Robber gangs target UK war memorials

Heritage groups warn of rise in thefts of metal and statues from Britain's monuments to fallen soldiers

Britain's war memorials are being hit by a wave of thefts, with valuable bronze plaques being ripped off for scrap and commemorative statues stolen to order, according to heritage organisations.

Amid mounting concern at the scale of the problem, English Heritage has for the first time brought in a crime officer to head a campaign against the theft of Britain's architectural heritage. A detective chief inspector has been seconded to the organisation for two years and will start later this month.

The War Memorials Trust, working with English Heritage and Historic Scotland, is this week issuing guidance to every local authority in the UK on how to protect war monuments from thieves. Local councils are asked to audit all monuments in their area, and to install extra CCTV and lighting to deter thieves. The guidance warns: "As well as metal parts being sold for scrap, there is a black market for public art made from any material. Some war memorials with figurative sculpture were designed by leading artists and this makes them collectable items – some are being stolen to order for display in private homes."

Thieves will stop at nothing, according to Philip Davies, English Heritage's planning and development director: "Almost anything that is removable is vulnerable. It is not just statues and war memorials, but also things like York stone paving and street furniture – anything with potential resale value. The situation with war memorials is symptomatic of a wider problem of persistent theft from memorials across the country. It is basically the theft of local history that we're talking about here."

There are around 100,000 memorials in Britain, according to the Imperial War Museum. Many are in a state of disrepair and easy targets for thieves. A single bronze plaque can cost thousands of pounds to replace; stone statues tens of thousands. A bronze statue weighing 1.5 tonnes, part of the South African War Memorial in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, was hacked from its plinth and stolen just two days after Remembrance Sunday in 2006. It took two years to raise £50,000 from public donations to replace it.

The national impact of such thefts is difficult to discern as statistics are not routinely recorded. But an analysis of data from the National Inventory of War Memorials reveals that thefts have increased sharply, from 18 throughout the 1980s to 44 since 2000.

Several large bronze plaques were stolen from Broomfield Park Garden of Remembrance in Palmers Green, north London, last August. And in October, an "eternal light" was stolen from Hawarden Cenotaph in north Wales, the third time in recent months that lighting around the memorial has been smashed or stolen. This January two large brass plaques, featuring the names of men who died in the Second World War, were stolen from a memorial in Pensnett High Street, near Dudley. Earlier this month thieves climbed more than 50 feet to strip bare the copper roofing of the Barr Beacon war memorial in Birmingham.

Frances Moreton, the director of the War Memorials Trust, said: "In recent years the trust has been contacted about an increasing number of cases of theft. It is a real concern; that's the reason we've created the advice. War memorials symbolise the sacrifice of so many people and are our touchstones to history."

A Desecration of War Memorials Bill introduced in the Commons last month proposes that those who desecrate memorials should face up to 10 years in prison. The Bill was introduced, with cross-party support, by Enfield's Tory MP David Burrowes. He said it is unacceptable that war memorials have no specific legal protection: "People need to look out for war memorials in their area and make sure they are registered with the national inventory at the Imperial War Museum so that we can protect them."