Stealing Commodities

Before his arrest, Tom Berge stole lead roof tiles from several buildings in south-east England, including the Honeywood Museum in Carshalton, the Croydon parish church, and the Sutton high school for girls. He then sold those tiles to scrap metal dealers.

As a security expert, I find this story interesting for two reasons. First, amongst increasingly ridiculous attempts to ban, or at least censor, Google Earth, lest it help the terrorists, here is an actual crime that relied on the service: Berge needed Google Earth for reconnaissance.

But more interesting is the discrepancy between the value of the lead tiles to the original owner and to the thief. The Sutton school had to spend £10,000 to buy new lead tiles; the Croydon Church had to repair extensive water damage after the theft. But Berge only received £700 a ton from London scrap metal dealers.

This isn’t an isolated story; the same dynamic is in play with other commodities as well.

There is an epidemic of copper wiring thefts worldwide; copper is being stolen out of telephone and power stations—and off poles in the streets—and thieves have killed themselves because they didn’t understand the dangers of high voltage. Homeowners are returning from holiday to find the copper pipes stolen from their houses. In 2001, scrap copper was worth 70 cents per pound. In April 2008, it was worth $4.

Gasoline siphoning became more common as pump prices rose. And used restaurant grease, formerly either given away or sold for pennies to farmers, is being stolen from restaurant parking lots and turned into biofuels. Newspapers and other recyclables are stolen from curbs, and trees are stolen and resold as Christmas trees.

Iron fences have been stolen from buildings and houses, manhole covers have been stolen from the middle of streets, and aluminum guard rails have been stolen from roadways. Steel is being stolen for scrap, too. In 2004 in Ukraine, thieves stole an entire steel bridge.

These crimes are particularly expensive to society because the replacement cost is much higher than the thief’s profit. A manhole cover is worth $5–$10 as scrap, but it costs $500 to replace, including labor. A thief may take $20 worth of copper from a construction site, but do $10,000 in damage in the process. And even if the thieves don’t get to the copper or steel, the increased threat means more money being spent on security to protect those commodities in the first place.

Security can be viewed as a tax on the honest, and these thefts demonstrate that our taxes are going up. And unlike many taxes, we don’t benefit from their collection. The cost to society of retrofitting manhole covers with locks, or replacing them with less resalable alternatives, is high; but there is no benefit other than reducing theft.

These crimes are a harbinger of the future: evolutionary pressure on our society, if you will. Criminals are often referred to as social parasites; they leech off society but provide no useful benefit. But they are an early warning system of societal changes. Unfettered by laws or moral restrictions, they can be the first to respond to changes that the rest of society will be slower to pick up on. In fact, currently there’s a reprieve. Scrap metal prices are all down from last year’s—copper is currently $1.62 per pound, and lead is half what Berge got—and thefts are down along with them.

We’ve designed much of our infrastructure around the assumptions that commodities are cheap and theft is rare. We don’t protect transmission lines, manhole covers, iron fences, or lead flashing on roofs. But if commodity prices really are headed for new higher stable points, society will eventually react and find alternatives for these items—or find ways to protect them. Criminals were the first to point this out, and will continue to exploit the system until it restabilizes.

A version of this essay originally appeared in The Guardian.

Posted on April 3, 2009 at 5:25 AM58 Comments


The Cynic April 3, 2009 6:20 AM

If you don’t run a cash business (e.g. grocery shop), you can’t walk into a bank with £2000 or so without being asked some questions.

Perhaps scrap yards need to bear some of the accountability here, where someone who perhaps doesn’t have a builders credentials etc walks in with a few tons of metal. Maybe a little bit of questioning will go a long way.

bob April 3, 2009 6:34 AM

This is basically the same as vandalism. Marginal utility to the perpetrator, massive expense to the victim. Insurance companies might be the best people to task with coming up with a solution.

I saw a missing manhole cover once (actually I guess what I saw was the opening in a road formed by a frame which should have been supporting a manhole but wasnt). I tried to report it via 911 but gave up after ~50-100 rings with no answer. This taught me a scary lesson about 911 – don’t depend on it in an emergency.

Hullu April 3, 2009 6:38 AM

This reminds me of car stereos, I’ve had mine stolen twice. ~200-300 euros of expenses for me, another 500+ for the insurance company, and ~20 for the thief. Not to mention the time spent.

… how I wish I could just be there to hand them the 20 euro bill and be done with it.

SteveJ April 3, 2009 6:53 AM

Stealing lead off the roofs of churches isn’t exactly a new crime.

We’ve been through a brief period where such commodities have been cheap for the majority of people in a minority of countries. It’s not clear whether this is sustainable: plenty of people think not.

