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Most people in the village will by now be aware of the removal of the old church contents by Wakefield Diocese. This month we have decided to bring you an account of facts which even now leave us with more questions than answers.
Our first correspondences with Wakefield Diocese were in December 2011. We sent several emails to Helen Price in relation to the condition of the church building, broken windows and a lack of proper fencing around the site was amongst the factors which were accelerating the demise of the building at that time. It was only with the intervention of Wakefield Council that the diocese erected a new safety fence around the building. It wasn’t until August in 2011 that efforts were made to secure windows on the building - Almost six months after we were assured by Helen work would be carried out in the spring.
By December 2011 the building was still far from secure, bars had been fitted to the two small from windows but very little else had been done. It was in January 2012 that we bumped into the caretaker of the building in the churchyard, he told us that the contents had been sold by the diocese a few months before. He also told us all that was left inside was the oak font cover as the contractor who cleared the church said he would return for the font as it was too large to take at the same time as clearing the rest of the building, but he never did. During our conversation the caretaker went on to say the church would soon be demolished, and that when it was he was going to have the gargoyles from the towers as water features in his garden. This was three months prior to any demolition proposals being made public.
In March 2012 a small notice for proposed demolition was put on page 90 of the Wakefield Express, a week that saw plans for a traveller site in Stanley released. Many people believe this to be deliberate attempt to try deter objections for the demolition of the church.
Some 120 people wrote objections to the demolition in writing to the church commissioners and then attended the open consolation at the church centre in Stanley on March 12. During this meeting (which we videoed) we were told by Helen Price she did not have the authority to remove any listed items from the church and that she had only sold the chairs from the building because they were a fire hazard. Helen went on to say that the alter & misericords had been stolen the week before. She also told us she had reported the theft that very day to the police. She blamed people for breaking into the building to take photos with the view of publishing them on the internet, this was she said the reason the items had been stolen.
It would seem that this was a smoke screen used to hide the fact the items had been removed from the building with or without knowledge of the diocese. The building had been unsecured for long periods so Helens claims that people had broken in were incorrect.
We were contacted by Janet Witham on March 30th of Misericords UK via the Stanley history website, asking if the misericords had been removed from the church. We replied back to her that indeed they had been stolen, or so we were told , so could she ring me with details of what information she had. Over the next few days we spoke to Janet who put us onto a antiques dealer Jane Walton who was in possession of four of the misericords. Janet also made me aware of two that were up for auction at Christies in London.
Jane Walton told us when we contacted her that she had four of them and knew the whereabouts of at least one other. At this stage we asked Jane for the details of the person who she had bought them from. Jane passed all the details onto us which we then passed onto the police. We were given the crime number 499 31-3
On Sunday April 1st we rung Helen Price at home after we again had spoken to the police who told us for the crime to be investigated, Helen must ask them to proceed with an investigation. The police gave us Helens home number so we rung to urge her to push the police with a view of getting these items back. The misericords are unique items, possibly the last to be commissioned in the UK and most certainly the only ones in existence depiction the 16 stages of creation.
During the conversation she told us one of her contractors tried to sell one of the misericords in 2011 on eBay, an item she recovered but did not mention in our meeting at the church centre 12th March 2012. That item had been sat in her office for several months, nobody had told us about this. We then told her that we had been told by both Janet and Jane that the stolen misericords must have been removed from the building prior to when Helen claimed they had been stolen. In Jane’s own words, the misericords at Christies must have been entered for auction around Christmas time to be in the February auction. It was at this stage Helen mentioned the possibility they could have been removed, but would not blame the contractor who she used to remove the chairs that were a fire hazard. Again, at this time Helen maintained the alter had also been stolen.
On the 3rd April we discussed the matter with Paul Dainton, a local campaigner who is experienced in such issues as this. He also spoke to Helen Price, he too was told very little.
Between April and July Paul Dainton was in constant touch with Wakefield Diocese and Wakefield Police. Paul had written several letters to both the Diocese and the Police demanding information on what had actually taken place with regards to the removal of the church contents.
On Friday 27th April 2012 we received a phone call from Detective Kevin Smith from Wood Street Police Station regarding the statement we had emailed him on Thursday 26 April. He informed us that he was now in possession of various emails between Helen Price of Wakefield Diocese and her contractor relating to the sale of the church contents. A young gentleman at the 12 March meeting at Saint Peters Church Centre, Oliver Wood who works with Helen Price passed the Police all the emails which were sent in October 2011.
