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New boiler, £0? The plumber, hairdresser and beautician who work for free

Sam Wollaston

Goodwill, it appears, is in high demand. One thing all the altruists I met while researching this article have in common is that they’re on the phone the whole time. Perhaps if mobiles had been around in Robin Hood’s day he would have had one pressed constantly to his lughole. “Marion … yes, love. I’m just having a fight on a bridge with Little John … sorry, you’re breaking up, terrible reception in here, all the oaks... What, the Sheriff’s abducted you? OK, I’m coming!”

Ged King

In Sale, Greater Manchester, Ged King is in his barber shop, Skullfades, its red and black walls decked with Man United posters and boxing memorabilia. At 34, big, bearded and tatted, he looks ex-army. He is ex-army. He’s on the phone, talking about a delivery of tiles, to his new place over in the Stretford Mall, about which more in a moment.

King had an unstable childhood, with alcoholism and prison in the family. He was kicked out of school at 15, then worked full time in a fish and chip shop for a man called Paul Jackson, who gave young Ged a chance – and kindness. Jackson became a sort of father figure, mentor and inspiration.

The army then gave King self-worth and respect, and – he thought – the tools to succeed in the world. But when he came out of service his structured life collapsed and he drifted, self-medicating with drink and drugs.

He knew from working at the chippie that he wanted his own business. A grafter, he learned how to cut hair, rented chairs in barber shops, worked long hours and eventually got his own business, this one. He had made it.

Then, “I went: is this it?” he tells me. “Anybody who’s achieved a goal knows what I’m talking about. I had fulfilled my dream but I wasn’t happy.”

I’m using my trauma, and the lessons I’ve learned, to help others. It fills me up, I get excited about it

Ged King

The homelessness crisis was spiralling out of control in Manchester, like everywhere else. King had experienced homelessness as a teenager before joining the army. He had come close again afterwards, like so many ex-servicemen. “I knew what it was like to feel unloved and not cared for. I decided I was going to help the homeless community, that anyone homeless who comes into the shop would get a free haircut.”

While he is not suggesting that homelessness can be solved with a haircut, it’s lovely to hear him describe cutting the hair of someone from the street. “Put a gown on them, clean off the dirt – a beautiful and astonishing thing happens to the person in that chair: they remember who they are, reconnect with themselves; we see who that person was before it all went wrong.”

He started going out into the streets himself, talking to people, cutting their hair. And the enterprise has grown: it has outreach teams – incuding addiction coaches, doctors and a vet – who go out walking the streets giving out lunch packs, having conversations and cutting hair. “The haircut is really irrelevant now: it is just a tool to connect with somebody,” says King.

In the shop with him this morning is Aaron. Not for a haircut – though that’s what he had when he first came in. Now he is sweeping the floor.

Kicked out of home after crashing his car while under the influence of alcohol and drugs, Aaron, 22, lived on mates’ couches for a while before getting a place in a hostel. “It was horrible,” he says. “Eight beds in a room, mixed men and women, no dividers, kicked out at 6.30 in the morning, I would be sat in the park for hours.”

Someone told Aaron about free haircuts at Skullfades. So he came and got a free haircut from Jodie, the apprentice. “It took quite a long time but I didn’t have anything else to do,” says Aaron. Jodie, like the boss, is also ex-army, a sniper in Afghanistan before he was discharged with PTSD. He had his rucksack packed ready for homelessness before his old mate King helped him out.

Aaron came back for more haircuts, and to hang out. He liked it in the shop, talking to Jodie, and to King, who told him that if Aaron got on a course he would help him. So that’s what he did, and soon he will be starting at the new Stretford shop.

That’s because King has taken his idea a step further, setting up a foundation and a new shop. To be staffed “by guys who have come off the street, from the care system, who have come out of prison, out of the armed forces, who are at risk of becoming homeless or have been homeless”.

He raised most of the money for the new shop by taking part in a corporate boxing match, a big charity do at the Hilton hotel, at which he “knocked the guy out in the first round”.

Now King just needs some corporate sponsors.

He is relishing it. “What I’ve learned is you’ve got to do something you care about,” he says. “Just going to the shop, seeing my clients, earning, money, going on holiday, there’s no fulfilment there, it’s just a job and I feel like a robot. But with this, and the street work, I’m using my trauma, and the lessons I’ve learned, to help others. It fills me up, I get excited about it.”

James Anderson

Plans to expand … plumber James Anderson. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Guardian

James Anderson is on the phone, too, when he meets me at Burnley Manchester Road station. A woman living in a caravan in Blackpool has no hot water and winter is approaching fast. Anderson is a plumber; the man he’s talking to isn’t, but he is a pal, and he’s on the scene so Anderson will talk him through how to do the job.

Anderson became something of a viral sensation a few weeks ago when he fixed the boiler of a terminally ill 91-year-old woman, then sent her an invoice for £0.00. The woman’s daughter posted it on Facebook.

But this was far from his first free job. Anderson has been at it since 2017, when he went to see an elderly man who had been quoted £5,500 to install a new boiler that he didn’t need. “The engineer had put a print magazine in the water tank to stop the water going through into the cylinder. Luckily, the man got a second opinion. That’s when I decided to do something.”

Viral effect … James Anderson of Disabled and Elderly Plumbing and Heating Emergency Response at a customer’s home in Nelson, Lancashire. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Guardian

Anderson went to see his accountant, who suggested starting a community interest company (CIC). He pays himself £100 a week, he says. Any profit from private work goes back into the CIC, and thus back into the community. Though there wasn’t much profit for a while – he was several thousand pounds in debt. Having his story go viral has certainly helped. Some £82,000 has come in from crowdfunding alone since the zero-invoice news broke. He has rehired part-time the two lads he had to lay off. Anderson can help more of the old and vulnerable of Burnley. And beyond, he hopes. He has plans to expand.

