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Stealing metal

When I lived in England, not so long ago, one of the minor pleasures of rural life was walking across a couple of fields, along a public footpath through a copse, discovering a small medieval country church, and going inside to contemplate the divine for a few minutes. In those days, the churches were unlocked. They’re not anymore. Presumably there were local lads who would steal from the Lord even then, but not a significant segment of the population who targeted houses of worship. So today there’s wire mesh over the beautiful (one assumes) stained glass to stop thieves pinching the lead from the windows. It’s a small loss, but a telling one. The police have no leads, and the buildings have no lead. Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it was stolen last Thursday.

Mark Steyn, on escalating metal thefts in Britain.

Some good news: the price of copper and zinc has fallen hard in global markets, so hopefully my front door-knocker is safer than it was a few months ago. Even so, Steyn’s take on the spate of burglaries is telling. A friend of mine, who lives in south Suffolk, near Sudbury, suddenly found the other day that he could not make phone calls from his landline as copper wires had been stolen. In centuries past, horse-thieves were hanged, as their activities damaged the economic system – horses were vital. We do not hang thieves any more – restitution is arguably a better punishment by getting these folk to put victims right – but such crimes are just not taken seriously enough. In parts of England there are still places where mobile phones do not work very well. If some jackass cuts people off from their landlines and someone has to call the emergency services but cannot do so, stealing copper wires is not just bloody inconvenient, it could play a part in someone actually dying.

Theft of copper wires is not just a British phenomenon

28 comments to Stealing metal

  • Tanuki

    Theft of lead from roofs is far more of a problem [on an old building there can be tons of the stuff up there]. My current place-of-abode is 170 years old and has plenty of roof-lead – I’m worried.

    A while back there was a big problem with theft of aluminium road-signs. Before that, aluminium beer-barrels were being ‘liberated’ from pubs and breweries by criminal gangs, to be smelted down in backstreet furnaces and shipped to China.

    Kinda makes you wonder about the true economics of criminality when it’s clearly worth the small risk-of-getting-caught to steal such bulky and hard-to-conceal stuff.

  • Pa Annoyed

    “Churches have been hit by an “epidemic” of thefts of lead from their roofs. Ecclesiastical, the insurers, said that there have been more than 1,800 claims this year, totalling nearly £5.8 million. English Heritage insists stolen lead from listed churches should be replaced with lead, even though cheaper metals are available. This means that thieves return repeatedly.”


  • Nick M

    (a) Someone recently nicked a Henry Moore bronze worth £5 million as art and a few grand as scrap. Utterly awful. I don’t even like Moore

    (b) I can’t get mobile reception in or around my house so JP’s final point is far from lost on me.

    (c) About the only global ecological thing I can get hassled over is the depletion of metals.

  • Petronius

    I confused, did they rip off the Henry Moore to sell for the scrap or for some art lover’s secret collection?

    In Chicago they are stealing commemorative plaques and bronze urns from cemetaries, and even manhole covers from side streets, leaving a hole into which the unwary pedestrian can disappear. There are also gangs breaking into electric company storage yards with trucks to carry off large spools of wire.

    And to think that in Victorian England there were thieves who made a living stealing laundry from clotheslines.

  • llamas

    Somone needs to (re)-open lead mines, and that right quick. The ground is full of it.

    Not that I care about how much lead China needs for its industry, but the global lead shortage has doubled the price of lead shot in the last 6 months. Even the higher price that I’m getting for used cartridge brass is not enough to offset the added cost of lead. And that’s a real crisis.

    But, of course, any suggestion that we should start digging it out of the ground at an accelerated pace (so reducing world prices, reducing the costs of everything we buy or make, and putting some honest workers to work) will be met with the usual wails of ‘environmentalists’, only in quadruplicate because what’s being dug up is lead, which we know is Of-The-Dark-One and filled with innate sinfullness.

    If individual people’s door knockers and roofing lead are being stolen, I think, in the long term, that’s a good thing. Because it may make people stop and think about how insane it is that the world metal market is being fed by thieves and not by mines, and maybe – just maybe – they’ll start to wonder why that is.



  • treefroggy

    I have some lead they can have. I comes in 65 grain increments though. ( Some copper with it though )

  • Treefroggy: excellent!

  • Ken

    Lock up your car’s battery then…better yet, booby-trap it-just don’t FORGET that the darn thing IS A BOMB when it needs to be replaced.

  • Midwesterner

    Metal thieves are getting rather bold around here, too.

    Can you imagine the confusion when the fleet was trying to roll out on Monday and they discovered their catalytic converters had been stolen?

  • Nothing does so much to keep criminals away–amateurs, at least–as the pervasive suspicion that a visit to a particular home is going to win them a new hole in their noses.

  • tdh

    The only theft of lead from my roof has been by squirrels; apparently lead tastes sweet.

    Thugs are merely taking the leftist credo to heart: Thou shalt lie, covet, steal, commit adultery, bear false witness, murder, &c. Who can blame them 🙂 ?

    Having been had much and oft stolen from me, the older I get the more draconian the punishment I want thieves (at least from households) to receive, and even death, despite its diminished room for error, is beginning to fall short. Maybe this falls short of what terrorists deserve — Dracul’s fun-for-the-whole-family impalement — but not by much. Avoiding movies and TV shows that glorify lowlifes of word and/or deed is hardly enough to stave off revulsion.

  • spidly

    Tweekers stole a utility truck a couple years ago. Police found them in a hotel room stripping the cladding off 5000lbs of wire. Another guy found a tweeker in the attic of the house he was building pulling all the electrical that had just been installed.

    Our Aluminum and Copper are in danger and not so much for other metals.

