British Thieves Ripping Off the Roofs

The Rev. Canon Paul Williams, vicar of Tewkesbury Abbey, a building that dates to 1102, says that parishioners see an
The Rev. Canon Paul Williams, vicar of Tewkesbury Abbey, a building that dates to 1102, says that parishioners see an "icon of hope," while thieves see an open cash drawer. (Photos By Mary Jordan -- The Washington Post)
By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 3, 2007

TEWKESBURY, England -- It was bad enough that thieves had stolen a roof, but outrageous that what they took topped the pride of this town, the soaring 12th-century Tewkesbury Abbey.

"It's awful. It's disastrous. It's incredibly sad," said Antonia Black, a local artist sitting in a cozy delicatessen on the town's quiet main street.

In addition to the abbey, she said, two other local churches have experienced their roofs being stripped, including one she had just visited: "On Sunday, we were sitting in service and the vicar said, 'Look up,' and we could see the sky."

The rooftop thefts, which have reached epidemic proportions, with more than 1,000 churches hit this year, are a function of the cost of lead. It has jumped from $450 a ton five years ago to $3,200 this year, according to police and insurance industry officials.

From one end of Britain to the other, there are centuries-old Anglican churches with the lead roofs that were popular in medieval times. Historic preservation laws require these landmarks to be repaired with original building materials, and so sometimes after repairs are finished, burglars strike again.

"Churches have always been a target for thieves, but this is particularly shocking because they are ripping the very fabric off the building," said Chris Pitt, spokesman for Ecclesiastic Insurance Group, a company that insures 16,500 Anglican churches in the United Kingdom.

More than 2,000 claims have been filed for metal thefts at churches in 2007, compared with 80 claims just two years ago, Pitt said. He said record multimillion-dollar losses are piling up, with the scope of the damage often far exceeding the roofing.

Stone spires have been yanked away to get at the stuff. Holes in roofs have gone unnoticed until downpours inflict further damage, including the destruction of a $40,000 organ in one church.

The Rev. Canon Paul Williams, vicar of Tewkesbury Abbey, said parishioners see the centuries-old church as "an icon of hope," but thieves see it as an open cash drawer.

"We basically have pound notes stuck to the roof and professional criminals are risking their lives to get them down," he said, standing outside the grand church made of golden Cotswold stone. It is widely regarded as one of the most impressive in Britain.

"Parishioners are really quite upset," Williams said. "This abbey is the heart and soul of this town."

Mike Jones, a carpenter who was working on the timber facade of the town's YMCA, said the church thieves might be working in daylight, pulling tons of lead off roofs and tossing it into their trucks. "Nobody takes any notice when they see men on a roof," he said. "There are so many old buildings around here and they are always needing repair."

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