DISTRAUGHT villagers say Christmas is cancelled after thousands of pounds they put into a thrift club was stolen.

More than 60 people in Shrewton, including families with young children, paid into the Royal Oak pub Christmas thrift club each week to save up for the festive season.

But on Sunday, days before they were due to get their money back, pub landlord Malcolm Levesconte disappeared, and there is no sign of the cash.

Police who are hunting for Mr Levesconte, 59, have confirmed the amount of money missing is at least £20,000, but those affected fear it could be a lot more.

Jeremy Withers, 49, who saved about £1,000 to buy gifts and goodies for his wife Debbie, 46, and two daughters, Ruby, 17, and Emily, 13, said the community has been left devastated by the theft.

“Christmas is cancelled, that’s what has happened here,” he said.

“There are a lot of people who can’t afford anything; they have put in what they can afford, and now they have nothing. It’s dreadful.”

“It has affected everyone.

It is a small community that has put trust into someone to do this every year. So many people, including children and families, won’t have Christmas.

“It’s a terrible situation and it’s the last thing we expected. People have been going into the pub in the last couple of days and coming out in floods of tears.”

Stuart Blundell, 49, and his family saved about £2,400 and were looking forward to doing their Christmas shopping on Saturday.

He said: “You hear of these things time and time again but you never think it’s going to happen to you.

What can I do?

“We’ve got no chance of getting the money back so we’re just going to have to tighten our belts.”

Ian West, councillor for Till and Wylye Valley, said: “People must be devastated to lose that money at this time. They had probably already worked out what presents they were going to buy and now there is no money.

“It is absolutely devastating for them especially at the moment, when times are hard.”

Police say Mr Levesconte, who has been the pub’s landlord for more than ten years, booked tickets and boarded a ferry at Portsmouth on Sunday evening bound for St Malo in France.

Police and a number of other agencies in France are involved in searching for him.

Anyone with information about his whereabouts is asked to contact Salisbury CID on 101 or Crimestoppers on 0800 555111.

People who are concerned about money they have paid in to the thrift club can contact the Royal Oak where their details will be passed on to police.