Step one, I’d have thought, is to imprison scrap dealers who buy manhole covers, and run sting operations to find out who that is. It’s not “the market” which sets the price of stolen goods, its the people who buy them knowing that they’re stolen.

The number of thieves able not just to steal a manhole cover, but to make it unrecognisable before sale, is hopefully much smaller than the number able to steal it and sell it as-is. This is why VINs exist – they don’t prevent car theft, but they make resale harder. I don’t see people stealing manhole covers to go joyriding…

Roger April 3, 2009 6:56 AM

We’ve designed much of our infrastructure around the assumptions that commodities are cheap and theft is rare.

I don’t think it is quite right that commodities were cheap when these systems were designed: many were designed centuries ago, at a time when the ratio of metal prices to bread prices was an order of magnitude higher than it is now, and stealing lead from church roofs was very profitable indeed *.

I suspect the reason theft was rarer is that the population was indoctrinated from cradle to grave with a rigid social moral code, reinforced with lashings of fire-and-brimstone preaching, which tended to keep your manhole covers safe-ish from 99.99% of the population. Consequently many, many aspects of our infrastructure contain the built in assumption that “no-one would do something as awful as that”.

Absent such conditioning (or reverence and piety arising through ritual, as Confucius might put it), and society begins to have a great deal of difficulty with that large minority of persons with very weak empathy; with no moral restraint, we have Hobbes’ “war of all against all.”

To pick an example at random: through fire sales, members of the public can profit from fires at shops. At most shops it is also quite easy to to secrete a timed incendiary during a visit, as ALF has demonstrated. Yet apart from those few incidents by fanatics, it is very rare for shops to be fire-bombed by random members of the public. Why not? For the most part, I suspect it is because most people feel that arson is a monstrous crime that is not worth obtaining a cheap frock. Yet if sufficiently indoctrinated with the view that society is wicked and deserves it punishment, people will do it, as ALF demonstrate.

Fire-bombing shops is just one possibility among thousands; everywhere our society has features that assume most people are basically good and most of the bad ones have been taught to mind their manners. When these assumptions fail, it can get very nasty very quickly.

  • Full disclosure: one of my ancestors was transported to Australia for stealing lead from a church roof.

SteveJ April 3, 2009 7:03 AM

Btw, I know that entrapment isn’t generally popular or a good thing to encourage. You can’t prosecute someone just because, when requested to do so by the police, they commit a crime that would otherwise never happen. And a lot of the things this applies to are less identifiable than manhole covers.

But seriously, the merchants are the narrowest point through which these stolen goods flow. You can’t normally sell a $10,000 car without at least showing ID. So let’s think about how to stop someone selling a $10,000 roof for $700 a ton.

bSW April 3, 2009 7:24 AM

Commodity markets, like all other markets, have accountants at the controls – either directly or indirectly. Since accountants are individuals who know the cost of anything and everything while knowing the value of nothing, is it such a surprise that the full consequences of the action of “the market” is such sociopathy. Not to me.

MysticKnightoftheSea April 3, 2009 7:40 AM

Similarities between theft of something perceived as valuable, and exploiting a chink in the armor of (in)secure systems, and anti-terrorism measures.

Those who see the objective as the first priority over all other considerations will see the flaws in the design.

Sorry. I’m rambling. The point I’m making is the thief will see the perceived value, and the terrorist will see the weakness, before those of us in ‘normal’ life will, unless we are trained to look at things from the thief or terrorist point of view.

“Set a thief to catch a thief.”


Tanuki April 3, 2009 8:12 AM

There have also been thefts of roofing-slates and ‘cotswold stone’ walls; this is driven by our planning regulations which can require extensions/refurbishments of old buildings to be done using materials that match the original – the only place to get such matching, pre-weathered materials is from other buildings.

People are using “smart water” – – applied to lead, stone, slates etc. as a way to increase the chance their building materials can be identified in the case of theft.

unonymous April 3, 2009 8:17 AM

I knew a lady who had a t-top car. The “T’s” kept getting stolen, costing thousands of dollars in time spent on the phone with the insurance company, getting them “installed” at the repair place, and following up on everything, not to mention the deductibles. She joked that it would be about the same if the thieves would steal the entire car instead, and would almost be preferable.

sooth sayer April 3, 2009 8:48 AM

Again .. I find little “value” in these arguments.

Yes, it’s all true – but even Adam stole the apple.

All theft is not economic – some of the best ones do it for excitement.

Margin on theft is huge – that’s why there are fences and laws against it.

Society is based on coexistence with the right to own property as the basis of that coexistence – price of things is immaterial. You loose the first and the second becomes irrelevant.

