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Last Updated: Friday, 21 January, 2005, 11:39 GMT
Highway robbery
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Traffic cones, post box and Little Britain village sign

Road signs, street names, manhole covers, post boxes... why are so many objects on Britain's roads being stolen?

It's like the nation's caught up in one long Freshers Week.

Post boxes pinched, manhole covers missing and road signs raided. Even the signs telling motorists they've entered Llanddewi-Brefi have been stolen since the Welsh village became famous in Little Britain.

In one sense, this is nothing new. The street signs of Abbey Road have long been targeted by souvenir hunters keen to own a piece of Beatles memorabilia. But the craze for uprooting something from the street seems to have become more common and varied.

The first reaction is to dismiss the thieves as drunken students performing a standard rite of passage. And that tradition is still very much alive.

Cone rivalry

A 19-year-old student known as Mr G plans to paint his newly-acquired traffic cone green and use it as a tree. He says there's a "glory" to getting away with it and displaying it at home, with road signs among the most sought-after items.

RECENT THEFTS
Rural post box
Post boxes: 11 in Somerset, four in Shropshire
Manhole covers: 130 in Aberdeenshire, 100 in Co Durham, 50 in Fife, 48 in Gloucestershire
Road signs: Dozens in Co Durham, three in Llanddewi-Brefi
Traffic cones: Scarborough, East Devon, Suffolk

"Sometimes it is a competition, a sort of friendly rivalry," he says. 'Trophying' is when you steal something from another university college.

Kevin, 21, amassed road cones, "keep left" arrows and street signs. "After a bit to drink and with a few mates it seemed like a good laugh, and my college's JCR at university did run an unofficial competition to see who stole the most strange things."

Signs with unusual names are also prey to pranksters, as residents of an Austrian town which shares its name with an English swear word found to their cost last year.

This penchant for something silly is mainly driven by the thrill of the theft, says psychologist Berenice Mahoney, an expert in criminal behaviour, unlike those after a genuine piece of popular culture.

The Little Britain thefts are the latest in a tradition of disappearing cult street and town names which began with Abbey Road and Penny Lane, at a time when having street signs in the living room was quite fashionable.

'Street jewellery' commands a high price and if someone can find a buyer and get a quick buck, they will
Carl Burge, dealer in memorabilia
This was continued in the 90s by fans of Portishead who, ominously for the Bristol satellite town, are making a comeback. But the culprits may not all be real fans getting hold of something to treasure.

"Clearly these things are not works of art in the broader sense, they're quite functional objects," says Dr Mahoney. "There was a trend for stealing VW badges and selling them on, so when it's linked to popular culture, people will inevitably acquire it to sell it on. It's a token which is evidence of what you've done and links you fundamentally to a particular time or place in culture."

'Fair game'

She says what binds the pranksters and the genuine cult fans who don't sell on their loot is a feeling they don't consider what they're doing to be criminal, plus the likelihood the acts are alcohol-driven.

"It's a fringe activity which you couldn't put with other crimes because they're almost seen as public property, victimless crime, so some people are amused when local authorities get outraged by it.

"Of course it's vandalism but if you live there and pay your community charge, there's a feeling of community ownership so it doesn't feel like a proper crime and they feel more comfortable doing it. It's a sort of titillation not motivated by money but something else."

Others, however, would deem it as serious as any other theft.

Policemen display post box in Buckingham Palace
Pillar box and phone box thefts are labour-intensive
There is cash to be earned for the right items, however mundane. Manhole covers fetch a price on the scrap metal market, but this greed comes with a disregard for the safety of cyclists and pedestrians, given that people in China have died falling down exposed drains.

A glance on eBay shows there is a lucrative market for the right stuff, with a traditional red phone box priced at 2,150, although dealers says an old K2 version can fetch more than 6,000.

Prices for iconic British items are rising as more of our heritage disappears, says Carl Burge, a dealer and collector in British memorabilia such as red phone boxes and enamel signs.

More than half the enquiries to his website are from abroad, prompted by images from television shows such as Fawlty Towers.

Phone box thefts

"There's a big market for these things going to the States. Older London street signs are making 200 and some are being stolen, which is sickening.

"Milestones, which are Grade II listed, are very 'stealable' items - you just need a spade and a pickaxe - and I've seen some at auction, which is atrocious, and I walked away. But 'street jewellery' commands a high price and if someone can find a buyer and get a quick buck, they will."

Although not aware of any phone box thefts, he says it probably goes on.

But some communities are fighting back.

Concern about what's disappearing from British streets, by either natural wear-and-tear or by theft, has led to the Local Heritage Initiative refurbishing signs and raising awareness about their historical value.

