Police are warning businesses to keep charity boxes locked away at night after “despicable” thieves raided shops to get their hands on them.

More than ten tins containing money destined for hospices and children’s charities were stolen from six businesses in Basildon and Billericay over four days.

David John Belcher butchers and B Curtis greengrocers, in Grange Road, Billericay, were both targeted as their owners relaxed in their flats above the businesses.

The thief, who was wearing gloves and a hooded coat, fled with six boxes containing money raised for the NSPCC, Essex Air Ambulance and Basildon-based St Luke's Hospice following the raid at 9.20pm on Tuesday.

On the same night, another charity box for the National Literacy Trust was stolen from Boots in Billericay’s High Street.

Butcher David Belcher said: "I heard a bit of noise but I didn't really think anything of it because there are quite often teenagers messing about outside.

"It wasn't until the greengrocer next door called me and I looked on my CCTV that I realised what had happened. The guy was only in here for about 20 seconds, he just casually walked in, grabbed the charity boxes and left.

“Then he went straight next door and did the same.

"We chased him up the hill but he must have had a car waiting for him because we couldn't find him.

"There couldn't have been more than £20 in the tins, but it's the principle. It's just so heartless to steal from charity."

Customers since discovered empty charity collection tins in nearby Church Street and Noak Hill Road.

Two full St Luke’s Hospice charity tins were also stolen from Burger King in Pipps Hill, Basildon after burglars smashed a window overnight on Friday.

A third charity box was taken from nearby Pets at Home on the same night after burglars kicked in a window.

Another tin was stolen from World of Flowers, in Broadway North, Pitsea, between 12.20am and 12.28am on Monday.

Sgt Angie Torrance, based at Basildon police station, said: “These thieves are despicable to steal money destined to go for charity.

“I would urge traders to place charity boxes in heavy duty safes when shops are closed following this recent spate.”

Anyone with information can call Essex Police on 101 or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555111.