The gang of four men swiped lead from more than 20 churches over a two-year period

Specialist insurer Ecclesiastical is urging churches to take preventative measures following a spree of lead thefts, worth up to £2m in damages, to remote countryside churches.

Four men were sentenced at Lincoln Crown Court on Wednesday 6 January for a total of 19 years for a series of lead thefts from more than 20 churches across the UK, including in Lincolnshire, Leicester, Wiltshire and Yorkshire.

These thefts, which occurred between 2018 and 2020, affected centuries-old and Grade I-listed buildings.

Jo Whyman, risk management director at Ecclesiastical, said: “We’re pleased that this prosecution has been successful and hope it serves as a deterrent to would-be criminals. This is a timely reminder that the theft of metal is an ongoing issue and the knock-on effects can be huge.

“There is a risk that the continuing economic downturn in the UK could see an increase in theft of metal from buildings such as churches, which is why it is vital that they take steps to protect their premises from unscrupulous offenders.”

Not just bricks and mortar

The damage to church buildings caused by metal theft is costly, but there is also a detrimental impact on church communities.

Whyman continued: “Our sympathies go out to those churches who have been victims of metal theft.

“It isn’t just the physical damage that takes place when these crimes are committed. Churches aren’t just about bricks and mortar; it’s about the people and the communities they represent.

“In many cases, lead is stripped without churches knowing, which leads to further issues with water ingress into the exposed roof, causing even more damage than the theft itself and preventing churchgoers from attending, which can be devastating.”

Ecclesiastical has suggested the following prevention measures:

  • Installing security lights.
  • CCTV.
  • Roof alarms.
  • Marking metal with a forensic security marking system, such as Smartwater – this proved vital in supporting Lincolnshire Constabulary’s prosecution of the gang.

Ecclesiastical is involved with OPAL – a national intelligence unit for Serious Organised Acquisitive Crime (SOAC) based within the West Mercia Police, which helps to deal with the ongoing threat of metal theft.

Historic England is also involved with OPAL.

Mark Harrison, head of heritage crime strategy at Historic England, said: “At Historic England, we are working with partners to assess the scale of the metal theft problem across the country and develop a coordinated national approach to protect those churches at the highest risk of crime.

“This includes training local police teams and law enforcement agencies to identify stolen heritage metal when on duty [and] encouraging scrap metal dealers, smelters and salvage yards to contact the authorities when offered suspected stolen materials.”