Metal Theft and the Conservation of Historic Buildings and Monuments

by Jonathan Hurst

Members of the Lutyens Trust will, no doubt, have read and heard much on this topic in the news lately. Much of the reporting on the television and in national newspapers has been connected to the theft of signal cable on the railway or telephone cable from streets, both of which have caused serious inconvenience. At a more local level it has related to the theft of lead from church roofs or bronze plaques from war and other memorials – such as that described by Derek Lutyens in the Summer 2011 newsletter.

This increase in what has been, in the past, a relatively minor, low-level crime is reported to be the result of the currently high value of scrap metal which, in turn is reported to be the result of rapidly increasing demand from the emerging economies industrialising at a major rate. Thus it is not only lead and bronze which is being stolen but also cast iron drain and manhole covers from roads, copper central heating pipe from building sites and compressed gas cylinders from wholesale depots and agricultural businesses.

Why should this matter, in particular to members of the Lutyens Trust – beyond being deplorable in a general sense? It is because historic buildings and monuments, including those designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, are particularly vulnerable to the theft of lead and copper sheet from roofs, of bronze and other metal plaques and lettering and of cast iron rainwater goods and wrought iron hinges etc. The result is not only the loss of original historic fabric from the building or monument (and the effect that this can have upon the insurance premiums subsequently – a real problem for some church congregations) but the very serious possibility of major damage being caused during the theft. The thieves usually work quickly, ripping lead or copper sheet from roofs without the slightest care and can cause damage to ancient timbers, expose structures to rain damage in the aftermath, break stained glass gaining access or damage the stonework of a War Memorial by chiselling off plaques or individual names of the fallen.

The matter has now become so serious that politicians and police are starting to think about what can be done to prevent these thefts. English Heritage has recently replaced its 2008 Guidance Note “Theft of Metal from Church Buildings” with an updated edition from September 2011. The Public Policy Exchange, in partnership with the centre for Parliamentary Studies and the Government Gazette, is holding a symposium in March 2012 entitled “Detection and Prevention : Working in partnership to tackle Metal Theft and other Environmental Crime”. The War Memorials Trust has also launched a campaign called “In Memoriam 2014” to offer greater protection to memorials by forensically marking them with ‘Smart Water’. Efforts are being directed towards considering the scrap metal industry and its practices as a whole as well as alerting owners and custodians of historic buildings and monuments to best practice in prevention of this type of crime.

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Jonathan Hurst