Protecting Your Church from Vandals
In 2007 one out of every three Anglican
churches suffered a vandal attack at some
point during the year. Theft, arson and
malicious damage have always been a problem
for churches. As prominent community
buildings they can become a focus for
anti-social behaviour. Opportunist thefts,
mindless vandalism and petty damage are sadly
all too common. But churches have faced this
problem for centuries, so most have seen it all
before, know how to protect themselves, and
are one step ahead of the thieves and vandals.
Cases of malicious damage have
actually fallen in the past few years. In 2002
Ecclesiastical paid over 2,500 vandalism claims,
while in 2007 this dropped to 2,000 incidents.
Nevertheless, claims last year cost £1.8 million in
total, a significant amount for petty crime. The
average cost of these claims was around £900.
These statistics don’t, of course, take into
account the smaller attacks which churches
don’t report to their insurer because the damage
is minor. So it’s likely that many more thousands
of churches suffer malicious damage every year.
There are several reasons why churches can
be more vulnerable than other buildings. Many
are located in city centres which are deserted
at night and are crime hotspots, while others
are found in remote rural locations where they
are isolated and have no one to watch over
them. Although many churches are situated
in well-populated areas they are also still
vulnerable because neighbours often pay little
attention to what goes on at the church.
The fact that they leave their doors
open may also be tempting for criminals.
No other property owner in their right
mind would leave a building open all hours
of the day, but churches need to be open
and accessible for the community, and
this can make the vandal’s work easier.
On a more positive note, there can be
benefits to keeping the doors open: a well-used
church with regular visits, or stewarding by
church members, offers fewer opportunities
for vandalism or theft. Increased community
use of the building can also deter thieves as a
result of the increased occupancy and may help
to develop a sense of ownership of the building among community members, which can
discourage local criminal activity.
The most common malicious damage
churches suffer from is caused by objects being
thrown through windows. Typically, young
people who hang around the church, either out
of boredom or malicious intent, try to smash
the windows. An ordinary window glazed with
standard glass might cost as little as £50-£60
to replace. A stained glass window, on the
other hand, could cost thousands to repair if
it is a particularly fine example. Highly-skilled
restorers and craftspeople need to be employed
in such cases, it’s not simply a question of
calling out the local glazier.
||Graffiti damage to memorial in Ilkeston Churchyard,
Derbyshire (Photo: Hirst
Graffiti is also a common problem for
churches. Many attacks go unreported both
to insurers and police because pursuing them
would achieve little. Church members often
end up undoing the damage themselves when it
isn’t significant enough to warrant an insurance
claim. However, these attacks are a drain on
every church’s time and a significant blow to
morale and confidence.
Churches need to be as determined as
other property owners to keep criminals
out and protect their property. While many
churches suffer one-off incidents, others
face repeat attacks which are expensive and
demoralising. Congregations work hard to
maintain and protect their buildings and
these repeat attacks can weaken the resolve
of otherwise committed individuals.
Some significant attacks result from forms
of petty crime that get out of control. One such
crime involved a vandal tampering with an
oil tank which was separate from the church
building. The oil was set alight in a small area.
The burning fuel ran down a slope towards the
church and set fire to a tree. The tree then set
fire to the church, which was almost completely
destroyed. The total repair bill will be nearly
£2 million. This wasn’t, presumably, what the
vandal intended, but circumstances quickly got
out of their control.
At another church, thieves who entered
the building were frustrated to find nothing to
steal. To vent their frustration they sprayed a
dry powder extinguisher all around the building.
One might not expect this to cause much
damage, particularly as it wasn’t a water-based
extinguisher. However, the powder used in dry
powder extinguishers can be corrosive. If the
powder is left to settle on a surface, even stone,
it will eventually eat away at it. As a result, the entire church had to be painstakingly cleaned
to protect it. The organ had also been sprayed,
so it needed to be cleaned, too. The total cost of
making good the damage ran to several hundred
Claims caused by thoughtless acts can and
do happen but, sadly, intentional vandalism is
more common. Late last year a 23-year-old man
was arrested in connection with vandalism to
a Norfolk church which will cost thousands of
pounds to repair. Up to 40 headstones were
pushed over, stained glass windows smashed
and pews wrecked in the attack.
|Fire damage resulting from vandalism at St Peter’s
|Fire damaged painting at St Peter’s, Cranbourne,
which was subsequently cleaned and restored
|Painted reredos at St Peter’s, Cranbourne: paint blistered
by the intense heat of a fire cannot always be fully restored (Photos: Hirst Conservation)
Churches are, of course, not just religious
buildings used once a week for an hour on a
Sunday. Worship now takes place at different
times of the week. Many community groups
also rely on churches for meetings and for a
wide range of activities. A church also gives
a community a real sense of place. Without
it, a community loses more than a physical
structure. While people may not attend the
church regularly, they still care about its place in
Churches everywhere are not only symbolic
lynchpins of their communities, they are also
often the oldest building standing and constitute
fine examples of our heritage and they are often
costly and time-consuming to repair properly.
