. Ecclesiastical’s risk-management director, Jo Whyman, said: “We’ve seen a marked increase in stone theft from heritage buildings, and in particular churches, in recent years — often within a relatively small geographical area.”

Mr Wyman continued: “There is a risk that the continuing economic downturn in the UK could see an increase in historic properties’ being targeted by unscrupulous thieves.

“In many cases, this historic stonework is irreplaceable, meaning that not only is there the financial cost associated with replacing the materials, but the history linked to their location is lost for future generations as well.”

The Priest-in-Charge of Ormskirk, the Revd Pauline Bicknell, said that the theft had affected people in the town. “People were quite distressed,” she said, and offers of help had been received.

“Having to spend time and money replacing the slabs means we can’t do other things, such as develop the church as a heritage venue, as well as complete some essential maintenance on the brickwork,” Ms Bicknell said.

The treasurer of St Cuthbert’s, Halsall, Colin Throp, said that the church was having to bear increased costs for security systems that had previously not been considered necessary.

Besides the financial implications and emotional distress of being victim of a raid, both churches have also had to deal with the entrance routes into church being upended.

In Ormskirk, a funeral took place on the same day as the dawn raid. “It made access to the church exceedingly difficult for the pallbearers and the congregation,” Ms Bicknell said. The funeral directors had to lift the bier over the ruined path, she said.

In Halsall, where almost 100 flagstones were taken, Mr Throp said that wedding couples had complained that the decimated path would spoil their photographs, and that the bride’s dress would drag across the exposed earth.

Christ Church, Eccleston, which lies ten miles south of Ormskirk and Halsall, has been raided twice for Yorkstone slabs during the past six years, most recently in February 2020.

Jeff Rimmer, lay chair of the church council, said that passers-by had seen the thieves in action, but had assumed that they were builders.

He said, however, that the crimes had brought out the best in the community. After the Team Vicar had put the news out on Facebook, a paver in Liverpool had offered to lay the replacement stones free of charge.

“It’s amazing how generous people can be,” Mr Rimmer said. “People are horrified when things happen to churches, even if they don’t attend.”

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