John Bird MBE - Humanitarian and Activist

2 Conversations

In 1946, one John Bird, now famous for being the co-founder of The Big Issue, made his way into the world.

I had incredible delusions of grandeur as a boy. I dreamt big dreams. Perhaps that comes from being destitute as a five-year-old.
- Bird

Born in Notting Hill, London to a London Irish family, as a child Bird witnessed his family being constantly evicted as they were unable to pay the rent and living in the attic of his grandmother's flat for one year. Then at the age of seven he lived in a Catholic orphanage and at the age of ten he had taken to committing crimes such as shoplifting, housebreaking, vandalising property and consequently ended up in jail a number of times.

What's The Big Issue?

At the age of 21 Bird was living in Edinburgh and trying to evade the police when he met Gordon Roddick1. In an interview with the Telegraph Bird reveals how he felt about meeting him.

He was the first person I ever met who took me seriously and didn’t chastise me for my big mouth, aggression, drunkenness and stupidity. Gradually I met people who saw another side to me and I began to change.

By 1991, Bird had become a printer, owned a small business and had three children. He was also reunited with Roddick who passed on his knowledge of a newspaper sold on the streets of America by homeless people and offered £30,000 towards setting up a similar initiative in Britain. The magazine became known as The Big Issue, an entertainment and current affairs magazine, sold by people who have become homeless and are trying to turn their lives around. The articles within the magazine are written by professional journalists, but Bird would love to train homeless writers. Eighteen months after the launch of the magazine the company broke even and £10m is generated from the sale of the magazine annually. Half of the sale price goes directly to the homeless people. It has become so successful that it is now sold in Japan, USA, South Africa and Australia.

The Big Issue was controversial at the time. The idea that homeless people could make decisions for themselves was an unusual mind-set for most charities, and we did run into a lot of opposition. But we were very thorough and kept it simple. We said 'look, you buy this paper for 10 pence and sell it for 50 pence and then you make a living out of it'. And it's been a huge success.
- Bird

In 1995, Bird was awarded an MBE for 'services to homeless people' and set up The Big Issue Foundation in order to help those that were selling the magazine keep their lives on track and not return to being homeless. They also looked at ways that people may become homeless and tried to address these. For example, advising where people who suffer from addiction and mental health problems can find help and talking to people in prisons about their future and suggesting ways in which they can find accommodation after their sentences.

Wedge Card

Being an entrepreneur appears to run in Bird's family as his daughter Diana has prooved through stuffing envelopes for the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign, management of The Big Issue USA and her own catering business called Lady Bird's Kitchen. It was through catering that she noticed that local businesses were struggling and in order to help those struggling she joined forces with her dad in 2006 and together they founded the wedge card that helps local and independent stores remain independent, while offering the shopper special offers such as buy one get one free in return for using it. In this way Bird hopes that supermarkets will not completely take over the land.

I'm totally opposed to the 'supermarketisation' of the land. Our local shops are disappearing in front of us, the high streets have turned into monstrous clones, and it's destroying our communities.

Standing for Mayor

In June 2007, Bird decided that he would stand for mayor of London and launched a campaign to help him get to do just that. He believed that London was made up of two halves or as he put it the tale of two cities the rich living alongside the poor and he wanted there to be more equality.

I'm going to move the GLA down and dirty into the boroughs, into the ghettos and break the despicable tale of two cities that we have. We have all the big businesses and then we have people living in poverty.

Later in 2007 he had changed his mind and stepped away from his decision to try and become London's mayor opting instead for a social movement towards eradicating poverty.


  • Fellow of John Moore’s University,
  • A Visiting Professor at Lincoln
  • A Doctor of Letters at the
    Oxford Brookes University
  • Selected by the Queen as one of the
    Most Important Pioneers in Her Majesty’s
    Reign (2003)
  • The United Nations awarded him with a Scroll of Excellence for
    his international work in poverty. (2004)
  • BBC London held a public vote in which he was pronounced London’s Living Legend (2004)
1Gordon Roddick was married to Anita Roddick who founded The Body Shop.

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