Copper Theft: a Crime Wave from History

Photograph: Copper

Chris Evans

Here’s the good news. Crime on Welsh railways is shrinking. The bad news is that there’s one conspicuous area of growth: cable theft, which has bounded up by 168% in the last year.

Wales is not alone in this. On the contrary, there’s an epidemic of cable-related crime across the UK’s railway network. And it’s not a problem restricted to the railways. Any industry that makes use of copper cabling is vulnerable. Electricity substations and building sites have been raided, and broadband suppliers picked clean. The consequences can be serious. When criminals start stripping out wire you can be sure that rail disruption, power outages, and the loss of phone and internet services will all follow.

The surge in cable theft is easily explained. The price of copper has roared upwards in the last two years, driven up by booms in construction and industrial investment in China and India. The cash price of copper on the London Metal Exchange was less than US $3000 per tonne at the start of 2009; it’s now more than US $9000 per tonne (and breached the US $10,000 barrier earlier this year). For that kind of money criminals will take risks – even the life-threatening risks involved in stealing cables that could be carrying a live current.

Copper has always been liable to this kind of predation. As metals go, copper has a relatively high value. It’s also a metal that tends to be used in a quite pure form; it can therefore be recycled easily. In fact, most of the copper in circulation in the world today has been recycled many times. Present-day mining adds very little fresh material to global stocks. There is therefore a very active market for recycled copper, into which criminal gangs can leak stolen cabling. It doesn’t help, of course, that copper is commonly used for transmitting power or electrical pulses across long distances. If it’s to do its job it has to be exposed.

Photograph from Warrington News

Copper theft has always been a problem. Copper is perfect for conducting electricity, so it was ideally suited support the telegraph boom of the mid-nineteenth century. But stringing mile after mile of copper wire across open space brought security headaches, as a British government report of the 1860s made clear. Copper’s “value to marauders renders it inapplicable for open air lines”. Iron wire had to be used instead. It had only one-tenth the conductivity of copper but its scrap value was far lower. Copper wire was restricted to environments that were especially testing and in which only copper would do. Submarine cables, which had to carry signals across extreme distances under very testing conditions, were of the finest copper. They could be; the ocean depths offered protection against theft.

Overland telegraph lines required special security measures. This was a particular difficulty when lines were extended through parts of the world where the authority of the state was weak. The Ottoman Empire, across which the British were hoping to build a direct telegraph link to Indian in the mid-nineteenth century, was a case in point. The various peoples under Ottoman rule were not always well disposed towards the authorities in Istanbul. This was certainly the case in what is now Iraq, across which a line was to be strung in the 1860s, linking Baghdad to the Persian Gulf. Early plans to lay a cable long the bed of the Tigris were abandoned as impractical. The only way in which the wires could be protected was to organise a special security guard, the çavuş lar, who would patrol the line on horseback.

The çavuş lar were recruited locally and well paid for their trouble. The effect, as one historian has noted, was to integrate what had been seen as an alien intrusion into the fabric of local life ‘while at the same time contributing to the local economy’.

The approach taken towards modern bandits in the UK is rather different. Copper theft threatens major damage to the electrical infrastructure and modern communications systems upon which ordinary life now depends and the full weight of the state will be deployed. Combating cable theft is now a major area of activity for the British Transport Police, who are struggling to contain a phenomenon that accounts for thousands of cancelled trains. But while the overall costs of this crime are huge, the returns to individual criminals are often very small. The return can also, of course, come in the form of electrocution and death.

[For more on telegraphy in the Ottoman Empire see Yakup Bektas, ‘The Sultan’s messenger: cultural constructions of Ottoman telegraphy 1847-1880’, Technology and Culture, 41: 4 (2000), 669-696.]

Chris Evans teaches on Atlantic History 1500-1800 and the ending of Atlantic Slavery. His current research interests include Swansea copper as an agency of global change in the nineteenth century.

This entry was posted in History: Comment and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *