Jimmy Anderson has been a boiler technician in Burnley, Lancashire, UK for 26 years. His story is unique. While he’s made appearances in the United States on social media, to my knowledge, his story has never been told among the skilled trade community in North America. I believe it’s worth telling, especially now, during the holiday season, while we’re reflecting, spending time with loved ones, and enjoying the warmth that our heating systems provide. – Dan Vastyan
A promise made
It was 2013. William Edgar James Ward Anderson, only 16 weeks old, lie in a hospital bed dying. Bedside on his knees was his father, Jimmy, who made a promise to his infant son: William, if you pull through this, I will become the man I should be.
William passed away shortly thereafter, leaving a gaping void in his father’s heart.
“I became very angry with the world and couldn’t accept that I’d lost my son,” said Jimmy. “I carried that anger with me. It ate me up and led to misery and a chain of poor decisions.”
Jimmy drifted through life, working, existing in pain, and quietly raging against his loss. This continued for four years. Then a service call changed everything.
A scene from the past
In 2017, Jimmy was called to a property to look at a malfunctioning boiler system. When he knocked on the door, he heard someone faintly shout for him to come in.
In the back room, Jimmy found an old man lying in bed. It was obvious from his condition and the hoist next to the bed that the man was very ill.
“The sight immediately took me back to the day I said goodbye to William, the day I made the promise,” said Jimmy. “The room reminded me so much of the hospital, and the man looked like a bigger version of my son when he died. I thought, ‘Wow, is this William’s way of telling me to follow through on my 2013 promise? I took it as that.”
Jimmy learned that the man needed a second opinion on his boiler system. Another company had visited previously and told him that the system needed to be replaced at a cost of £5,500. While inspecting the boiler, Jimmy found that the unit had been deliberately tampered with.
It became obvious that the first technician (or “engineer,” as the British call techs) to visit the house was trying to rip off the old man. Jimmy contacted the company about the scam and they denied it, so he gave them an ultimatum: “fix it or I’ll prove you’re running a scam.”
It turned out the technician had been acting on his own and was fired immediately. The company made good on the mistake by installing a new boiler and gave the old man an additional £1,000.
In March of 2017, just two weeks after that incident, Jimmy founded Disabled & Elderly Plumbing and Heating Emergency Repairs (DEPHER).
Almost any need
DEPHER began small, with Jimmy conducting charity plumbing and heating work whenever he identified a need. In short order, the need among his local community outpaced his ability to respond.
Today, the company employs 13 technicians in the Burnley area, and subcontracts charity work to a network of other involved companies. In all, there are roughly 530 technicians across the country who answer the call.
DEPHER also conducts for-profit work, which, along with donations, is used to fund the charity work. For example, actor Hugh Grant has donated £55,000. As time went by, DEPHER expanded its impact beyond plumbing and heating.
“We have several community support initiatives for people genuinely in need,” said Jimmy, who is a father of six and grandfather of four. “We provide food to low-income individuals, at times we cover gas and power bills, we provide terminal illness support, offset funeral expenses and we provided COVID support during the pandemic.”
So how do potential recipients of this support – whether directly related to a plumbing or heating issue or not – qualify for DEPHER aid?
Anyone over 65, anyone who is considered vulnerable, terminally ill, or handicapped, receives free or deeply discounted boiler or plumbing work. Anyone struggling with low income can receive free food deliveries. Anyone who loses a family member and cannot afford the final expenses will be given £500 to offset funeral costs.
To date, DEPHER has helped 52,000 families; Jimmy is now known as “Britain’s kindest plumber.”
Of course, all the people that DEPHER helps are very grateful, but there are a few detractors.
“A few people, specifically among other plumbing and heating companies, don’t care for me,” said Jimmy. “They think that the charity work we do takes money out of their wallets.
“The simple fact is that the people we’re helping can’t afford professional services,” he added. “But I don’t need fans. This is what we do, and we’re not going to stop. If you like it great, if you don’t, that’s fine too.”
“If you aren’t doing God’s work, the devil wouldn’t be pointing his finger at you,” said Jimmy regarding the nay-sayers. “I get all the validation I need from seeing the impact we’ve made. Each situation is unique, whether DEPHER is providing food or fixing boilers. They all stand out, but occasionally, one really leaves a mark.”
Jimmy can recall an 84-year-old woman who’d hung a noose from her rafters because she could no longer afford to live and was ready to end the suffering. DEPHER got her the financial and psychological help she needed, and she’s still alive today.
While the US housing market, energy costs and food expenses have squeezed American budgets, Great Britain has had it worse. Food and energy costs across Europe have been higher than in the US for decades, but the energy crisis resulting from the war in Ukraine has pushed current living costs to new heights. The English have given this a name: the Cost-of-Living Crisis.
“The Cost-of-Living Crisis has impacted DEPHER in two ways,” explained Jimmy. “There’s more need for community support than ever before, and even those who’ve made donations in the past are feeling the crunch. So, there’s less donation money coming in.”
Unlike most charitable organizations, DEPHER can at least partially self-fund its giving through the for-profit work they do. About 30 percent of their work is hydronic, and the rest is plumbing.
If you’d like to learn more about DEPHER, you can find them on Instagram (@dephercic2021 and @depher_cic), X, formerly Twitter (@depherUK), Facebook (Depher CIC) and TikTok (@dephercicuk1066).