Morality may deter but doesn’t prevent theft.
I would argue theft has been rationalized and decriminalized by the media
– stealing from shop is not called “theft” but “lifting”
– robbing someone in the street is termed “muggig”
– stealing cars for fun is called “joy-riding”
-vandals destroying property are called “graffiti-artists”

These things have more statistical affect on watering down morality and changing perceptions in law.

Jima April 3, 2009 9:06 AM

I agree with several people in this thread.
We already have laws against buying stolen goods on the books, right?

Also, this article got me thinking…why ARE manhole covers made of solid metal? Maybe that made sense 100 years ago.
Maybe there is some nifty recycled plastic that would work better.

Copper April 3, 2009 9:19 AM

Copper Thief burnt to death

Copper thefts caused at the weekend its first casualties in Gothenburg. A 30-year-old man died when he tried to steal copper in a switchyard in Kortedala.
2008-04-14 17:33

kangaroo April 3, 2009 9:26 AM

If we’re going into an era of high commodity prices, we have two choices: either, as Rogers implies, an authoritarian system where everyone is strictly indoctrinated and massively punished for small violations that are caught (the medieval solution), or a system of radical equality where both the marginal benefit of petty crimes goes down, while the marginal risk of petty crimes goes up (don’t want to lose that welfare) — the tribal solution.

We’ll see if it comes to that, and which way we go.

sooth sayer April 3, 2009 9:45 AM


A system of radical equality —

You are offering a society based on no rules — that’s not a society.
The tribal solution as you call it, shows your lack understanding of tribal system. Generally speaking tribal’s don’t condone “any” theft.

Unlike as some believe (or would have you believe) the society only progresses when rights are preserved – right to own property is the most fundamental, without it, no one has a reason to join.

Caleb Jones April 3, 2009 9:46 AM

Which is why I think we need more controls in place in the commodity and futures trading markets. I find it ridiculous that someone (or a group of people) can invest in commodities, and thus raise demand and prices world-wide, while having no intention on actually consumption. I think that you should have to show proof of intent to consume (however that is best defined) in order to participate in those markets.

A classic, and recent, example of this is the oil price spike experienced over the last two years. It wasn’t driven by actual demand but rather by mere speculation. Requiring consumption (again, consumption could be defined loosely) in order to invest would tie commodity prices back to actual demand and prevent them from fluctuating based solely on hysteria.

Piper April 3, 2009 10:03 AM

Another popular theft for scrap value is beer kegs. They get stolen in two ways. One is just taking them from the stack out back behind a bar. The other way is by paying the deposit on a full keg of beer, drinking the beer, and then returning the empty keg to a recycler. The scrap value of a beer keg exceeds the deposit by a fair amount.

No, that $50 deposit on the keg does not mean you have “bought” the keg. It is still the property of the brewery, and selling it to a recycler is theft.

Many recyclers now refuse to accept beer kegs. They know damn well that they’re stolen, and they don’t want the heat.

Many states have also responded with “keg registration” laws: you have to show ID and register your name when you buy a keg of beer. This supposedly kills two birds with one stone, stopping underage people from buying kegs, and stopping keg theft.

The deposit theft, I would think, could be more easily solved by making deposit higher than the scrap value. It seems like an obvious approach, but apparently the brewers don’t like it, because they think people won’t want to put down a $200 deposit on a $90 keg of beer.

That doesn’t make much sense to me. What kind of beer buyer is it that has $140 to buy a keg of beer, but is completely unable to scrape together $290? An underage buyer, perhaps?

Pete Austin April 3, 2009 10:04 AM

One of the ways of preventing these thefts is to add random impurities to the iron draincovers or lead roofing, so the metal has no value as scrap.

Unfortunately this prevents them being economically recycled.

We need to make recycling easy for honest people, but inevitably this also makes resale easier for thieves.

Frank April 3, 2009 10:07 AM

Protecting all assets becomes in and of itself an intriguing problem. Typically this is done with fencing – example electric sub-stations and the like. At some point it is conceivable that the fencing itself becomes the target as opposed to that which it is protecting.

RH April 3, 2009 10:38 AM

I always viewed theivery as the social tax you mentioned, but never thought about them as a warning of future changes. The “theft” of MP3s is a perfect example; even the fact that I quoted “theft” is an example =) The piracy battle waged for years as criminals illegally shared music. The result? Years later, everyone agrees that the value of music has changed, and anyone using old buisness models is dying.

Curmudgeon April 3, 2009 10:45 AM

Guarding every house, every power line and every manhole against every class of thief from mafia-level organized crime to a meth head looking to pay for his next fix isn’t economically possible. We’re not rich enough as a society to afford that many guards.

