AN ORGANISED gang of safecrackers are believed to be responsible for burglaries around England which have netted church silver worth tens of thousands of pounds.
Over nine days last month, thieves targeted two neighbouring churches in Suffolk, one in Dorset, and another in Lancashire. They shut down alarms and CCTV by cutting electric cables, used angle grinders to cut out door locks, and then drilled out the locks of safes intended to keep the silver — some of it of great historic value — safe.
At Lady St Mary, Wareham, in Dorset, the drills failed; so the thieves used explosives to force open the vestry safe. They took 26 pieces of communion plate, including a rare Elizabeth I chalice, valued at £30,000. “Our community has been greatly upset by this,” the Team Rector in the Wareham Team Ministry, Canon Simon Everett, said. “It has been in the church almost 500 years, and it has gone missing on our watch. There is anger, there is rage. Some people were in tears. It’s all really dramatic. You don’t expect explosives being used to open safes in darkest Dorset.
“They were very discerning: they only took solid silver and left the silver plate. It’s a great desecration in my eyes, but at least they didn’t trash the place, or set it on fire, which has happened elsewhere.”
Among the items taken was a Charles II chalice, valued at about £8000, and an elaborate Victorian chalice decorated with garnets and belonging to another church in the benefice — St Nicholas’s, at Arne — which was stored for safety at St Mary’s. Also taken were several silver ciboriums, patens, a wine flagon, and a pyx.
“The big question is: what are they going to do with it?” Canon Everett said. “There isn’t very much value as melted silver: the value is in their antiquity; but who are they going to sell it to? No UK collector or trader would touch it; so it must be someone abroad.”
In the Suffolk raids, the thieves stole a Victorian cross and a lectern from St Mary’s, Burstall, near Ipswich; and candlesticks, vases, and candelabra from St Michael’s, near by in Woolverstone.
In Lancashire, the criminals drilled out the locks on two safes in St Mary’s, Goosnargh, near Preston, to steal cash and what police describe as “multiple silverware items of significant value”.
A spokeswoman for Lancashire Constabulary said: “We are aware that there have been burglaries at churches in other parts of the country, and we are linked in with the forces involved. We ask antiques dealers and those attending antiques fairs and auctions to be vigilant with regards to property which might have been stolen in burglaries at churches.”
Dorset police appealed for anyone who has come across silverware offered for sale, locally or online, in suspicious circumstances to contact them.
Ecclesiastical Insurance’s claims director, Jeremy Trott, said: “We’ve been contacted by a number of customers regarding thefts from their churches recently, and our specialist claims team has been supporting them during this undoubtedly difficult time.”
He advised churches to keep valuables in a high-quality modern safe in a secure area of the church, or off-site in a location approved by insurers. “The impact on the church congregation, as well as the loss of history when these items are stolen, can’t be overstated.”