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Founder Of The Big Issue Reveals How He Went From Homelessness To Lordship

Jess Hardiman


Founder Of The Big Issue Reveals How He Went From Homelessness To Lordship

The founder of The Big Issue magazine has spoken out about how he created one of the UK's leading social businesses, having learned to read, write and even print while in prison.

John Bird is a social entrepreneur who co-founded The Big Issue in 1991 as a means of helping homeless and vulnerable people earn a legitimate income - and he's since been made a life peer, with his official title now The Right Honourable Lord Bird MBE.

However, his path to get there hasn't been the most straightforward, after being born into extreme poverty in a Notting Hill slum.

Credit: PA
Credit: PA

In an episode of new podcast series More Than My Past, which focuses on people who have managed to overcome barriers like addiction or criminal backgrounds, Bird told host Jason Flemyng about how he became homeless at the age of five, and was often in trouble at school.

He said: "We were in a slum called Notting Hill and we were thrown out when I was five in 1951 because my mum and dad hadn't paid the rent.

"We then moved into a space in the roof of my grandmother's flat around the corner and we lived there for a year. Then we were put in another slum, and then the rent wasn't paid and then we were made homeless there, and we were taken in by our church and put in an orphanage."

Lord John Bird. Credit: Twitter/John Bird
Lord John Bird. Credit: Twitter/John Bird

At 13, he had his first taste of incarceration after being placed in a detention centre, before being in and out of boot camp, boys' prison and reformatories throughout his teens and twenties.

It was while Bird was in prison that he learned to read and write at the age of 16, paving the way for a love of printing - a skill that he also picked up on the inside.

He said: "This screw came in one day and asked me if I wanted a book. I must've paused, and he said, 'Oh, you can't read, can you?'

"I'd never, ever admitted to anybody that I'd been through Roman Catholic school and learned all about Jesus and everything - and I suppose I pretended I could read.

Credit: UK Parliament
Credit: UK Parliament

"Then I was in another place - they used to give you work training, and there was a print department, and I just fell in love with it."

After landing jobs in the print industry during his late twenties, Bird went on to set up his own London-based print business.

He said: "I'd work through the night and make shedloads of money that way, and was quite prosperous in my thirties.

"I did a lot of work for radical charities and organisations. I started magazines for galleries and stuff like that. So when I started The Big Issue, nothing was foreign to me."

Having not only spent a great deal of time in prison himself, but also worked closely with ex-offenders over the years, Bird is adamant that vulnerable people need more investment from others.

Credit: Twitter/John Bird
Credit: Twitter/John Bird

He said: "When I started the Big Issue I'd say about a third of the people I worked with were ex-offenders. What we've got to realise is that people who go into prison are no different from anybody else; they've just had some circumstances which have led them along that path.

"If we can get our young - principally our young, but [also] not so young - if we can make that investment while they're banged up, look upon it almost as a kind of university or college or whatever, we can make enormous changes."

Listen to Lord John Bird's interview on the More Than My Past podcast here.

Featured Image Credit: Twitter/John Bird

Topics: UK News, News, Daily Ladness, Community

Jess Hardiman
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