In many cases, picking cheaper metals isn’t particularly feasible, either. Copper and aluminum are used for power lines for a reason: other affordable metals don’t conduct as well. Switching to steel wire would make the power grid much less efficient; the result would be much higher power prices.

Scrap metal buyers are definitely the narrowest point in the stolen metal supply chain. The legal regime needs to be changed so it becomes uneconomic for scrapyards to buy metal that’s probably stolen. If someone who isn’t a licensed roofer shows up at a scrap yard with a truck full of lead roofing tiles, the yard owner should call the police.

As for metal thieves themselves, the Saudis have the right idea. I’d go further and suggest castration for a first offense and execution for the second. Since this type of crime is so difficult to guard against, we might as well make damn sure the consequences for metal theft are as severe as possible and that repeat offenses are unlikely or impossible.

Nostromo April 3, 2009 10:45 AM

“the discrepancy between the value of the lead tiles to the original owner and to the thief. ”

Isn’t there a big discrepancy in almost all theft? I doubt that a fence would pay as much as 50% of the resale value of stolen goods to the thief. Further, a lot of theft involves breaking into something, causing expensive damage.

Adrian April 3, 2009 10:54 AM

These crimes are particularly expensive to society because the replacement cost is much higher than the thief’s profit.

I think I’m missing the point. Unless you’re stealing cash or gold, the value of the goods to the thief is typically far less than it is to the owner. What’s new about that?

Our house was burglarized. Thief took our pillowcases (presumably to haul the loot). No real resale value there, but buying a new set of linens was a real cost of us.

Thief took lots of jewelry, but he also dropped lots of earrings, leaving him/her with several unpaired sets. Most of it was “fashion” jewelry, so there was little gold and few precious stones.

Thief took a laptop, but not the proprietary power adapter.

Thief snatched an obsolete game console, but broke it in the process, rendering it virtually valueless.

Thief took our spare keys (house, car, and neighbor’s house). No value to him/her, since we immediately rekeyed everything (at great expense).

The only thing he got that was worth as much to him/her as it was to us was a jar of coins, and that was less than the cost of replacing the door he/she smashed to gain access to the house.

Steven Hoober April 3, 2009 11:28 AM

This all came up locally. A couple interesting bits:

1) There is a composite (non-metallic) manhole cover available apparently. It’s notably more expensive, and I guess has not been used enough anyone is sure it works in the long term. OTOH, it’s got no value except as a manhole cover.

2) They passed some sorta weird, marginal, edge-case laws (eventually) about having to show ID for sales of scrap over a certain amount; oh, and there are two states and dozens of municipalities, so the big city passing a law is of no consequence.
I say that receiving stolen goods laws already cover it. Prosecute exactly one scrap guy per state and the word will get out right quick there is no market.

3) Some guys were stealing copper from the local semi-government ammo plant, and only when they started bringing in entire pallets of these specialized little bits did the scrap dealer call it in. But at least eventually he realized something was up. Again, the dealers seem like the right choke point, regardless of the method by which this is achieved.

Petréa Mitchell April 3, 2009 11:39 AM

“[…] and only when they started bringing in entire pallets of these specialized little bits did the scrap dealer call it in. But at least eventually he realized something was up. Again, the dealers seem like the right choke point, regardless of the method by which this is achieved.”

Yes, most big cities (at least in the US) have some kind of local program set up where the scrap dealers can coordinate with law enforcement when people show up with suspicious-looking scrap. Some thieves have figured out they can “anonymize” their haul (e.g. by cutting up a stolen statue), but of course that imposes extra costs on them.

donna April 3, 2009 11:50 AM

My neighbor’s DVD players were stolen out of her van the other night, the neighbor on the other side is a sheriff whose patrol car is often parked in front of the house.

Thieves are stealing right now because they are broke and need the money. Even in high income areas with high security. Commodities are simply no exception at the moment, and anything unprotected, or even protected, is at risk right now.

Bob April 3, 2009 12:07 PM

@Nostromo and Adrian

You’re right on the money, and Bruce is (unusually for him) way off the mark.

“[T]he discrepancy between the value of the lead tiles to the original owner and to the thief” is certainly not novel.

More cases in point…

In 1986, I was robbed at gunpoint by two thieves who took my wallet and keys. The police said they probably took the cash ($15) and tossed the rest in a dumpster. The cost and effort of replacing my office key card ($150) and credit cards, and getting my apartment re-keyed, far exceeded what the thieves got out of it.

Around 1984, a family I knew had their house burgled by smash-and-grab thieves who got past the burglar-resistant front door by taking out the sidelight and door frame with a sledge hammer. The stereo they stole was worth a pittance compared to the damage they did.

