'Hero' plumber's firm faked stories of kindness

Composite image showing James Anderson with the logo of his non-profit plumbing firm Depher and one of his social media posts about vulnerable people
James Anderson said he had made mistakes and blamed the pressures of online trolls [BBC]

The firm run by a man dubbed "Britain's kindest plumber" faked stories of helping people as it raised millions in donations, the BBC can reveal.

Depher, a social enterprise, used vulnerable people's photos without consent and founder James Anderson spent company cash on a house and car.

Mr Anderson prevented one elderly woman from killing herself, the firm claimed. In fact, she had died years earlier.

He denied some of the BBC's allegations but admitted: "I've made mistakes."

Since 2019, Depher has posted hundreds of stories about acts of kindness it says it has carried out.

It is a Community Interest Company (CIC) – as such it operates in the same way as a limited company, but it also provides a defined public benefit, such as providing a direct service to a community or using its profits to benefit a community in some way.

The Burnley-based firm has helped many people by using donations to provide free food, pay gas and electricity bills, do free plumbing work and even help with funeral costs.

The social media stories made him a viral sensation during the UK’s cost-of-living crisis and brought in at least £2m in donations, according to a BBC analysis of his company accounts.

Among the donors were, reportedly, celebrities such as the singer Lily Allen, Emmerdale actress Samantha Giles and actor Hugh Grant, who gave £75,000.

Mr Anderson has received a Pride of Britain award and letters of thanks from the late Queen and the King. He has been a guest on Good Morning Britain, BBC Breakfast, The One Show, Sky News and the Russell Howard Show, and described as “Britain’s kindest plumber” or a “hero plumber”.

Graphic showing a collage of images of James Anderson's media appearances and headlines about his work
James Anderson has been celebrated in several media appearances as a "hero" [BBC]

But when the BBC examined hundreds of Depher CIC posts and interviewed families behind the faces on social media, it revealed a pattern of lies and allegations of exploitation.

We found:

  • Multiple examples of Depher recycling the same photos in misleading and false posts, including several using the same image of a dead woman

  • A victim of domestic abuse, who was pictured on social media with her young child and baby, was accused of theft - without evidence - by Depher

  • Depher funds were used to purchase a house and Mr Anderson also admitted to buying a car with company cash

  • Depher posted video and images of a vulnerable man in his 90s in fundraising posts more than 20 times, publicising information about his sexuality, despite the man pleading "God no" when asked if he would agree to be filmed

  • Former employees raised safety concerns after one staff member was pictured smoking a cigarette next to a leaking boiler

Mr Anderson deleted the main Depher CIC social media account with more than a hundred thousand followers during our investigation.

Speaking to the BBC from his Burnley offices, where thank-you cards and letters from dignitaries adorn the walls, Mr Anderson said: “I know I’ve done it wrong. I apologise. But what can I do? I haven’t got a magic stick. I’m not Harry Potter.”

He said he had made mistakes because of a relentless campaign of “bullying, harassment and attacks” by online trolls.

The BBC has seen online criticism of Mr Anderson which raises legitimate concerns, but he also showed us direct messages which contained abuse and threats.

Fake suicide claim

One of the most upsetting stories Depher CIC posted to Twitter, now named X, included a photo of an unnamed woman next to Mr Anderson, with her face covered by an emoji.

The post from 12 June 2022 said: “A lady, 84 years old rang @DepherUK & spoke to myself, she was upset and desperate. She lived 53 miles away in #Preston I drive as fast as i could, when in got there she had a noose ready to commit suicide. All she wanted was hot water! #costoflivingcrisis"

The BBC found the image had been used seven times in total by Depher between February 2021 and August 2023, with different ages and locations.

We identified her as a woman named Joyce, who had died in February 2020, over a year before Depher began using her image.

Her daughter, Andrea, told the BBC the details posted by Mr Anderson were "a complete lie". She said Mr Anderson fixed her mother’s shower for free. As she could have afforded the repair, she and her family donated more than £100 to his company.

Andrea said the social media posts seemed as if “he’s using vulnerable people like my mother as a money-making machine”.

Mr Anderson denied posting the image himself but admitted the post was “not true” and said he apologised to the family. “That’s not the lady,” he said.

In another case, Depher posted an image of a woman with her face blacked out, claiming she had died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

After the BBC identified her from previous Depher posts, Mr Anderson admitted the post was “a lie” and promised to investigate how it was sent from his company’s Twitter account.

Andrea, whose mother Joyce was falsely depicted as being saved from suicide by James Anderson
"How can you exploit people like that?" asked Andrea when she learned of the Depher posts [BBC]

Accused of theft

The BBC also tracked down a woman named Gemma from Burnley, who accepted help from Mr Anderson in 2022. She said he used photos of her without permission and misrepresented her as a thief.

In two of the posts Depher CIC subsequently sent, Gemma’s young children were pictured and the caption said she was a previous victim of domestic violence.

Some of the posts describe her as having no food but “bread, margarine and paste” in her house and allege that she “deliberately stole” from Depher’s fundraising shop - but Gemma said both claims are false.

Gemma said she had told Mr Anderson she did not want to be photographed because she did not want to be on social media. She said she was told the photo would not be posted and it was just “for transparency”.

Gemma, a young woman in a hoodie and wearing glasses, who said Depher used her image and falsely accused her of theft
Gemma said she was "really, really hurt" by the allegation that she stole from Depher [BBC]

“It was probably the most vulnerable I have been in my life,” Gemma said. “They've just made something that's very private to my life very, very public.”