Even minor damage can cost thousands of
pounds to repair if specialist craftspeople and
materials are required to do the job.
For churches, the cost of vandalism in terms
of its impact on the community and the time
and money it takes to repair is often very great. However, churches don’t need
to be vulnerable and many are working
hard to protect themselves. To make themselves as safe as possible, churches should begin by making
friends with their neighbours. Churches are
rarely completely isolated: even in rural areas
there is usually a house or two a short distance
from the church. Churches should encourage
neighbouring residents to keep an eye and ear
out for the church. They don’t need to patrol
it, just being vigilant is of benefit. Walking
their dog through the churchyard, for example,
could be just enough to prevent criminals from
attempting an attack. If different people pass
the church at different times of the day, the
opportunity for criminals to strike will be much
reduced. While keeping the doors open has
many advantages, it makes sense for a volunteer
to mind the church where possible if it is to
be left open. Of course, precautions should be
taken to ensure that volunteers never put their
personal safety at risk.
The next simple and practical thing
churches can do to protect themselves is to
make themselves as unattractive to criminals
as possible. This means keeping valuables
in a safe or in a secure area like a locked
vestry, substituting valuable items such as
brass or silver candlesticks with wooden
alternatives that are less attractive to thieves,
or giving particularly valuable items to a
bank or museum to safeguard. Remove all
unwanted items that could be used to start
a fire, such as newspaper, matches and
candles, and ensure any petrol used for lawn
mowers is not stored inside the church.
Next, take a long look at the
security of the church and its surrounding
buildings. Are there secluded areas screened
by overgrown trees where people could
congregate? Are low roofs easily accessible via
bins pushed against the church? Are areas of
the church poorly lit? If so, there are simple
things you can do to make your church safer:
cutting back overgrown vegetation or installing
an inexpensive security light, for example.
Criminals don’t generally like to be observed
and these measures will make it harder for
vandals to get away with attacking your church.
Closed circuit television (CCTV) is a
more expensive security precaution, but one
which may help you to protect your church.
Before considering installing CCTV, you need
to be clear about what you want it to achieve.
If you are experiencing a persistent problem
with youths damaging windows, for example,
a CCTV camera set up in full view may deter
the youths from damaging the windows for fear of getting caught. However, a covert camera in closer proximity
to the windows may help to identify the youths and assist the police in
catching them. The type of system required, including the type of cameras,
provision of artificial lighting, monitors, recording methods and camera
locations all need to be carefully considered and expert advice from a
CCTV installer should be sought.
||Alarm systems should be tailored to protect the most vulnerable areas of the building.
There is also a long list of factors to take into account when it comes
to intruder alarms. Again, tailoring the alarm to your specific needs is key.
Establish where your building is most vulnerable and work to protect it.
Ironically, security lighting, CCTV and intruder alarms can
themselves become the target of vandalism and you’ll need to weigh up
the chances of such attacks and consider how to go about protecting
As stained glass is particularly vulnerable to attack it is worth
investing in glazing protection such as stainless steel grilles. Bear in mind,
however, that a faculty is required to do this work, so you should involve
the diocese from the planning stage. When
weighing up the various options for protecting stained glass, you should
also consider any negative impact a protective system may have on the
fabric and character of your church.
The list of things churches can do to protect themselves from
thieves and vandals is considerable, so churches should never feel
they are powerless to combat their problems. However, churches
should not be complacent either. While petty acts of vandalism don’t
compare to a major fire, the cost of successive attacks can quickly
mount up. A small fire can also quickly turn into a raging inferno
and a broken window can let the full force of a winter storm into the
church. A small amount of damage can quickly spiral into a serious
issue. So the worst thing you can do is to ignore a string of acts of
vandalism. As soon as a problem rears its ugly head, do what you can
to tackle it. You may need to persevere to identify the most effective
solutions but, if you do, you can be confident that your church will
continue to be a much-loved and well-used part of your community.
Historic Churches, 2008
DAVID PARKINSON is a senior surveyor at specialist insurer Ecclesiastical.
Ecclesiastical was established in 1887 to protect the Anglican church and now
protects over 95 per cent of Anglican churches in England and Wales.
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