When Eleanor Williams’ Facebook post claiming she was raped by an Asian rape gang went viral in 2020, it sparked a fierce backlash against Asian-owned businesses in her hometown of Barrow, Cumbria.
After she was sentenced for perverting the course of justice, some of those affected spoke to the BBC about the long-term consequences of her lies. Because they are still concerned about their safety, their names have been changed.
Sajid has spent most of his life in Barrow and, as a child, was used to being the only non-white face in his class.
The town still has a very small Asian population – only 1.4% of the total borough population – but Sajid is part of an even smaller segment of Barrow’s Asian community – those who own and operate Indian restaurants.
Fewer than ten of them live in the small shipbuilding town on Cumbria’s southern tip.
Sajid’s restaurant had become successful and well-known among Barrow’s 97% white population over the years.
However, in May 2020, things took a dark and menacing turn.
Sajid received a phone call one night from a friend telling him to check Facebook. He came across Eleanor Williams’ post, which had been shared over 100,000 times.
She claimed in it that she was taken to a Barrow address and raped by a group of Asian men. Graphic images of injuries to her face and body that she claimed the gang inflicted on her were included, but she had caused them herself.
Sajid began receiving phone calls shortly after. Many of them remained silent, while others were completely sinister.
“Some of the threats were so serious, saying ‘We’re going to kill you,’ that I had to call the cops,” he told the BBC.
Sajid couldn’t understand why people were angry and suspicious of him and his fellow restaurant owners at first, but then a friend pointed him to Snapchat.
On the messaging app, a post was circulating which named Indian restaurants in Barrow – it seemed to accuse all of them of being involved in the rape and abuse of Williams.
“I had calls saying that they were going to rape my wife in front my children, then kill me, and kill my kids,” he said, adding: “I got quite a few calls, saying that we’re going to shoot everyone within the shop.
“Some of the stuff that was coming out was just horrible. And a lot of racist remarks as well.”
The windows of his business were smashed three times, people spat at his shop and regularly shouted abuse at the staff or at Sajid in the street.
Cumbria Police said they had to deal with more than 150 extra crimes in the aftermath of Williams’ Facebook post – 83 of which were classed as hate crimes.
Doug Marshall, the senior investigating officer on the case, describes the fallout from the Facebook post as “a disgusting state of affairs”.
He said: “People were getting accused who had nothing to do with the case whatsoever.
“I was shocked and dismayed by the level of racism, and that people seemed to think they knew more about the case than the investigators and the police.”
The anger in Barrow felt more concentrated to those it was focused on because of how small and close-knit the shipbuilding town is.
Barrow’s MP Simon Fell describes the town as “isolated” and, as a consequence, “it’s a really strong and tight-knit community”.
He said: “So when the story like this breaks, everybody’s not just got an opinion on it. Everybody knows someone involved in it.
“It was like a bomb dropping. It really upset people.
Supt Matt Pearman, who is in charge of day-to-day policing in Barrow, told Preston Crown Court ahead of Williams’ sentencing that the town had “never seen such public displays of mass anger in over 30 years,” dating back to the Vickers shipyard strike in 1988, which saw clashes at picket lines.
The perpetrators of the threats and abuse may have been a minority of Barrow’s population, but it appeared to Sajid that the town had turned against him.
Sajid’s trade dropped by 95% “overnight” after the Facebook post went viral.
A similar story unfolded a few streets away at Adil’s restaurant.
He calculated that William’s viral post reduced his business by 75%.
He had his windows smashed too after one of a handful of local protests held in the misguided cause of “Justice for Ellie Williams”.
Adil estimated his losses to be around £30,000 in total. To survive, he had to take out a loan and borrow money from family and friends.
Even the customers who continued to eat at his restaurant were suspicious.
When restaurants were eventually allowed to reopen following the lockdown, customers would call and ask if it was safe to bring their children, telling him, “We’ve seen you’re involved with the Ellie Williams case.”
He overheard diners discussing whether they thought he was involved, “but they didn’t ask me,” Adil said.
“People looked at me in the face differently,” Adil noticed, something less tangible but perhaps more profound.
He reckoned his business has now recovered to about 80% of where it was before Williams went public with her lies about grooming gangs.
“Barrow now is good,” he said, adding: “Nice and quiet.”
Reflecting on the past three years, Sajid said there had always been “an element of racism” in his town, but in the summer of 2020 it was “the racists that were shouting the loudest and causing most upset”.
He said: “The good part of the community were scared to raise their voice, afraid of the backlash they may receive.
“The bad side of the community had taken over the town.
“We were tried and found guilty by social media. We were branded guilty before any real evidence had come out.”