Lead thefts at Norfolk churches plummet as roof raiders foiled by alarms

Lead has been stolen from Pulham St Mary church. Picture: Clayton Hudson

Pulham St Mary church after having lead stolen fr4om its roof in 2016. - Credit: Clayton Hudson

A scheme to alarm churches to protect them against lead thieves has been hailed a success after just one theft in a year.

Criminals gangs target unprotected church buildings, often in remote rural locations, to steal lead roofs, flashing and even drain pipes.

Lead from the roof of St Edmund's Church in Downham Market was stolen. Picture: Sarah Hussain

St Edmund's Church in Downham Market suffered £30,000 of damage after lead was stolen in 2020. - Credit: Archant

The impact of thefts was shown when St Edmund's Church located on King's Walk in Downham Market was the target of thieves in February 2020.

Two-thirds of the lead roof was stripped off with an estimated £30,000 worth of damage caused to the Grade I listed building with water damage to the interior including to its pews and furniture.

Just a month later three men were caught red-handed on the roof of Long Stratton Methodist Church attempting to steal lead.

Attempted lead theft from the roof of Scottow Church.Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Lead has one of the highest metal recycling rates and demand is soaring globally meaning churches are a valuable target for thieves. - Credit: Archant

But the number of thefts from Norfolk's churches have plummeted following the launch of an innovative security scheme to protect against roof raiders.

More than 70 of the county's most vulnerable churches have had alarms installed as part of the Roof Alarm Scheme.

Prior to the scheme’s introduction in 2017 police recorded 48 lead thefts over 18 months. Following the launch the number halved.

St Marys Church in Carleton Forehoe has had most of the lead roof stolen.Thieves broke in through a

St Marys Church in Carleton Forehoe has had most of the lead roof stolen in 2016. - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2016

And in the past 12 months, just one non-alarmed church has been hit by lead thieves, Norfolk's Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) Giles Orpen-Smellie said.  

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In his annual report he said the scheme’s success had been backed by additional police patrols. 

More than £250,000 was raised to boost protective measures through a partnership between the PCC, the Diocese of Norwich, Allchurches Trust, the Norfolk Churches Trust and the Round Tower Churches Society.

Scores of churches are now alarmed with most across the county now having additional security measures. 

Norfolk's newly-elected Police and Crome Commissioner, Gile Orpen-Smellie is officially sworn into t

Norfolk's newly-elected Police and Crome Commissioner, Gile Orpen-Smellie is officially sworn into the role. Byline: Sonya Duncan - Credit: Sonya Duncan

“Additional alarms have been installed in the past 12 months and there has been only one reported theft of lead from churches in the county. This church was not alarmed,” said Mr Orpen-Smellie.

“Vulnerable churches that are considered at risk are regularly visited by members of the special constabulary as part of their high visibility patrols across key rural sites.”

Diocese of Norwich buildings officer Caroline Rawlings said: “We have successfully dispersed thieves from Norfolk.

“The one lead theft occurred from a tower and we never expected thieves to get up a tower.

Police are calling on local communities to help prevent the theft of lead from churches.

More high visibility patrols have been done around churches in Norfolk. - Credit: IAN BURT

“Thefts of this type can cause terrible damage and can have a significant long-term impact for parishes. 

“We still have churches unrepaired from thefts they suffered several years ago.”

Fight to stop the roof raiders 

The single lead theft report is a different picture to that a few years ago.

In 2014, the Eastern Daily Press, Norwich Evening News and sister papers across the region launched a Stop the Roof Raiders campaign to stop thieves, putting up a bounty to help persuade people to come forward and bring the crime to an end.

Rev Canon John Minns, left and verger Peter Callan with the EDP lead theft poster outside St Georges

EDP lead theft poster outside St Georges Church, Tombland, Norwich.  - Credit: Steve Adams

At that point, there had been more than 40 church lead thefts across Norfolk and Suffolk in the previous two years.

We offered a £1,000 reward for information leading to anyone being convicted of a roof raid, as incidents of thefts rose.

In November 2016, Pulham St Mary Church near Diss was hit by thieves who stripped the entire vestry and south aisle roof, leaving it with a £100,000 repair bill.

It was in 2017 that the Raise the Alarm scheme was launched. Since then, reports have consistently fallen.

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