    If they would allow us to shoot tweekers it’d cut metal theft 90%+

  • Justin Kardel

    My favorite metal scavenging story comes from Russia. A couple of homeless men stole some bronze natural gas fittings from an apartment complex; the resulting explosion killed 32. Quite a way to make a few extra bucks.

  • I had no idea that roofs had lead in them. What is it doing there?

  • In centuries past, horse-thieves were hanged


    I heard that damaging fences around private land once used to be punished by hanging in Britain, too, in order to establish secure property rights. Unfortunately I can’t find a reference on this. Do you happen to know if what I heard (or think to have heard, it was years ago) is correct? If so, are there any online resources, or ones in print if not, whre I could look it up?

    Thanks in advance for any answer.

  • Brendan Halfweeg

    Lead times for electrical engineering equipment are balooning at the moment, and not just because of shortages of copper, lead, steel and aluminium, but also because mining and oil & gas construction projects are in full swing at the moment, suppliers are at full capacity and new capacity is not coming online fast enough to reduce delivery times.

    Rail companies have problems with thieves steeling copper earthing (grounding) straps, they switched to aluminium, which is not as lucrative. I’ve spoken to people who have seen what happens to kids who break into electrical substations to steal copper from high voltage equipment, not a pretty sight.

    It is quite common on some job sites for contractors to be paid their bonus out of scrap cut-offs of electrical cable.

  • Ian Bennett

    Alisa, the entire roof covering of many churches is lead. On other buildings, it’s used for flashing; the joints between different slopes of a tiled or slated roof. The reason; it’s malleable and waterproof.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Ralf, not sure if I can answer your question at short notice; up until the late 1820s, when the-then Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel, got rid of most capital crimes, dozens of offences, even relatively silly ones like impersonating a Greenwich naval pensioner, carried the death penalty. The problem, as far as respect for the rule of law was concerned, was that juries understandably refused to convict even blatantly guilty folk for such offences.

  • Steven Groeneveld

    In South Africa that is all old news. The South African criminal seems, in some cases, decades ahead of the global game, such as hijacking cars with their owners so that they are on hand to deactivate the anti theft devices that kick in after a few minutes. The grand scale theft of copper wire from the telephone and electricity systems has been going on for at least the last 15 years and has prompted the wide scale replacement of copper with fibre optic cable for communications.

    I am told the technique is to attach one end of the cable to a large lorry and then just rip the rest out of the ground by driving the lorry. Its all done in a matter of minutes (if not seconds) then they are driving off with it. Brutally efficient but it does such damage that it typically puts the phones or power out for weeks or more.

  • RAB

    Does anyone else remember the story about the Russian tank crew?
    They were on a Soviet training excersise in poland, pre the fall of the wall.
    They were cold and bored and getting rather thirsty. The vodka rations had been cut drastically.
    Then they came across a little country pub. One of the crew went in and negotiated with the landlord.
    A while later he came out with several crates of vodka and a load of food. Well they parked up the tank behind the pub and the crew went off into the forest to enjoy themselves.
    A few days later, the powers that be noticed they were missing and mounted a search for them.
    They found them in a clearing ripped to the tits-
    But the tank was never seen again!

  • The stolen-copper story of recent memory around where I live came out of Syracuse several weeks back: thieves had ripped all the copper piping out of a local swimming-pool pump-house. Just one of a spate of such stories lately.

    RAB: one Soviet story I recall is that of ground crew draining the alcohol coolant from the radars of MiG-25’s and drinking it up.

  • Adrian Ramsey

    It gets even more fun when the Leeds – London trains get held up because someone’s made off with the trackside signalling cables. The amount lost in business went into the millions, and all because some ignorant tea-leaf didn’t stop to think that fibre optics have replaced copper…

  • Brian

    The ignorant tea-leaf would certainly think twice if the scum got a jail sentence that matched the damage caused, rather than the value of the materials stolen.

    Of course, jailing criminals is SO VICTORIAN.

  • Jonathan,

    Ralf, not sure if I can answer your question at short notice; up until the late 1820s, when the-then Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel, got rid of most capital crimes, dozens of offences, even relatively silly ones like impersonating a Greenwich naval pensioner, carried the death penalty. The problem, as far as respect for the rule of law was concerned, was that juries understandably refused to convict even blatantly guilty folk for such offences.

    thanks. Maybe Sir Robert Peel wil help me as a reference to find what I am looking for.

  • Ian: thanks, that’s what I actually imagined.

  • Mike

    Phone wires? What piffling small potatoes. Here’s some epic metal theft in the United States:


    But the smaller stuff is scavenged in Baltimore, effecting the choice of plumbing materials used in construction. Again, I submit the city of Baltimore. A minor theme of the relationship of metal scavenging and the drug addicted:


    The book “The Corner” was excellent, no idea about the miniseries.

    One of the responses of government? A huge deployment of surveillance cameras, helpfully subsidized by federal monies coming for the purpose of “Homeland Security”


    …and to think I tut-tutted at pictures of Orwellian England on Samizdata.

  • Julian Taylor

    I thought all telephone lines in the UK were now fibre-optic (at least BT assert that they are) and that the only copper element was from the junction box into one’s home?

    As for wired-over stained-glass windows, unfortunately that’s a very old habit that dates from well before Mark Steyn was born, WW2 damage etc. Certainly most churches are kept locked now but this is also due to most rural parishes not having a local priest, rather that a vicar covers a large number of parishes and you are required to find out in which church he will be holding services, thus the church is kept locked because there is no attendance.

  • Peter Melia

    About 40 years ago I was Suez, just after the Isrialis had left…. I wanted to phone Cairo, but was told this was impossible as the phone wires had been stolen. At the time I just shrugged this off as a quaint Egyptian custom. Now I realise that once again, that ancient civilization was doing what it has always done over the centuries, proving that it was ahead of the rest of the world.