The fact that people are doing this with commodities like copper and lead is neither new nor particularly interesting. When the Hunt brothers were trying to corner the silver market and ran the price of silver up to ridiculous levels, I believe there were a lot of burglaries aimed at stealing and smelting peoples’ silverware.

What I find much more interesting is the “sidewalk toll” in some parts of NYC. You walk down the street and a mugger pulls a knife on you. You hand them ten dollars, they put the knife away, transaction over. They don’t want your wallet, ATM card, cell phone, or anything else, just a little cash. People carry their toll money in a separate pocket from all their other junk so they can get it out easily. Much less hassle for everybody involved.

Steve April 3, 2009 12:36 PM

I was in Mexico for business in the late 1990’s and one of the things that struck me was that office buildings that used compact flourescent lights (relatively new and expensive at the time) had locking light fixtures to prevent them being stolen.

Hawke April 3, 2009 1:08 PM

From the Telegraph article link: “He was sentenced to an eight-month suspended jail term, given 100 hours of community service and put on curfew.”

From Bruce’s article: “These crimes are particularly expensive to society because the replacement cost is much higher than the thief’s profit.”

Maybe that list line should read: “These crimes are particularly expensive to society because the replacement cost is much higher than the cost to the thief.”

paul April 3, 2009 1:10 PM

The corollary to higher commodity prices is that it’s suddenly cost-effective to take some security measures that one might not otherwise bother with.

And the keg thing is pretty obviously a coordination problem: it’s easy to get a bunch of friends to chip in for the keg, rather harder to get them to chip in for the deposit and then be sure that you’ve returned the right amount to each one.

Thunderbird April 3, 2009 1:10 PM

“Bob,” Re the “sidewalk toll” in New York City, I googled ‘ “sidewalk toll” new york’ and got 28 hits. Not one referred to the phenomenon described of paying muggers to be let go. Not one referred to mugging or crime. To say I’m skeptical is an understatement–even if it were an urban legend I’d expect to find a few hits. Do you have some citations?

Ben April 3, 2009 1:22 PM

I hope most of the £10,000 the church spent was for the repair work, because there is a London scrapyard that pays £700 a ton for lead roof tiles, including both dismantling and delivery, as well as some amount of risk premium.

If they got charged much more than that for the tiles, they were robbed twice.

Pat Cahalan April 3, 2009 2:01 PM

I suspect the reason theft was rarer is that the population
was indoctrinated from cradle to grave with a rigid social
moral code

I suspect otherwise; I suspect that the middleware application (the scrap reseller, the pawn shop owner… effectively the “fence”) was significantly less easy to access.

@ Adrian, Bob, Nostromo

I think you’re missing some significant nuance. If you break into someone’s house, or mug an individual, you may be getting a net profit of $N for $Nx100 worth of damage to the target. But an individual property crime represents an economic cost to a single individual… and while you may have paid $Nx100 for the goods that the thieves took, the actual cost to replace those goods is likely nowhere near $Nx100. For the most part, the goods taken are luxuries, so you’re going to pass on replacing some of them and the others you’ll probably replace with upgrades (at least, new equipment).

That 2 year-old TV that you bought for $500 (and the thief sold for $5) may cost you $500 to replace, but it’s demonstrably not the same TV. In fact, if you had bought that TV two years ago instead of the one that was stolen, it might have cost you $1200. This means, interestingly, that you get some benefit out of the theft if you look at it as a time-factored cost; assuming you normally replace a television set every 5 years, you’ve paid $1,000 in total for having a $500 TV from 2006-2008 (the first two years) and what would have been a $1200 TV in 2006 (for $500 in 2008) for the next 3 years… plus you get two free years of TV out of the deal.

Even if you don’t get some of that $500 back from insurance, it can certainly be debated that you won out over all, if you discard the non-economic cost of hassle.

Commodity thefts like these are different; since they’re not luxury thefts but necessity thefts, they have to be replaced in their entirety… and moreover, since the high value of the item is part of the decision making process leading to its theft, you’re actually suffering what is likely to be a significantly higher replacement cost, with the same utility value.

Bob April 3, 2009 2:06 PM


The “sidewalk toll” term was my invention, and alas I can’t find any citations. So maybe I’m all wet. 🙂

Davi Ottenheimer April 3, 2009 2:46 PM

“We’ve designed much of our infrastructure around the assumptions that commodities are cheap and theft is rare.”

I thought the point of your article is that commodities are still cheap, but the cost to replace them is high. This is not because of the commodity cost, but because of the labor and associated damage (e.g. leaking roof) from loss.

