Locals in New Forest village turn vigilante to take on shoplifters

Locals in New Forest village turn vigilante to take on shoplifters

September 11, 2023

Their picture-postcard villages are being plagued by burglars and shoplifters that the police refuse to investigate – so they are taking the law into their own hands: Meet the fed-up New Forest locals teaming up to deter criminals – with impressive results

On a hot summer’s day, the postcard-perfect high street of Lyndhurst is heaving with tourists. Families tuck into cakes and ice cream and shop for souvenirs after a day out in the nearby New Forest National Park.

Buried in the graveyard of the gothic Victorian St Michael And All Angels church are the ashes of Alice Liddell — the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

But it’s not as bucolic as it looks. In June, it was revealed Lyndhurst, along with Minstead, a village two miles north, had the most unsolved burglaries in the UK, with 84 still unresolved. No burglaries have been solved in three years.

To many, it seems the local Hampshire Constabulary has all but given up. As a result, shopkeepers and residents in this quaint village have become vigilantes. Instead of calling the police, they’ve set up Facebook and WhatsApp groups to catch Lyndhurst’s bad guys.

One group member is Janine Stone, owner of Lyndhurst Antiques Centre. On a busy Saturday morning, two of her colourful Moorcroft charger plates — together worth £750 — went missing.

In June, it was revealed Lyndhurst, along with Minstead, a village two miles north, had the most unsolved burglaries in the UK (Pictured: The Stag Hotel in Lyndhurst Village)

Janine, 52, immediately made a police report complete with CCTV images of the suspects. All she received was an automated email saying, sorry, there was nothing they could do.

So she posted the details on Facebook. It had soon been shared 344 times — viral for a place like Lyndhurst.

Days later, the shoplifter returned the items. ‘It was the pressure that got to her,’ Janine says. ‘Her friend saw the photo and told her that her image was all over social media, and said she should do the right thing.’

Her shop is celebrating its 25th anniversary next month, and Janine’s been in charge, with her partner Jason, for the past eight years.

‘We’ve only had four thefts since we’ve run the shop. But we still need the police,’ she insists. ‘It would be nice to have a visit from an officer, rather than an automated email response.’

Aaron Page, 41, of Pages of Lyndhurst, agrees. He’s one of the 20 high street WhatsApp warriors. On the group chat, they share information ranging from customers behaving suspiciously to people using counterfeit notes.

‘I’m not anti-police. But it feels like they’ve just left us,’ says Aaron.

The store sells local produce such as honey and wine, as well as flavoured coffee beans and confectionery.

Janine, 52, owner of Lyndhurst Antiques Centre, made a police report after two of her Moorcroft charger plates went missing, but was told that there was nothing police could do

He shows me a CCTV image of a man in a hi-viz jacket who recently tried to steal a £29 bottle of whisky from his shop. ‘I put my hands on his rucksack to stop him. He just handed back the bottle. Then he went into the Co-op, where he bought a bottle. Then he went into a public toilet to drink it all. So brazen.’

Some are more unlikely suspects. ‘I had an elderly lady in here once, who stole a Ford Mustang car model. She walked out with it and I went after her,’ Aaron says. ‘I put a hand on her shoulder and said, ‘Excuse me madam, I know you’ve got the car!’ I was polite to her; she just gave it back to me.’

Last Monday, policing minister Chris Philp said all reports of shoplifting should be investigated, (the usual threshold for police to get involved is if the goods are worth over £200). But business owners are desperate for the return of bobbies on the beat.

‘That will be the biggest deterrent,’ insists Aaron.

Brett Wateridge, 47, has been burgled several times over the years for his fencing tools

Yet Hilary Brand, Lib Dem councillor for Lyndhurst and Minstead, and owner of Lyndhurst Tea House says shoplifting is not the worst of the village’s troubles.

The bigger problem, she says, is in the more rural parts, where professional gangs target sheds or outbuildings set away from houses. That’s the case in Emery Down, a chocolate-box village just over a mile away.

Brett Wateridge, 47, lives there with wife Jo and their children.

Burglars have blighted his life for 20 years. ‘In the past you would get a visit from the police who would show some interest. Seems less so now,’ he says. ‘They give you a crime reference number so you can claim on your insurance.’

Brett is a fencing contractor and keeps tools in sheds behind their bungalow. Two weeks ago, burglars stole £400 of equipment and his son’s mountain bike.

Giovanni Parma runs Paws in the Forest toy shop in Lyndhurst which, along with Minstead, had the most unsolved burglaries in the UK

‘I haven’t bothered reporting it,’ says Brett. ‘You wonder how many other crimes are not reported.

‘I’ve got friends who have installed CCTV cameras — apparently even that’s not enough evidence to prosecute anyone.’

A year or so ago, Brett’s family had a more frightening experience. ‘My daughter, who was 18, heard burglars in the middle of the night trying to smash the shed door.

‘A guy was waiting in the van, shouting at the other to hurry up. We got the registration number.

‘The police said the van had been stolen from Salisbury. Still, they had no luck catching them.’

Sophie Draper runs the Sofikas clothes shop in Lyndhurst village, which had 84 outstanding burglaries on the book, forcing her to resort to vigilante WhatsApp or Facebook groups

Brett has now installed an alarm and everything is locked away. ‘My daughter doesn’t sleep well now, she’s anxious someone might break into the house,’ he says.

Brett’s neighbour, 57-year-old commercial properly landlord Adrian Stride, moved to the area three years ago with his wife and their children — into a Grade II-listed former schoolhouse.

Two months ago, burglars smashed their way into their garage at 3am. They didn’t touch the Ferrari and Porsche in there, but took two bikes worth £12,000. To add insult to injury, they dragged the bikes along the Porsche, damaging the paintwork.

‘No need for that — it felt vindictive! I didn’t catch them in the act. Otherwise. Well, we would have had words!’ he says grimly.

Like the shop owners, Brett has also resorted to sharing posts about the crimes on WhatsApp groups. ‘It doesn’t solve the problem but it’s something,’ he says.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman has insisted forces have the manpower to investigate all crimes

His neighbour Peter Power, a former Met superintendent, is more pessimistic. ‘Once you get citizens forming vigilante groups, because they’ve lost faith in the police, the cornerstone of our democracy is being eroded,’ he says. ‘Dwindling police numbers need looking at, and it’s happening all over the country.’

Home Office figures reveal that 2.3 million cases nationally were dropped without a suspect being found last year; just 5.7 per cent of crimes were solved last year. In the year to March, only 4.4 per cent of all thefts resulted in someone being charged.

In the past fortnight, Home Secretary Suella Braverman has insisted forces have the manpower to investigate all crimes. And last year a pledge to attend every home burglary was announced.

However, government funding for policing has been cut by 20 per cent in real terms since 2010, resulting in 600 out of 900 police stations closing in England and Wales. There is a station in Lyndhurst, but Hampshire Constabulary say it is a ‘neighbourhood police office — which is not open to the public and does not offer front counter services’.

Lyndhurst Parish Council told the Mail it wants to discuss crime in the village with Hampshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner, and is working with the New Forest District Council to expand the CCTV network.

It seems the crime wave has brought people together.

Hopefully, with such a display of unity, anyone looking to steal from Lyndhurst’s resilient residents might think again.

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