Historic properties are being urged to take steps to prevent being victims of crime following a spate of thefts from churches and stately homes.
The warnings come as the UK’s National Intelligence Unit for Serious Organised Acquisitive Crime (OPAL) reported a spate of incidents in the theft of York Stone from properties in the North of England.
York stone can sell for up to £85 per square yard and some may be stolen to order, police said. Police chiefs have warned homeowners looking for “weathered” stone for their patios or driveways that they may be using stolen chunks of Britain’s heritage.
Speaking to The Times, senior police officers said that they wanted to see stone traders and architectural salvage businesses regulated in the same way as metal dealers to help them crack down on “heritage crime”, which can carry longer sentences than other thefts.
Rachel Nolan, assistant chief constable at Essex police and lead officer for heritage crime at the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said: “There is no regulatory framework to control the trade in stone, so the potential for unscrupulous trading is greater.”
According to data from Ecclesiastical’s claims team over £400,000 worth of claims have been made relating to the theft of stone from historic churchyards and buildings since 2015. Since 2016 the value of claims made by churches and historic properties for the theft of slabs made from York, Portland or Cotswold stone has doubled.
Throughout December 2020 and January 2021 a series of thefts affected historical properties including St. Leonard’s Church in Middleton, St. Mary’s Church in Prestwich, both in Greater Manchester and Hopwood Hall Estate, a Grade II listed building also in Middleton, where paving slabs worth thousands of pounds were stolen.
The Rev Sonya Doragh, vicar of Christ Church in Eccleston, Lancashire, said her church lost 40 slabs of York stone in Spring 2020, resulting in “grief and horror” in the parish. She said: “They took more or less the whole pathway. The church is like our second home and those stones are a really important place where people gather at pivotal points in life’s journey.
“The local community has been fantastic, a toddler group sent us flowers which does lift the spirits somewhat despite being a victim of theft. We will be having the slabs replaced as we were insured, but will be using a cheaper alternative.”
Stone was stolen from the church of St Mary in the Baum, in Rochdale, once last year and twice so far in 2021. Valerie Leach, of the church council, said: “The church was built in 1711 so that’s how long those stones had been there.”
The Rev Shaun Conlon said that the repair bill at St Mary’s in Prestwich, Greater Manchester, would run into “thousands” after its slabs were taken early this year.
Since 2015 there have been more than 180 claims for stone theft made to Ecclesiastical at a total value of £428,000. More than 83 per cent were made by churches.
In 2019-20 37 claims were made to Ecclesiastical by churches, worth just over £70,000 and were made by churches who had been victims of stone theft, an average cost of £2,000 per claim.
However, private properties have also been targeted and in October 2020 a 16th Century property in Surrey was targeted by thieves who forced open gates before removing a large volume of York stone paving slabs causing £32,000 of damage.
Ecclesiastical Insurance is warning historical locations to take steps such as using SmartWater to deter criminals and help tracing stolen goods in the event of a theft.
Jo Whyman, Risk Management Director at specialist insurers Ecclesiastical Insurance, said: “The threat of metal theft from churches and historical properties has been well documented but over the last four years the value of claims for theft of stone has doubled.
“This recent surge in theft of stone is certainly something we have a growing concern about and there is a real 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, the history linked to their location is lost for future generations as well.
“Our advice to heritage properties would be to review their security measures in place and to mark slabs and other stone on their properties with a forensic security marking solution, such as SmartWater, to help deter thieves and safeguard their property.”
Tips from Ecclesiastical Insurance’s Risk Management team on how to protect properties from stone theft:
- Reviewing security to the churchyard perimeter. Ensure all gates are locked when the church is locked.
- Mark all stonework with SmartWater and make sure the product is registered.
- Ensure SmartWater signage that comes with the kit is displayed prominently – this acts as a deterrent for would-be thieves.
- Work with local police and ask local police community support officer to include the church in their daily duties.
- Share actions with local press to spread the story to act as a deterrent.
More guidance on how to protect properties from stone theft is available at the Ecclesiastical website.