So a security system should not be designed for high-value commodities, based on your writing, but rather to protect against damage after commodity theft even for low-value commodities.

You also seem to avoid the rise in number of agents, which might explain better the increase in attacks rather than price fluctuation (since commodities are still cheap, as you point out). In other words opportunity and means have shifted only slightly but motive has potentially seen a dramatic change from things like high unemployment.

GoatRider April 3, 2009 4:28 PM

Wait a minute. They’re still using lead on church roofs? Where it can leach into rainwater and fall on the children playing in the church playground? The thieves did them a favor.

Bob April 3, 2009 4:31 PM

@Pat Cahalan: I’m afraid I don’t see the nuance you refer to.

Bruce’s said he found it interesting that the stolen items were worth much less to the thieves than they were to the victims.

I suppose depreciation enters into this in a quantitative way, but not a qualitative one.

When my friends had their door bashed in with a sledge hammer and their stereo stolen – sure, the stereo had depreciated, and they eventually got a check from the insurance company, and probably wound up with a better stereo than before. They also got to guard their house in person 24×7 until they could get the door replaced, which was a serious problem because both spouses had very responsible jobs.

I’m sure if you asked them, they would have happily kept the old stereo and not had their house robbed. Even if they had gotten a check for the full replacement value of the door and the stereo, the wasted time and the hassle factor was worth a lot of money to them.

Roger April 3, 2009 5:33 PM

@Pat Cahalan:

I suspect otherwise; I suspect that the middleware application (the scrap reseller, the pawn shop owner… effectively the “fence”) was significantly less easy to access.

I’m not sure why you would think that. Metal has been recycled throughout history, and many other commodities were recycled far more extensively prior to post-World War 2 boom than they are now; modern recycling is more a revival than an invention (we still haven’t gone back to large scale recycling of worn out rope and domestically produced meat bones, as used to occur!) And pawn shops have existed since the Middle Ages.

“Fencing” developed into a sophisticated organised crime racket in the late eighteenth / early nineteenth century (read the history of Jonathan Wild, if you don’t already know his rather interesting story), and specialised anti-fencing laws and other measures were first introduced in the UK during the 1820s to combat the perceived crime wave. It was a crime wave by the standards of the previous century, but a ripple by modern standards (the historic pattern of property crime varies considerably from place to place, of course, but generally speaking in many western cities it declined fairly smoothly from the 1820s to the 1950s — with dips during the World Wars and a hump in the Great Depression — and started surging in the 1960s, breaking historic records by the late 1970s.)

Roger April 3, 2009 5:53 PM


Wait a minute. They’re still using lead on church roofs? Where it can leach into rainwater …

I’m not sure if you’re joking or not, so …

Metallic lead is extremely stable in most environments [1], which is why it was used in applications that required high corrosion resistance. Some of these roofs are close to a thousand years old, and yet show no detectable loss of metal.

It is a different story with lead compounds such as, say, tetraethyl lead which was formerly used as a petrol (gasoline) additive; burnt and then ejected into the surrounding air as microscopic particles, it could be easily absorbed by anyone breathing that air.

… and fall on the children playing in the church playground? The thieves did them a favor.

Churches have playgrounds?! Certainly not the ancient edifices that have lead roofs. They will be surrounded by nothing but very old graves, whose occupants do not mind lead at all — in fact, some of them were wrapped in it before burial!

  1. It is more stable in an alkaline environment than an acid one, but even in acid it corrodes very slowly, much more so than, say, copper. The main exception is citric acid, which greatly accelerates corrosion of lead. So, don’t have any fruit trees overhanging your lead roof, and it should be good for another thousand years. Unless someone steals it.

Clive Robinson April 4, 2009 5:23 AM

@ Davi Ottenheimer,

“You also seem to avoid the rise in number of agents, which might explain better the increase in attacks rather than price fluctuation… …but motive has potentially seen a dramatic change from things like high unemployment.”

I suspect that the price drop in scrap metal is actually a side effect of the high unemployment.

Non ferrous scrap metal is mainly used in manufacturing relating to mass consumer items not infrestructure.

The “credit crunch” that is being blaimed for the lack of consumer purchases has caused the rapid rise in manufacturing and retail jobs due to lack of consumer demand.

In turn this has ment that supply of base metals which where a scarce item even a year ago are now exceding demand and as a consiquence the price has dropped significantly.

However I do not belive that the price has dropped to the point where it will stop the theafts.

The reason for this is “local knowledge” what Bruce has not mentioned is that the area the thefts occured from is where “Smart water” was trialed due to excesivly high crime rates. Which he has blogged about in the past.