Mr Anderson insisted she had given permission for her photo to be used and repeated his theft allegations. But he apologised for any upset caused and acknowledged he should be more cautious “over the vulnerability side of it”.

Personal life exposed

In another case, Mr Anderson shared a video on his Facebook page, showing a visit to install a free boiler. The BBC is not naming the man, who was in his 90s and died after our investigation began.

The video shows Mr Anderson approaching the house, describing the work and asking the man if he is happy to be filmed. The man clearly says: "Oh God, no."

But photographs of him and his story were shared more than a dozen times over the following two years, including his fear that he would be discriminated against because he was gay. The posts were linked to fundraising appeals for Depher that raised about £270,000.

Composite image with a Depher tweet about the man in his 90s who had asked not to be filmed, surrounded by a collage showing several more tweets using the man's image in fundraisers

The BBC was able to identify the man's home from the post and make contact with neighbours and the man’s solicitor, who said he did not have the capacity to give informed consent.

A neighbour who knew the man for 30 years said: “He was a private person, he would never agree to anything like that. I think that’s disgusting. He would hate it.”

Mr Anderson said he “didn’t listen” to the man properly and said he should have removed any identifying details.

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Britain’s Hero Plumber Exposed

Britain’s "hero" plumber and his acts of kindness earned him an army of fans and millions of pounds in donations. Now a BBC News investigation reveals a different story.

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Pink line

'A massive safeguarding issue’

One Depher post showed an elderly lady sitting on her bed, looking away from the camera. Paperwork giving her bank details and address was clearly visible in the photo, which was viewed more than 11,000 times.

After the post led us to her front door, she said she was “horrified” and felt “used”. “Having been scammed before, it brings home how vulnerable I am,” she said.

The BBC alerted her family. Her son Robert questioned why Depher would need to go into their bedroom and called the social media post “absolute exploitation”.

“It’s a massive safeguarding issue and I’m really concerned,” he said.

Mr Anderson said he had spoken to the family, apologised and taken down the post.

Former staff had safety fears

Separately, the BBC has spoken to four former staff members who worked closely with Anderson at Depher, to corroborate accounts of life inside the business.

One former employee, who worked for Depher for about three years, said many people “didn't consent" to having their photos used on social media, and the company would receive complaints from relatives.

Mr Anderson told the BBC that a written consent process for social media pictures was put in place since last year.

The former staff member said there was no substantial system of means-testing to decide who to help, and Mr Anderson would just "pick and choose".

The ex-employee also recalled an incident where one engineer - who was not Gas Safe registered - was smoking on a job.

In photos posted on Depher social media, an elderly woman’s boiler was described as leaking carbon monoxide, a flammable gas. One of the unqualified engineers is seen working on the boiler with a lit cigarette in his mouth.

Graphic showing a photo of an engineer working on a boiler with an inset image highlighting the lit cigarette in his mouth

The post was later taken down by Depher and the engineer was falsely described as a "subcontractor". Mr Anderson told the BBC that the gas had been isolated and “it’s all been done safe”.

The Gas Safe Register confirmed that only James Anderson at Depher was registered. Mr Anderson said the two engineers in the photograph were permitted to work on jobs as long as he was present, but the Gas Safe Register said this would only be allowed if they are on a formal training programme such as an apprenticeship.

Mr Anderson has repeatedly posted online and said in media interviews that he has helped tens of thousands of people, or more recently "over two million" people.

Asked by the BBC, he said the exact figure was 2,150,000. But pressed further, he said he "did not know" and the figures were "guesstimates". “It’s the overall affect, we’ve not just helped that one person but the family members,” he said.

Mr Anderson said the number of boilers they had fitted for free was "hundreds, not thousands".

He told the BBC that he would find out and release an exact number of beneficiaries “soon”.

‘Misleading’ fundraising

Company filings show that Depher had purchased a house as an "investment property" for £73,125. It is rented out to a member of Mr Anderson’s extended family, the BBC has learned.

The former staff member said: “That’s not being a community company, that’s just helping family through a channel he can use.”

The ex-employee also told the BBC that Mr Anderson had purchased cars using Depher money and “just drove them around”.

Mr Anderson said that the house was purchased using profits from the paid work, that the purchase was permitted by the regulations for CICs and that the CIC Regulator was aware of it. He also defended the purchase of what he called “company cars” as permissible for a CIC.

The BBC’s analysis of Depher’s most recent accounts, covering April 2021 to April 2023, found that cash donations had doubled to more than £1.2m. In April 2023, it held over £643,000 in cash.

Depher CIC's offices in Burnley, seen from the street
Depher bought a house worth £73,125 which is rented out to a member of Mr Anderson's extended family [BBC]

But during this time, Mr Anderson regularly posted on social media that Depher could have to cut its services without “more support”. In January 2023 he said on an online fundraising page that donations had dropped by 80%.

He told the BBC the fall in donations was “because of trolls” and that his appeals were based on “forecasts” - but conceded that particular GoFundMe was “misleading” and “a mistake.”

He said any remaining donation money would be spent the following year and that if he was a registered charity his costs would be less.

Mr Anderson also told the BBC that he puts £200 back into Depher from his weekly wage.

He pledged to return some of the donated money connected to specific misleading posts or safeguarding issues raised by the BBC. Asked about large donations from figures such as Hugh Grant, he said: “If Hugh wants the money back, I’ll send it back to him, not a problem.”

The plumber also told the BBC he is looking for forgiveness from the country. He said: “I apologise, I really do apologise. And I hope you can find it in your heart to accept it. I’m really sorry and I will make amends. “

Additional reporting by James Kelly, BBC Verify