Here is a selection of your comments. Thanks for contributing to the debate.

My brother (a student) gave his friend the sign to our cul-de-sac for his 21st. It sat in the garage for two weeks before the party and his friend was rather pleased with is one off 21st present. I on the other hand was rather annoyed that everytime i ordered a taxi it took the half an hour to find my cul-de-sac as the sign was missing.
Louise, UK

Whatever these pranksters take results in a crime being commited. However if they were to focus their attentions on speed cameras, then I think medals should be handed out!
Wayne, Nottingham, England.

I did a pillar box collection for Royal Mail two weeks ago and was not amused when I couldn't find two boxes. I drove around and around and then had to knock on a member of public's house to make sure I wasn't going mad. It turns out that rural pillar boxes do a raoring trade on e-bay. How sad!
Paul, Kent

Signs, cones, manhole covers - amateurs! Certain people I visited at university had a full working set of traffic lights wired up and bolted to their lounge wall. I hasten to add these and many other items were returned when the local authority had its "amnesty" at the end of each academic year.
Matt Lee, Uinted Kingdom

In my student days I liberated a push button from a pedestrian crossing, unfortunately due to CCTV cameras and a zero tolerance policy I gained a police caution for theft. A few years on and I haven't removed anymore street furniture and now have a clean record. It may seem like harmless fun, but try explaining it at a job interview.
Neil, Bradford

Councils could raise revenue selling things like old postboxes on ebay themselves and replacing them with cheaper, newer ones that would be less attractive to steal. Otherwise, put them in a museum, but there's no point in sentimentalism. There are more important things to worry about than this!
Peter, UK

A scooter or motorcycle ridden over a removed manhole cover would almost certainly result in serious injury or death. It's not difficult to anticipate that this could be the likely outcome of their actions, and people who take such items should be facing very serious charges.
Peter, England

In my teenage years, such acts were common. I have awoken to find my car kitted with a large garage 'Pick of the Week' sign on its roof, and on another occasion, a 'roadworks' was set up around it, comprising of bollards, tape, flashing lamps and 'Men at Work' sign! There was never malicious intent, and when items such as For Sale signs were purloined, the neighbours were probably happier that they'd been removed. These things happen, and will continue to happen. As long as no danger is posed, then I don't see a huge problem.
James, West Molesey, UK

Just to show that the signs do have some life after being "borrowed", during my student days myself and my housemates made a sign that we "borrowed" into a coffee table.
V, GB

We had our flat raided through false information maliciously given to police. The police kicked the front door in at 6am when we were all sleeping and trashed the place. When they couldnt find anything they arrested and cautioned the flat owner for stealing a traffic cone (with light attachment) and subsequently were free of any responsibility of reproach for the damage they caused...hahaha
Floydy, UK

There was a supermarket close to where I live, I am sure it was there last night.... has anybody seen it?
Fabio, United Kingdom

We used to commonly find cones and signs in our dorms in Durham, we used to also see what the largest thing you could persuade a drunk person to carry back for you. One guy managed to get a really heavy men at work sign back!! Overall though, all in good fun! What would university be about if you can't wear a traffic cone on your head!!!
Will, London

In my student halls the most popular 'steal' used to be the flashing lights typically placed on roadworks/skips. One lad had so many in his room that the whole place flashed and you could see his room flashing from across the courtyard at night.
Gemma, London

There was a lot of this going on when I was at university in the 80s, the ultimate prize seemed to be the "Danger of Death" signs from electicity sub-stations. Frightening. Hate to sound like my Dad, but the perpetrators should have enjoyed a police cell for the night and a day in court! (Much like lads who stole the exit barrier from the carpark, but that's another story...)
Graham Cole, UK

I've long known about sign stealing, though never participated in it myself. I tend to disagree with the main idea that it is alcohol stemmed though. Coming from the States, all of my friends who have stolen street signs were never drunk...it was more of a "cool thing" to do and a badge of honor to have the best sign in your flat...for us it never seemed like anything you would label a "crime". So don't worry, this isn't just a one country epidemic...
Lauren, London

Harmless fun? - yes sometimes when its a traffic cone perhaps - of which there are far too many anyway. But stealing public property to sell is just greed. As for being a crime like any other, all crimes vary in seriousness - but taking manhole covers or items of heritage - that's wrong full stop.
Alex, England

In my student nights out, I use to steal cones Monday night, pick cabbages Wednesday night and race wheelie bins Thursday night. Just a typical student night out for me and my friends in Derby
Shaun, GB




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