Croydon and Sutton are adjacent boroughs, and they are seperated by a tract of land known localy as “Bedington sewage farm”. This is to the south of the “Croyden Tram Link”. To the north of the tram is a “medium industrial zone” used to deal with amongst other things “municipal waste” production of construction materials (concreat and tarmac) demolition companies and a number of recycling operations (plastics rubber paper etc) as well as scrap yards. To the north east of this tract of land is a “social housing estate” that had the reputation of being a “sink hole” where the worst “dregs of society” where “put out of the way” and the “police fear to tred”.

A Little further across is an area used by “travelers”, “didicoys”, “gypos” and other “social misfits” who are assumed by many to be “muggers”, “house breakers” and “oportunistic theives” as well as being responsible for the high levels of “anti social” and “street” crime (including highly publisised violent rapes abductions and murders) prevalent in both Croyden and Sutton.

Although in reality it is not a “den of iniquity” it is an area of neglect and in previous times due to it’s “stigma” low cost and “social” housing where the avarage income etc was well below the norm of the more affluent surounding areas.

Unfortunatly when it came to “social works” the area was normaly last on everybodies list. It was the arival of the “tram link” and “housing crisis” that lifted it and started it’s regeneration. Unfortunatly the “credit crunch” and the “bottom droping out” of the housing market has stopped many “works in progress” and it has created a vacum that is quickly bringing back “oportunistic crime”.

Clive Robinson April 4, 2009 8:52 AM


In my above post the paragraph,

“The “credit crunch” that is being blaimed for the lack of consumer purchases has caused the rapid rise in manufacturing and retail jobs due to lack of consumer demand.”

Says the oposit of that, that I had intended…

It comes of changing my mind in terms of how to say it… Originaly it ended “rise in unemployment.”

But then I decided I should “qualify” which group of unemployed people I was actually talking about (manufacturing / retail jobs). In changing it I inadvertantly changed the meaning

Note to self : Re-read twice before posting 8(

soubriquet April 4, 2009 3:24 PM

I work for a company which has suffered from some of these crimes. I have also tracked down and led police to a thief who stole copper and lead pipes from one of our buildings. He was arrested, and at the time of his arrest was squealing with indignation because his van could not be locked, and the police were not interested in securing it. He was afraid it might be stolen or vandalised.
It is unlikely that he was awarded any penalty of sufficient severity to deter him from carrying out similar offences.
I would suggest, in these cases, that judges would assess the value/cost of a criminal’s actions, and then sentence them to repay it. Prisons would become modern workhouses, and nobody would leave until, by their labour, they had paid off their debt to society. Of course, if we factor in their share of the cost of police time, court time, transport, a share of the prison costs, including depreciation… their guards wages etcetera, it is possible they might never get out. Opting for a bare stone cell, and a bread and water diet might be worth a year or two off…
Or we could simply drop them down old coal mines. I find that idea slightly appealing.
If anyone whinges about my ideas being nasty and draconian, and inhuman, and infringing human rights, well, quite right, I agree. But if you don’t commit crimes, you won’t suffer the penalties. It’s your choice.

CommonSense April 4, 2009 8:42 PM

One of the things you guys are missing in the “prosecute the scrap yard guys” argument are the realities of the construction industry.

The people doing demolition are at the lowest rung of the pecking order — they’re often illegals and other casual workers with no ID at all.

Some shady person showing up at a scrapyard with a truck of lead isn’t exactly an exceptional event.

Filias Cupio April 5, 2009 8:21 PM

@sooth sayer:
“Margin on theft is huge – that’s why there are fences and laws against it.”

I’m fascinated by the fact that, of two radically different meanings of the word “fence”, I can’t figure out which one you mean. I’m thinking you were perhaps more likely to mean animate rather than inanimate fences.

kez April 5, 2009 9:20 PM

I disagree that “…there is no benefit [derived from implementing security mechanisms] other than reducing theft”. There is a service industry that benefits from developing and selling security mechanisms, like lockable manhole covers. The money that flows through this industry is a part of the general economic activity of society.

derek April 6, 2009 4:46 AM

We didn’t have a period where commodities were cheap. “Cheap” is a meaningless concept without an understanding of who would consider them cheap. What we had was a period where the working class (in UK terms, or the “strong middle class” to use the American euphemism) were well off.

That’s been destroyed over the period from 1979 to the present, and now we’re seeing a return to Victorian conditions of crime. Will the authoritarians succeed in matching that with Victorian conditions of punishment, or can we drag them kicking and screaming into the twentieth century, with its awful “unions”, “new deals”, “welfare”, and “fairness”? Keep watching.

BTW, I’ve been involved in specifying the mechanical properties of manhole covers: a non-metal manhole cover would not last a day in traffic.

