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History experts turn detective to foil heritage thieves

A thief who dug up and stole a historic boundary marker from the Kennet & Avon Canal has been caught out by amateur sleuths, who tracked down the culprit when he sold the item on ebay.

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When someone suggested ebay it sounded like looking for a needle in a haystack.
David Viner

The Great Western Railway iron boundary marker, which dates back to 1917, was stolen last autumn from the gardens of the listed Aldermaston Wharf Cottage on the canal-side in West Berkshire.

One of our own heritage advisors and volunteers from the local Kennet & Avon Canal Trust were quickly on the case. Trawling ebay as one lead, they saw the item had been sold, who had bought it and traced the culprit.

Wayne Sangwell, 44, was convicted of the theft at the Reading Magistrates' Court on Monday, 3June. The court ordered him pay a fine of £110, plus £270 costs. At the time of the theft Mr Sangwell had been contracted by the Kennet & Avon Canal Trust to run their popular café and shop based at the Aldermaston Wharf Cottage.

David Viner, heritage advisor, who was one of those who helped retrieve the marker, said: “We are delighted to have tracked the boundary marker down and got it back safely, it's an important part of the history of the railway and canal. Thanks must go to volunteers from the K&A Canal Trust too, as they wouldn't let it lie. When someone suggested ebay it sounded like looking for a needle in a haystack.

“Fortunately, the thief had placed a photo of the marker online which included part of the canal cottage in the view. The buyer was mortified when we got in touch, but credit to them for returning it so swiftly.

“Heritage theft like this is on the increase. But it's not just canals, there have been recent examples of vandals plundering major archaeological sites, listed buildings and especially churches where thieves target the lead roofing. That's why we need to take action; the thief knew exactly what he was doing. We are very happy that the police and courts have pursued this case. Hopefully it will serve as a warning to others and make them think twice about following suit.”

The Great Western Railway Company owned the Kennet & Avon Canal for nearly a century and their distinctive cast-iron boundary markers were used when there was no natural boundary, like a wall or road, to mark the border of their land. The marker has an embossed head bearing details of the company which is attached to a section of railway track very well set into the ground.

Removal of heritage assets and other heritage crimes are an increasing problem nationally. As well as benefitting from the work of volunteers, the Trust works closely on cases with bodies such as English Heritage, which has set up the Alliance to Reduce Crime against Heritage (ARCH) and also has a police inspector seconded to them as their National Policing Adviser.

Last Edited: 06 June 2013

photo of a location on the canals
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