The City of Chester, Cheshire, has seen a spate of so called ‘heritage crime’, damaging some of the oldest buildings in the country.
In its very own ‘watergate scandal’, the Grade I listed sandstone archway ‘watergate’ in Chester, set into the most complete set of Roman and medieval town walls in Britain, was robbed of its lead siding in a midnight raid for the expensive metal. Wihtout the protective covering, water will seep into the structure and start a process of structural decline.
The Watergate scandal, as it has reportedly been locally dubbed, is just part of what Chester Council is calling a heritage crime wave “playing havoc with the borough’s historic buildings and monuments”.
St Michael’s church in Shotwick, just outside of the city, used to house a magnificent bell, around 3ft tall, first rung in 1664. In broad daylight one afternoon, thieves simply took the bell away, somehow carting the 180kg monster through the doors. (If you know anything about this bell’s disappearance, information is still on the church’s website here).
Thieves raiding St Oswald’s church in nearby Malpas, a 14th century Grade I listed structure, got so comfortable they installed a sofa and smoked cigarettes whilst they removed the lead from the organ chamber roof.
At Christ Church in Willaston, thieves removed a plaque from a war memorial naming 43 men who gave their lives for the country. Many of these men’s bodies were never recovered, meaning that the plaque was the only record of their ever having existed.
These are only three of countless incidents. 10 churches in the area were hit and Chester Cathedral itself lost part of its roof, manor houses, barns and halls also suffered. Lamp posts on whole streets were stripped of their metal casings.
The problem is not just restricted to Cheshire, with the first national survey on this issue recently revealing that 37% of all old churches had been victims of heritage crime of varying levels of seriousness in the last year. Not only this, but almost a fifth of all listed buildings fell victim to crime in the last year.
The most serious and pandemic of these crimes has been metal theft and Ecclesiastical Insurance, the company insuring Britain’s Anglican churches, have reported a meteoric rise from just 20 of such crimes in 2004 to 2,600 instances in 2011. A 13,000% rise in just 7 years.
Other problems range from serial public urination to youths setting fires on heritage locations. Critics say such crime hasn’t been taken seriously in the past. Punishments have reflected economic cost, not taking into account the fact that the damaged locations are centuries old and irreplaceable.
This is set to change, however, as a new breed of ‘heritage detectives’ have emerged to properly tackle the issue. Real archaeologists have been enlisted to prepare impact statements and help the police establish watertight cases against offenders.
Success is already being felt, with a youth who spray painted Clifford’s Tower in York receiving 4 months in prison for his trouble, and 170 people who urinated on Chester’s Rows already having been prosecuted. Sadly, much irrevocable damage has already been done to some of Britain’s most beautiful and significant monuments.