He lets me in on the passenger side of his van, clears a space, sets off across town, still mostly on the phone. “Call me James, Jimmy, whatever you like,” he says. Originally from Liverpool, Anderson, now 52, has been a plumber for 20 years, and was a bin man before that. We pull up outside a bungalow, on double yellow lines. It’s OK, he knows all the traffic wardens, he says. “We’ve done jobs for their mums and dads: they’re a bit more lenient.”

You deserve everything you get, and while I’m alive you get it for free

James Anderson

Margaret, 72, lets us in. She lives here with her partner, Ray, 92, and a bouncy young dog called Eric. Anderson fitted a new boiler for them, donated by the manufacturer. He has come to check that it’s running OK. Margaret finds it hard to see the timer display properly, with her cataracts. Anderson says he will replace it with one with bigger numbers.

The boiler certainly seems to be working – it’s like Malta in here. That’s where Margaret and Ray met. “Or was it Spain?” says Ray. Ray was in the army, “Don’t ask where – you get a long way in 25 years,” he says. Now he has dementia.

“A lot of people alive now stood in front of a gun to stop us from not being here any more,” says Anderson. “You deserve everything you get, and while I’m alive you get it for free.” The new boiler is guaranteed for 10 years. Ray is pretty sure it will outlive him.

Back in the van (no ticket) to the next job. “A lot of the elderly and disabled people feel like they’re a burden,” says Anderson. “Last year, 17,000 elderly and disabled died because of fuel poverty,” he says. “It should be a national government initiative: anyone over 65 or registered disabled should have some form of discount.”

Next stop is a couple of miles away in Nelson, where Sarah and Matthew live. Matthew used to be a mechanic but shattered his spine in an accident and can no longer work. They have three children at school and college and get by on disability benefits.

Sarah knew about Anderson from Facebook. So when she was told it would cost £250 to disconnect their smart thermostat that has never really worked and put the old one back, she called him. It takes about 10 minutes and there’s no charge. Here’s the invoice to prove it, and a photo of Sarah holding it, to go on James’s Facebook page. He’s getting good at social media.

Yes, he has had the modern-day Robin Hood – though without the violence – comparisons. “That’s what people call me, but I’m just a normal person.” Why does he do it? “Cos I care, simple as that. They deserve it – there’s no help out there. They’re left to suffer in silence.”

Back in the van, back on the phone, there’s good news from Blackpool too: hot water restored to one caravan.

Alison Gore

I speak to Alison Gore on the phone. She is in Cheltenham, where she has a beauty salon, “a friendly, local kind of place, nothing big or fancy”, she says. They do massage, facials, eyes, nails, manicures, pedicures, hair removal, all the stuff. And for free if you have cancer.

It came about a while back partly because of some of the nonsense that was being taught on beauty courses. “Like students being told not to touch a client with cancer and that if you massaged a cancer patient it would spread the cancer,” says Gore, who qualified “in the dark ages, 1992”.

Gore did some research into how to give cancer patients beauty treatments safely. She made leaflets, dropped them off in the support centre for the local hospital – Cheltenham has a big oncology department, plus a Sue Ryder hospice – and the word got out.

A lot of it is about making people feel normal, she says. “They love the fact they can come in as normal clients, talk about what they want to talk about. Usually it’s nothing to do with the illness – they can moan about whoever they want to moan about. You know, the usual things. It’s not a hospital appointment, for a change – their lives revolve around hospital appointments.”

Cherry said they got it wrong, the lymphoma wasn’t curable. I saw her every week, painted her nails every colour under the sun

Alison Gore

Gore tells me about a client called Cherry. “She was told she had non-Hodgkin lymphoma. She came in and said she was really lucky – she had this thing but it was curable – and she wanted her nails done. She came in a month later and said they got it wrong – it wasn’t curable. I saw her every week, painted her nails every colour under the sun. She was phenomenal. I saw her the day before she died. Her brother picked me up and took me to the hospice to paint her nails – I knew she was ready.”

Now, in memory of Cherry, they call the days when they offer free treatments at the salon – usually three per patient – Cherry Blossom days.

I speak to another client of Gore’s, Anne-Marie, 43, a programme accountant working in the public sector. She was diagnosed with a pancreatic tumour last year. She had never really visited salons before, but she was getting a lot of backache and wanted a massage. A friend told her about Gore’s free sessions. “The oncology unit offer treatments as well, but you have to go into the hospital and you really don’t want to do that more than you have to. The fact that it was in a salon makes it so much nicer. It’s lovely to have something that’s a bit luxurious, a big treat when everything is quite dark and horrible.”

Anne-Marie had chemo, then a big operation in which her pancreas, spleen and gall bladder were removed. Now she is back on the chemo. She is overwhelmingly tired but unable to sleep because of the steroids, although the last scan was good. “There’s a risk it might come back, but I’m cancer free at the moment.” And she is still going to see Gore.

A lot of Gore’s clients are having chemo. “They say when they look in the mirror it’s not them any more,” Gore says. They may have lost their hair, or they may be wearing a wig. “It’s about trying to remember to look in the mirror and remembering it’s still you. You are not the cancer. The cancer isn’t you – you are still you.”

I wonder why she does it. Does she – or someone close to her – have cancer? No, she’s been lucky. It’s simple, she says. “If I had millions of pounds I would be able to give money to make a difference, but I don’t. I have a skill and some time, so I have something I can give. That’s why I do it: because I can.”