Woo April 6, 2009 5:45 AM

At first I thought “How the heck can anyone steal a whole ton of lead shingles from a church roof without being noticed”.. and then I read the bridge incident report.
How many people need to be in this scheme to go unnoticed?!
You need to get on the roof, you need to get the shingles down somehow, you probably need a truck to get the stuff hauled away.. it’s not as if you could hide that easily.

Paeniteo April 6, 2009 6:24 AM

@Woo: “it’s not as if you could hide that easily.”

Then hide in plain sight by looking like you belong there.

uk visa lawyer April 6, 2009 8:21 AM

Given that the UK has one of the largest networks of video surveillance in the world – apparently covering every cashpoint machine – it shouldn’t be beyond our wits to point a few cameras at some of the dodgiest scrap dealers; it wouldn’t stop the problem completely but it might do a little bit of good…

Woo April 6, 2009 9:33 AM

@Paeniteo: at least the local priest/graveyard manager/whoever should know whether he ordered some roof work to be done or not.. 😉

Jason April 6, 2009 12:51 PM

I think Bruce is a little late to the party on this one…

I first started hearing about copper thefts around 2005. That’s when I started noticing that Home Depot was putting anti-theft alarms on packages of bulk copper tubing: the same alarms they’d use to protect a high-end cordless drill or somesuch.

Looking at graphs at, it seems that in 2005, the price of copper popped up from $2/pound to $4/pound.

In the Current Economic Climate ™, guess where prices are today? Back below $2/pound. I predict a sudden end to copper theft.

It seems to me that the deciding criterion for theft of bulk materials is, “If I pick this thing up and walk away with it right now, can I sell it for enough to buy a bag of groceries / a six-pack of beer?”

Massive theft of tons of materials, like the lead tiles in the article, seems to me to be a rather unusual case, compared to casual “pick it up and walk off” theft.

Michael April 6, 2009 5:41 PM

A few years ago in Atlanta, there were a series of smash ‘n’ grabs on a large scale. Thugs would steal cars and drive them through the glass entrances of malls after hours, grab an armful of clothes, then leave in a waiting car. talk about a value discrepancy.

ZZMike April 7, 2009 6:00 PM

The cost to the victim (including the city, in the case of manholes) is irrelevant to the thief. He will steal a mahogany box and throw out a million $$ worth of tiny electronics.

Many recycle lots make you show ID. One near us wanted us to fill out forms to give them 6 padlocks that no longer worked. We let them keep the locks and the 50c we would have gotten for them.

I doubt any reputable yard would accept a manhole cover. It’s the disreputable ones you have to watch out for.

Late last year there was a news item about a city whose tornado alarm siren had been stolen, so it didn’t sound when it should have.

Derek: “a non-metal manhole cover would not last a day in traffic. ”

OK, use depleted-uranium covers. Takes a big crane to move, lasts forever.

Deb April 17, 2009 12:13 AM

From a developing country point of view, such phenomena are born out of social inequalities. We in India hear all the time about copper telephone wire & manhole covers being stolen, not to talk of telephone instruments/parts from public booths and many other sordid things. In fact, the point is, anything which can be of value to a tramp is never to be left openly accessible. Funnily, only yesterday one of our cheauffers had his shoes stolen from right outside the common resting room of our office complex, where he was taking a afternoon nap!

Danny May 17, 2009 2:41 PM

@ Roger

“Metallic lead is extremely stable in most environments [1], which is why it was used in applications that required high corrosion resistance. Some of these roofs are close to a thousand years old, and yet show no detectable loss of metal.”

There is not a lead roof in existence that has lasted anywhere near one thousand years and in truth, there are very few Churches in England that are that old. One of the oldest is in Brixworth, Northamtonshire where there is a 7th century Saxon Church, but it does not have a lead roof.

Typically, a lead roof will last over 200 years and I have seen evidence of a roof that is over 250 years old, but over that the roof fails and is replaced.

The main cause of failure is due to oversizing often coupled with overfixing. Lead sheet on buildings is usually fixed externally and is thus subjected to conditions of changing temperature. Lead has a high coefficient of linear expansion and when the difference between the winter and summer temperatures are taken into account the result of a simple calculation will show an increase in the size of the sheet. If thermal expansion and contraction cannot take place freely there will be a risk of distortion and stress which in time will cause the lead to buckle and crack. Then there is moisture corrosion and wind-lift and weight and all in all, they add up to a material that can last, but not anywhere close to one thousand years.

Tboots August 7, 2012 7:41 AM

Why have the criminals started this type of crime? Their gain is small, very small compared to earnings in the drug business, financeworld etc.

Powerty. Why are there so many poor people in the USA?

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