Battle to save historic treasures from modern-day vandal and his henchmen

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With heritage crime threatening some of Yorkshire’s most important buildings, Sarah Freeman reports on the criminals targeting the past.

Historic graveyards are not an obvious target for criminal gangs.

However, at some point in the last week, most likely in the middle of the night, the 400-year-old Yorkshire chapel where the Brontë sisters were baptised became a scene of crime.

The evidence suggest this was no mindless act of vandalism. With centuries-old gravestones ripped up from the cemetery, along with stones from the chapel walls and a nearby footpath, it appeared a carefully planned operation.

It was a group of volunteers, some of whom have spent more than a decade restoring the site, who first discovered the damage and while the cost is estimated at thousands of pounds, the grave slabs are in truth irreplaceable.

Police condemned the incident as “despicable” and, given the chapel’s connection to the Brontës, their appeal for information was widely publicised. However, those behind a scheme to raise awareness of the growing problem of heritage crime know that many other similar incidents often go unreported.

The Alliance to Reduce Crime Against Heritage (Arch) was set up to assess the impact of crime on some of the country’s valuable assets and its early findings suggest the problem is worse than anyone first thought.

According to ARCH’s most recent figures, more than 70,000 listed buildings were targeted by criminals last year, with the number of incidents estimated at around 200 a day.

And Yorkshire, where more than a fifth of properties have been damaged, is worryingly near the top of the league. Following the theft of stone from St James’ Church in Thornton, Ann Dinsdale, acting director of the Brontë Society, said: “I just don’t know how you go about educating people that this is a part of their heritage they are destroying.” It’s a problem Chief Inspector Mark Harrison hopes ARCH will help to address.

“Heritage crime encompasses everything from anti-social behaviour and mindless vandalism to metal theft and the deliberate raiding of archaeological sites,” says the organisation’s policing adviser. “Historically crimes have been dealt with on an individual basis and one of the reasons for setting up ARCH was to piece together a national picture of just how some of our most important buildings and ancient sites are being damaged by crime.

“Our initial survey showed just how widespread the problem is and now we have an accurate picture of what is happening we can start to do something about it.”

In recent years metal theft has been a particular cause for concern, with three in eight churches and religious buildings having been targeted by thieves. Last year, when an average of seven churches a day were reporting incidents to the police, insurer Ecclesiastical was prompted to launch its own Hands Off Our Church Roof campaign.

The company provided £500,000 to install alarms free of charge at some of the most badly affected churches and this week claimed a victory in the battle against metal theft, with figures showing the number of claims had dropped by 60 per cent.

Ecclesiastical said it had received just over 650 claims from January to July this year, compared with more than 1,600 in the same period in 2011. The figures were welcome news for organisations such as ARCH. However, many fear the drop may a short-term blip rather than long-term decline and, as the incident at the churchyard in Thornton showed, criminals are always on the lookout for the next lucrative haul.

Last summer Monk Bretton Priory in Barnsley was forced to close temporarily after it was targeted repeatedly by vandals. Thieves stole items from the Grade I listed building, which dates back to the 13th century and, like many similar properties, installing the kind of security systems necessary to prevent further incidents can run into thousands of pounds.

Just down the road from the priory, Bishops’ House in Sheffield was forced to look again at its own security set-up when it was subject to an arson attack. It was left with no option but to install costly CCTV cameras and consider putting a fence around the half-timbered structure.

“These aren’t isolated incidents,” says Chief Insp Harrison. “Up and down the country some of our most important buildings are being damaged and if we aren’t vigilant there is a real chance that the future of these sites could be under threat.”

Police were forced to step up patrols after considerable damage was caused to Roman stonework at Scarborough Castle earlier this year. During the incident thieves removed metal signposts from the site, which has repeatedly been the target of anti-social behaviour.

“It is sad that people feel the need to destroy something which has stood for many hundreds of years and which contributes to the culture and economy of the area,” says Chief Insp Harrison. “One of the initiatives we are promoting as part of the ARCH scheme is the importance of impact statements when cases come to court.

“These are not just about detailing the financial cost of repairing the damage, but also the wider impact that these crimes have.”

As well as covering historic buildings, ARCH’s remit extends to scheduled ancient monuments, shipwrecks and conservation areas. In the summer the Peak District, home to just under 3,000 listed buildings, became the first national park to sign the Heritage Crime Enforcement memorandum, a new agreement between English Heritage, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to address the problem.

And earlier this month York Minster became one of the most high-profile organisations in the country to sign up to the scheme. Towards the end of last year brass plaques were stolen, one from the nearby statue of the Roman emperor Constantine and another that commemorated a visit by the Queen.

“It is incredibly frustrating when something like that happens,” says Rebecca Thompson, superintendent of works at the minster. “The minster has its own police officers and we are fortunate to be able to afford a rigorous security system, but vandals will still sometimes find a way to cause damage.

“Recently we had a couple of incidents of graffiti at the minster and also Clifford’s Tower. The person responsible spray-painted their Twitter address on the stonework so they weren’t too difficult to track down, but that kind of mindless vandalism does come with a cost.”

She added: “It was just after these incidents that I saw a piece on ARCH in the English Heritage magazine and it sounded like something we should be supporting. When an individual church or historic building is damaged by crime there is a tendency to think of it as an isolated incident.

“However, even minor incidents can start to add up and if a place gets a reputation for being covered in graffiti or attracting antisocial behaviour that can do real damage to an entire area.”

ARCH held its first major conference in Yorkshire and is now calling on heritage crime to be logged as part of routine police statistics. Access to an up-to-date and accurate picture of just how many historic buildings are affected by crime each year would, it says, be a vital step in reducing theft and vandalism.

“Much of our work is about changing perceptions,” says Chief Insp Harrison. “A lot of people think that theft of metal from a roof is just a bit of an inconvenience, but the damage often goes much deeper than that.

“It can destroy timbers which date back hundreds of years and if rainwater gets into the building, the repair bill keeps on rising. We all share the responsibility for looking after these historic buildings and ensuring that future generations can enjoy and appreciate them.”

As Baroness Kay Andrews, chair of English Heritage, say: “We don’t want our historic buildings to be rebuilt ‘as good as new’ – we want them intact, as original. We have to be as serious about preventing heritage crime as criminals are about profiting from it.”

THE BUILDINGS MOST AT RISK

Last year 18.7 per cent (70,000) of all listed buildings were affected by crime and eight per cent described the impact as substantial.

The country’s most historic buildings are the worst affected, with 22.7 per cent of all Grade I and II* properties reporting criminal incidents compared with 18.3 per cent of Grade II buildings.

Listed churches and other religious buildings are by far the most at risk, with three out of every eight damaged by crime in 2011.

The problem is also geographical, with crimes considerably more frequent in areas with fewer historic buildings and sites. In these areas 24.6 per cent of heritage assets suffered damage, compared with 14.6 per cent in other areas.