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stealing history

For years the Haworth Parish Church in Yorkshire has withstood every onslaught, from the driving Pennines rain to thousands of tourists wanting to visit the final resting place of Charlotte and Emily Bronte. But one thing it couldn’t survive: The metal thieves who repeatedly stripped its roof in the night.

For years the Haworth Parish Church in Yorkshire has withstood every onslaught, from the driving Pennines rain to thousands of tourists wanting to visit the final resting place of Charlotte and Emily Bronte. But one thing it couldn't survive: The metal thieves who repeatedly stripped its roof in the night.

This week the church is surrounded by scaffolding, as a $2-million renovation begins with workmen removing Westmoreland slate tiles from the roof. They don't have to remove the lead flashing and gutters, because those were taken by thieves in three daring raids over the past two years. With the lead gone, the rain poured in and the church began to rot from inside.

The Haworth Church, formally called St. Michael and All Angels, is particularly high-profile, but it's merely an emblem of a much wider problem sweeping Britain during a time of rising metal theft. In a country so rich in heritage, how do you keep robbers from stealing history?

In the case of Haworth Church, the answer is typically Yorkshire (that is, blunt and succinct). "We're installing a roof alarm," says rector Peter Mayo-Smith, who has witnessed over the past two years the destruction of paintings and woodwork in his church as the elements took their toll. In some ways, he counts himself lucky. In a nearby diocese, the priest opened the doors of his church to find the brass lectern stolen.

Thieves have also stripped metal from the Sunday school classroom established by Patrick Bronte, Charlotte and Emily's rector father, and from the parsonage where the family lived, which is now a famous tourist site. Not far away, the house of Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, a similar shrine for culture pilgrims, was also trashed by metal thieves.

If nicking metal from places of worship seems low, consider some of the other items taken recently, including hospital generators, war memorials, wrought-iron railings from graveyards and, in one particularly gruesome case, a brass plaque commemorating the deaths of two children killed by an IRA bomb.

"It makes me sad more than anything," says Rev. Mayo-Smith. "There's a lack of thought and compassion from these people toward their fellow neighbour. It says something about our culture which is rather unfortunate."

Metal theft is thought to cost the British economy $1.2-billion each year, and it affects most people as a transport headache: In just three months last summer, 2,000 trains were cancelled because of copper-cable thefts. Network Rail, which oversees Britain's rail infrastructure, spent $60-million replacing stolen metal over the past three years. Trains on the London Underground are regularly delayed after thieves' late-night pillaging.

In order to tackle the problem, the British government has moved to cancel cash payments at scrap yards, and a private members' bill currently moving through Parliament would further restrict scrap transactions, requiring tougher licensing rules for dealers and for sellers to provide ID.

But metal theft is a problem in many countries. What sets Britain apart is what's under threat: the country's rich historical heritage and its religious sites. Those are not just part of the social fabric of the country, but a prime source of income.

"In terms of tourism, heritage is a massive revenue generator," says Mark Harrison, the national crime adviser at English Heritage, which protects historic buildings. About 7 per cent of Britain's "listed" buildings were hit by metal thieves last year, and about 15 per cent of churches.

So now Mr. Harrison, a former police officer, is overseeing a tougher response to so-called heritage crime. Fourteen Crown prosecutors across the country are being trained to enforce the laws that protect buildings like Clifford's Tower in York (recently defaced by graffiti) or the Haworth parsonage.

In Chester, a castle- and church-rich historic city in the northwest of England, an ancient water gate was recently ripped from a Roman wall. The city has started a pilot scheme called "Heritage Watch," modelled on Neighbourhood Watch, calling on people to report anyone they see pulling copper pipes from a stately home or stealing leaded windows from a church.

"Unfortunately," says Mr. Harrison, "we're working to a world demand. The prices for lead and copper have never been so high."

It's churches, in particular, that have paid the price. Stories flood in from all over Britain: A vicar in the north has taken to sleeping in his church to prevent further robberies, while a priest in the West Midlands shut his church at Easter for the first time following thefts of rosaries and wall plaques. The ancient church of St. Mary's in Prittlewell on the south coast of England had metal stolen from its roof 14 times in 18 months.

Finally, a roof alarm was installed at St. Mary's, part of a drive by Ecclesiastical Insurance to stem the tide. "We've seen a huge rise in claims since 2007," says John Coates of Ecclesiastical, which provides insurance for some 30,000 churches in Britain.

Prior to the spike in demand for metal and resulting price rises in 2007, he says, his company would typically see three or four claims for metal theft a year. In the past five years, they have processed 9,000 claims costing $40-million. Ecclesiastical has launched a campaign called "Hands Off Our Church Roofs," encouraging churches to install alarms and use SmartWater, an invisible marking system.

In Haworth, Rev. Mayo-Smith has no doubt that his church will survive this latest episode of human delinquency. It has, after all, been torn down and rebuilt twice before over the centuries of wear and tear (although one part of the old church is still standing, the bell tower, and it's almost 600 years old). He's confident that the alarm installed by Ecclesiastical will help deter new crimes, as will the eagle eye of a helpful shopkeeper across the road.

But he worries about the broad impact of the rash of metal thefts. "Tourism is one of our most important export businesses, and every time metal is stolen we're impacting our export business," he says. "It means one Japanese tourist fewer will come to Haworth and will spend less money in Britain."

And he can't help thinking about the thieves who climb to the top of his church at night, and how they might be redeemed: "If they're that creative and brave," Rev. Mayo-Smith says, "surely they could be doing something more worthwhile with their lives than stealing."

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