Kevin went on to say he had recovered the misericord which Helen’s contractor tried to sell on eBay, the contractor had agreed with Helen to buy the wooden font cover, choir stalls, seats - basically everything from the church prior to its demolition - again, this was done in October last year.
Kevin has also recovered 5 misericords which were in the possession of John Wiseman, an antiques dealer in London. Kevin was at that time in the process of recovering the two from Christies Auction House.
Paul Dainton was contacted by Wakefield Police in May by letter to be told the case had been closed, the located miseriocrds had been returned to Helen Price. The letter stated that the police could not give us any information regarding the investigating. For that we would have to contact the Bishop of Pontefract who was dealing with the matter for the Bishop of Wakefield.
Several letters from Paul to The Bishop prompted a meeting in July between myself, Paul, The Bishop and the Diocese Solicitor. The purpose of the meeting was to clarify how the church contents left the building, were they sold or stolen was the question.
In attendance were myself and Paul Dainton along with The Bishop of Pontefract & Wakefield Diocese’s Legal Adviser. We requested the meeting in three separate letters to the Diocese over the last few months to clarify what had actually taken place regarding the removal of the church contents. We were only given this meeting after Paul wrote two letters of complain to the police with regards to the outcome of their investigation which we were told nothing.
After outlining our concerns over specifically the misericords (which we located eight of back in March) that had been removed from the church (presumed stolen) we were told by the Diocese Legal Adviser that even though the items in question were paid for by public subscription, they were the property of the church. She went on to tell us that the CoE is exempt from Listed Building and Contents Law - They in effect can sell Listed Items without the need for permission. This is infact incorrect - Items can only be removed if the church is still in use, once closed fixtures and fittings become part of the listed status.
Paul asked then why could we not be given a list of items that were sold from the church with the authority of Helen Price - Wakefield Diocesean Manager to which the Bishop stated the contractor Helen used to clear the church was allowed to enter the building unaccompanied and remove all what he deemed as loose items.
The Bishop then went on to tell us that the same contractor had tried to sell one of the misericords on eBay last year, (which we already knew about) and infact was in possession of a further eight which he has now handed back to Wakefield Diocese.
Of the remaining seven, we located five via Jane Walton and John with the remaining two at Christies in London. These seven were bought at Newark Trade Fair earlier in the year so we are told.
We were also told all misericords except the two at Christies have been recovered, we are told efforts are being made to recover those.
When asked about the outcome of the Police investigation both the Legal Adviser and Bishop would not tell us what if anything had been stolen, they would also not comment on if the said contractor removed all sixteen misericords from the church - A strong possibility considering he had been in possession of nine of them (or so we were led to believe)!
In short, The Bishop told us lessons had been learned and acknowledged our requests for the misericords to be kept within the Wakefield area either at a museum or gallery. Both myself and Paul affirmed that is the least the church owe the village of Stanley.
We were not told the name of the dealer who cleared the church (who is based in North Yorkshire so we are told) due to data protection. Nor were we given any evidence that anything had actually been stolen from the church. And as no inventory had been made of the buildings contents, they can not say with confidence what was sold.
With regards to the 500 oak chairs - We are told they were most definitely sold, although neither The Bishop or Legal Advisor could comment to the whereabouts of the alter - which we were told by Helen Price back in March had been stolen, then later we were told by her it had been recovered.
Having gained very few answers from a meeting that was supposed to clear up any uncertainty, we left both The Bishop and Legal Adviser with a series of questions we had pre prepared, asked them to answer them best they could and email the answers to both myself and Paul.
The Bishop never answered any of the questions that were put to him at the meeting as he promised to do, again Paul Dainton sent several letters to the Bishop who requested another meeting with us. This time Paul told the Bishop unless he was willing to answer out questions there would be little point in another meeting.
Because of this the decision was taken to contact the national press in a bid to try force some answers. The Mail on Sunday contacted Wakefield Diocese and were given very little assistance with their inquiries. Over the last few days Wakefield Diocese have contacted the Wakefield Express in a bid to limit the damage any such story by a national newspaper would cause. Three incorrect statements by the diocese within the last week only affirm we have yet to be told the truth. The Bishop now claims that they are only in possession of 6 miseriocrds along with 2 others at Christies - The other 8 we were told had been recovered are in fact still unaccounted for, probably sold along with the alter.