Tributes paid to hero Big Issue vendor Istvan Kakas who has died

The much-loved Bath seller, who once received an award from the city mayor for his life-saving heroism, has died age 52 following a battle with leukaemia

We are saddened to report that Bath’s heroic Big Issue vendor Istvan Kakas, who won an award after saving a girl and her father from drowning, has died.

The 52-year-old seller lost his life at Bath’s Dorothy House Hospice on Tuesday afternoon after a battle with leukaemia.

Istvan was a much-loved and well-known figure on his pitch at Halfpenny Bridge in Widcombe, Bath. He was renowned for keeping his busy pitch tidy using the trusty broom, often decorating it with flowers as well as tinsel and toys at Christmas time.

And that broom proved essential when he was called into action to rescue a father and his child when they fell into the River Avon in 2014.

The eight-year-old girl had been on a cycling trip when she fell in to the water and her father dived in to her rescue but got into difficulty. Quick-thinking Istvan extended his broom to pull the pair to safety and save their lives.

Istvan Kakas
Istvan shows off his Saints Foundation tabard ahead of selling the magazine at St Mary's Stadium in 2017

The modest vendor said that he couldn’t believe that crowds of onlookers were filming the incident, insisting, “This wasn’t a film, this was real life”.

Speaking after his life-saving antics, selfless Istvan said: “It was just a normal Sunday morning and then I heard a high-pitched scream.

“I looked around and could see nothing and then I spotted this little pink helmet in the water.

“I just reacted. The girl’s dad had jumped in and they couldn’t get out so I grabbed the broom, ran over to the other side of the bridge and used it to pull them up. It all happened really quick.

“I was so scared for the poor girl, she looked in shock and her family were terrified. I’m just glad I could help. I would’ve jumped in myself if I couldn’t help with the broom.”

Istvan Kakas (right) receives his Mayor's Citizen Award from then-Bath Mayor Malcolm Lees in 2014

Istvan’s heroism saw him receive the much-coveted Mayor’s Citizen Award a few months later from then-Bath Mayor Malcolm Lees.

Local police officer Gemma Kirby, who attended the awards ceremony with him, said at the time: “Whatever the weather he greets people with his friendly smile and a cheerful hello. Istvan’s presence on Ha’penny Bridge is undoubtedly positive to the local community; he engages with all and asks for nothing in return.”

Originally from the Hungary, Istvan began selling The Big Issue in Bath in 2010 in the latest stop in a life that had seen him work as a chef under Gordon Ramsay and Michael Caines as well as completing more than 250 parachute jumps while on military service.

During his stint with The Big Issue, he was also one of the vendors who sold the magazine at Southampton FC’s St Mary’s Stadium as part of our team-up with the Premier League side. He called the experience “one of his best days” despite his love for rival side Liverpool – Istvan even wore his Reds shirt under his coat while selling that day.

He chose to support the Anfield club after an incident during the 1989 revolution in his native Hungary when protesters adopted the club’s You’ll Never Walk Alone anthem.

Speaking in 2014 about why he worked so hard to keep his pitch tidy, he said: “I do my best to keep the area looking nice, that’s important to me. I get on well with everyone and lots of people know me.

“I was given the broom because my pitch is on private property and the council don’t look after it. I was happy to help keep it clean but I never imagined I’d use it for something like this [rescue].”

Geo Leonard, Big Issue service broker in Bath and Bristol, said: “Istvan will be deeply missed by all of us at The Big Issue. He had an incredible life and he was incredibly well thought of. He was very well looked after and supported at the end of his life and he would have been thrilled to see how many more people care so much for him and recognise his impact within the community.

“I would like to say thank you to Dorothy House Hospice for the terrific care that Istvan received in the last days of his life and I would like to say thank you to his regular customers for the help and support that Istvan received during his eight years of selling The Big Issue and over the last few weeks.”

In the wake of his death, his pitch has been covered in flowers and tributes from his regular customers.

Istvan Kakas tributes
Flowers and tributes have been left at Istvan's Halfpenny Bridge pitch

Pavel Douglas wrote: “To all Bathonians and those who regularly use the Ha’penny Bridge in Widcombe, Istvan the Big Issue seller who not long ago rescued a girl and her father from the river, has died.

“A thoughtful and quiet unsung hero. At least he won’t have to sleep rough anymore. RIP Istvan.”

Timothy West also paid tribute to Istvan and said: “Istvan was such a serving, friendly and fun character that will be missed by me and many in the city of Bath. He had a strong faith in Jesus and I believe he is with him now!”

Jodie Kesterton said: “So sad to hear that Istvan has passed away. He was the loveliest man who had a smile for everyone & was always so positive despite the difficulties he faced. Widcombe has lost a hero.”

Istvan will be laid to rest at a funeral at St Matthew’s Church in Widcombe on Saturday November 17 at 11am.

A fundraising campaign in his memory has raised more than £4,000 with the proceeds going towards covering his cremation as well as a planned tribute plaque on the bridge where he sold the magazine.