On 13th September 2019 the Suffolk Mercury newspaper reported that an historical stone shield with a value in the region of £1000 had been stolen from St. Mary’s church in Badley, Suffolk. The newspaper report claimed ‘The carved stone crest was taken from St Marys Church in Badley at some point between Saturday, June 1 and Saturday, September 7 ‘. An identical article appeared on the same day in the Stowmarket Mercury and both coincided with a Tweet by The Churches Conservation Trust, the owner of St. Mary’s, lamenting the news.
The appeal for information on the whereabouts of the shield and more importantly, the perpetrator of the theft, was accompanied by the following photographs:
It must be stressed that the photographs are represented here at the same resolution they appeared in the reports.
The shield crowned the pediment of the Robins monument and displayed the family heraldry. Charles Robins (d. 1730) was a prominent lawyer, originally from Bedfordshire. His wife Henrietta Maria (in whose memory alone the Churches Conservation Trust guidebook attributes the monument) died three years earlier in 1728. In his will, Charles desired burial ‘at Badley in the same vault as my late dearest wife and to be carried there in the same manner‘. Their very presence at Badley may be explained by Charles’ association with Henry Poley, Member of Parliament for Ipswich, whose family seat was at nearby Columbine Hall, and with whom Charles had practised as a fellow at Lincoln’s Inn.
This conservatively decorated neo-classical monument was probably erected soon after Henrietta Maria died, set against the external south wall of the chancel at St. Mary’s, directly over the new family vault. With no evidence of any side chapels, no obvious footings or foundations remaining in the ground outside, the monument has apparently always been exposed to the elements, the patina and moss growing on the stone giving the monument an even more dramatic appearance to those visiting St. Mary’s. The surrounding wall has been rendered and contrasts sharply with the rest of the stonework but this is probably due to maintenance of the monument in recent years rather than evidence of any past architectural feature. At the time of writing, the author has been unable to identify any particular maker, artist or mason for this memorial.
St. Mary’s is set in an isolated location against a thicket along a narrow track about a mile from the main Stowmarket to Needham Market road in north-east Suffolk. Mentioned in the Domesday Survey of 1086, the site has been a place of worship for over nine hundred years, the surviving fabric, both externally and internally, representing almost every historical period. There are pews from the eighteenth century and ledger stones from the same period. Declared redundant in 1986, St. Mary’s was considered of outstanding historical, archaeological and architectural interest and was accordingly placed into the care of The Churches Conservation Trust.
This author visited St. Mary’s church on 10th July 2020, within a year of the Tweet and newspaper reports. Photographing the monument in detail, his visit prompted him to consider the following questions.
Was the shield stolen?
One could reasonably question whether the shield was actually stolen. Could the artefact have fallen from its fixings and subsequently taken into safe-keeping by a well-meaning local, unaware of a police investigation into its theft? The shield had hung steadfast atop the Robins monument for almost three hundred years, set on an external wall and exposed to the Suffolk weather for all that time. Indeed, stone monuments, even when protected from water ingress inside churches, suffer from the corrosion of their internal iron frames, from the damp environmental conditions. So it wouldn’t be unreasonable to imagine that the shield could have finally succumbed to perishing fixings and fallen. Its fall would have been broken by the memorial’s stone base at ground level and one would expect some damage at impact with the ground, stone fragments also being scattered across a narrow debris field in the vicinity.
The fixing pegs however, show no rust nor other patina and appear not to be of a type contemporary with the erection of this monument in the early 1700s. In fact, these fixings appear to be comparatively modern. The (now) protruding and quite robust pegs also appear to be heavily twisted, suggesting some substantial force, or even some kind of power-tool, has been employed to remove the shield from the monument. The degree of warping indicates a deliberate and forceful removal of the shield from its provenance.
When was it taken?
The most important question, however, hangs over the date of the theft.
The Churches Conservation Trust would have been alerted to the theft immediately the crime was discovered on 7th September 2019. It took six days for the CCT’s Tweet to appear, the same amount of time taken for the incident to be reported in the local press. The shield could easily have been transported internationally by a determined and professional gang within such a space of time.
The reports all describe the theft occurring after Saturday 1st June 2019. But where did this date come from? Was this an arbitrary date because nobody could actually remember the last time they saw the memorial intact? The material date and time being critical to any investigation, it is worth eliminating any margin of error.
With a whole cohort of historic-church enthusiasts uploading images of churches to multiple social-media sites and personal blogs, a cursory search of online open-sources can quickly assist an enquiry. After only an hour, the author found a photo, taken on 27th January 2018, revealing that the shield was already missing by that date, a whole eighteen months before the CCT and the newspaper articles suggest the theft occurred.
This date in January 2018 was obtained from the EXIF data from the image file. These data can be extracted using Adobe Photoshop or any number of free EXIF data tools available online. However, the EXIF data is only as reliable as the camera recording the image. If the date in the camera taking the original image is wrong, the EXIF data could be wildly misleading. That this date is accurate is corroborated by the fact that the photo was included in an online blog article by Yalda Davis, which reported that she had visited and taken the photo on exactly that date, the post recounting the exploration of some churches in Suffolk including St. Mary’s Badley.
This information concludes that the the theft of the shield had gone unnoticed for at least a year and a half.
A credible date-range for the theft cannot therefore be established. The timeframe is broad and with the most recent photo which shows the monument intact, with the shield in-situ, dating to 2013, we can only conclude that the shield went missing some time between 2013 and June 2019; unless further information is forthcoming. This a window of six years. Further examination of the pegs and their lack of corrosion might be able to narrow this margin.
The resulting lack of a material date and time immediately highlights two issues.
Firstly, heritage assets in remote sites are particularly vulnerable to theft. When these types of crimes occur, local people who cherish heritage sites and monuments can feel violated and the shockwaves are often felt far beyond the immediate locality. Indeed, St. Mary’s Badley has national and international historical connections. The isolated setting of rural, remote, and particularly redundant, churches offers a huge opportunity for thieves but often hinders any forensic leads for those investigating crimes. With such a wide timeframe between occurrence and discovery, the amount of opportunity for appropriate and proportionate enquiries is negligible.
We need to encourage far greater interest in local heritage amongst local communities. Engaging walkers, cyclists, and others who enjoy the countryside, along with a massively increased number of heritage volunteers, is paramount for heritage conservation and associated security strategies. Both the owners of such isolated heritage assets and police rural crime teams must work together far more intimately. Security audits detailing vulnerable heritage assets also need to be undertaken far more regularly than at present.
Secondly, there is a dearth of proper catalogue entries recording vulnerable artefacts. This needs to be addressed with some urgency, as does the introduction of routine and vigorous security audits. The Church of England has already begun, in earnest, an audit of its vast estate. Smaller organisations need to do the same.
The lack of usable, metric, high-resolution photographs, kept in a single, searchable and immediately-accessible database is still wanting. It can take days or weeks to obtain, often via a third party, an image to include in an appeal for a stolen historical artefact. Once taken, historical artefacts and architectural features can never be replaced, making the photographic record all the more critical. The CCT’s historic collection is both uninsurable and irreplaceable.
More information about St. Mary’s, Badley, Suffolk, on the CCT’s website – https://www.visitchurches.org.uk/visit/church-listing/st-mary-badley.html
Will of Charles Robins PROB 11/646/37 – National Archives
Letter from Samuel Manning at Badley to Mr. Robins at Mr. Poley’s chamber in Lincoln’s Inn reporting on the value of the wood at Columbine Hall. Suffolk Archives, Ipswich – HA1/D/B/3/13