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Dover man jailed for stealing church lectern worth thousands and gifted to St John the Evangelist in Kingsdown more than century ago

A debt-ridden dad stole an “irreplaceable” church lectern worth thousands before hacking it from its plinth to be sold as scrap.

Robert Watson and an unidentified accomplice left worshippers at St John the Evangelist Church in Kingsdown, near Deal, "in anguish and sadness" after swiping the historical artefact.

Robert Watson was said to be “deeply terrified of prison”. Pic: Facebook
Robert Watson was said to be “deeply terrified of prison”. Pic: Facebook

One branded the theft of the ornately-decorated relic, which had been gifted to the church more than 100 years ago, "a heinous act".

Damage of more than £1,600 was also caused to the church's solid oak doors, as well as Victorian floor tiles from the apparent dragging of the 6ft tall brass lectern, which featured a winged eagle and was covered in semi-precious stones.

The court heard Watson's van was captured on CCTV pulling up outside the 19th century church in Upper Street at about midnight on May 2, 2022, and then left half-an-hour later with a passenger.

In that time, the church door lock was smashed, a bible stand knocked over, tiles smashed and scuffed, and the heavy lectern itself ripped from its base before being hauled along the floor and into the waiting van.

The break-in was discovered later that morning and 27-year-old Watson, from Dover, was arrested the next day in his vehicle.

Prosecutor Ben Wild said inside was the lectern's wooden plinth and a hacksaw bearing traces of a brass-like substance.

Police also discovered that Watson's van tracker had been disabled two months earlier, and that his phone had "a complete lack of data activity" during the time of the burglary, compared to activity every two minutes or so both before and after.

"The Crown infer he had turned off his phone to avoid detection," added Mr Wild.

The brass lectern was described as "unique and irreplaceable". Picture: Robert Wiseman
The brass lectern was described as "unique and irreplaceable". Picture: Robert Wiseman

Watson gave two 'No comment' interviews and did not assist police in either tracking down the missing lectern or even acknowledging others were involved.

He later admitted burglary and at his sentencing hearing on February 14 the significant impact of the theft was described in victim personal statements, including one from the Revd Carolyn Wood.

She said the treasured lectern had "a value far higher than simple monetary worth" and was "unlikely" to ever be replaced.

"The theft caused anguish among the congregation and parishioners alike as it had been a prominent feature in the church for over 100 years," Revd Wood wrote.

"For many it is inconceivable that the church, which has stood at the heart of the community, should be treated with such a lack of respect and a disregard for its standing.

"There remains a great deal of hurt feelings and sadness as a consequence of the break-in."

Church warden Elizabeth Bembridge added in her statement to police: "This has been a heinous act which will cause us great trouble to replace as it is a historical artefact."

Kieran Brand, defending, said Watson had not made any money from the theft as he was "effectively caught red-handed" and arrested the next day, with the lectern having been "left with" his accomplice and "assumingly sold for scrap".

Damage to the oak church doors through which Robert Watson and his accomplice forced entry. Picture: Robert Wiseman
Damage to the oak church doors through which Robert Watson and his accomplice forced entry. Picture: Robert Wiseman

But on urging the court to impose a suspended sentence, Mr Brand said Watson, of Tower Hamlets Road, had behaved "highly out of character" at a time when he was struggling financially.

He said that despite working for a railway company as a gang driver, shifts were limited and irregular, and Watson had become a father for the first time just a few months prior to the burglary.

"With those pressures, he was offered quick and easy money, gave in to temptation and committed the offence as alleged," added Mr Brand.

He also told the court that despite being arrested in May 2022, his first appearance in court was not until November last year, and that a remorseful Watson, whose partner is due to give birth in July, was "deeply terrified" of prison.

"He leads a very quiet and law-abiding life after what he calls a blip," said Mr Brand.

"He has shown that he is able to remain out of trouble and presents as someone who will continue to do so."

But on jailing the thief for 12 months, Judge Simon James said there were some offences "just too serious" to warrant anything other than immediate imprisonment.

He told Watson: "You broke into St John the Evangelist church and stole a brass lectern which had been a prominent feature of local worship for over 100 years.

Robert Watson has been jailed for his part in the break-in at St John the Evangelist Church in Kingsdown. Pic: Facebook
Robert Watson has been jailed for his part in the break-in at St John the Evangelist Church in Kingsdown. Pic: Facebook

"It was ornately decorated with a winged eagle in solid brass. It was quite simply unique and irreplaceable.

"If the deliberate targeting and violation of a place of worship wasn't bad enough, you caused over £1,600 damage to the historic fabric of the building before cutting the brass from its wooded plinth and handing over this culturally and religiously significant artefact presumably to be sold as scrap.

"The monetary loss caused by your offending is dwarfed by the enduring hurt, sadness and distress caused to the whole community."

Judge James said he accepted "without hesitation" that Watson was in debt at the time.

But he added that while many people struggled financially and without work, there were "very few, if any, who decide the way forward is to drive to a church, smash through its historic oak door and take a sacred item to sell for a quick and easy profit".

On reaching his decision to lock Watson up, Judge James said he had "considered carefully" the adverse impact of such a sentence on his young family as well as the current pressures on the prison system.

He concluded however that the appropriate punishment for targeting a “vulnerable” public building also required "a deterrent element".

"Breaking into a place of worship and stealing irreplaceable items of cultural, historical and religious significance is so serious that no other sentence can be imposed," the judge told Watson.

"Despite all that has been said on your behalf and your strong personal mitigation, I am forced to the conclusion that your offending has had such a profound and widespread impact on the community that only an immediate sentence of imprisonment can be justified."

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