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British social entrepreneur, politician, and founder of The Big Issue, John Bird (b. 1946), spent time in an orphanage as a child.  

John Bird was the third of six sons born to impoverished parents from Ireland. His father was a bricklayer’s assistant who struggled with alcoholism. The family lived in two rooms in the slums of Notting Hill. 

Money was scarce; rats, mice, fleas, bedbugs, rattling windows and freezing cold neglect were in abundance. This was poverty and it was surrounded by illness, violence, drunken­ness and crime… Ninety per cent of the housing of the working poor, for that was the condition of most people even decades ago, was substandard. That meant little or no bathrooms, small kitchens, shared toilets and grime and dirt on every horizon (Bird). 

Then, at the age of five, John’s family became homeless because his parents could not afford to pay the rent. Later, at the age of seven, John and his siblings spent three years in a Catholic orphanage, the Sisters of Charity in Mill Hill.  

…and when I came out of there, there was no money around, so I went stealing. But we had a very strong belief that shops were from a different class; we never stole from individuals (McGrath). 

As a teenager and young adult, John frequently slept rough. He also spent time in prison for theft and fraud; it was in prison that he first learned to read and write. John went to art school in 1964, but dropped out when his girlfriend got pregnant.  

In 1970, John briefly worked as a dishwasher in Parliament. Forty-seven years later, he would return as a member of the House of Lords.   

Back then, I was a member of the Workers Revolutionary Party. I spent all my time trying to stir up my fellow workers to destroy capitalism (Graff). 

Next, John set up a printing business which he ran for twenty years. Some of his prestigious clients included the Tate Gallery and Pan American. 

Bird launched The Big Issue, a magazine that is sold on the streets by vendors who are homeless or in other ways disadvantaged, in 1991. He was inspired by Gordon Roddick, wife of Anita Roddick, the couple who founded The Body Shop.

Roddick explains:

I knew John was the person to make it work. He’d been homeless, and he could take care of himself in a physical sense. His instincts were not charitable but practical, and he knew the printing industry and how to write (Greenstreet). 

For two years, The Body Shop provided half a million pounds to fund The Big Issue. Gordon Roddick used his business expertise to help manage the magazine for the first three years. The magazine is now financially independent. John Bird explains: 

I had a free hand, but Gordon offered business expertise. He has a unique ability to get to the essence of things quickly. He also believes in walking before you can run. Gordon was good at reminding me not to get carried away – but he never pulled rank on me because he’s the chairman of an international company (Greenstreet). 

Today, The Big Issue is sold in Japan, South Africa, Australia, and the United States. The magazine has also trained vendors in the United Kingdom as journalists and pays for their contributions as reporters. Bird hopes the magazine will promote political activism. 

I don’t want to read The Big Issue and read how miserable it is living under capitalism. I want to know what you’re going to do about it, how you going to dismantle it (Lakhani). 

Since the magazine’s founding, Bird has established other initiatives to empower disadvantaged people. In 1995,  he launched The Big Issue Foundation, which provides advice and guidance for people who are homeless,  Then, in 2001, Bird, along with former Big Issue Chairman Nigel Kershaw, helped launch Big Issue Invest, which provides business loans aimed at social change. 

On 7 December 2015, John was appointed as a cross-bencher in the House of Lords. He is now known as “Baron Bird, of Notting Hill in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.” He believes he can do more to advocate for people who are struggling with poverty from within the political system.  

I am a self appointed grandee of the poor. I am one of them who got out and got into a position to help, so I will mollycoddle Lord Mandleson, Cameron, Blair, and Brown, anyone if it helps (Lakhani). 

John Bird has been honoured for his work in raising awareness of homelessness. He was awarded an MBE for services to homeless people in 1995. Then, in 2006 he was recognised with the Beacon Fellowship Prize. John Bird has also been awarded with an Honorary Doctorate of Business from Plymouth University.  

John Bird has five children and is now in his third marriage, to Praveen, a former television presenter. He remains deeply committed to addressing the root causes of poverty.  

I would hate to see us return to the deep, painful poverty of the years I came out of. But I would say that the politics of today are inadequate to the task of preventing, impeding, limiting the economy’s ability to go the wrong way, shrinking and shrivelling and creating poverty again  (Bird). 


Bird, John. “I was born into poverty – and 77 years later we still haven’t solved it.” The Big Issue, 17 Jan 2023. 

Greenstreet, Roseanna. “How We Met; John Bird and Gordon Roddick.” Independent, 27 August 1995. 

“It’s a confederacy of amateurs” – John Bird opens up the House of Lords in BBC documentary.” Radio Times, 27th February 2017. 

Lakhani, Nina. “John Bird tells Nina Lakhani why his 20-year-old magazine is being revamped.” Independent, 5 September 2011. 

McGrath, Nick. “John Bird: ‘At five I sold wooden boxes for firewood’.”The Telegraph, 23 September 2013. 

John Bird MBE – Doctorate of Business.” Plymouth University.  

Image available here.