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Activism

How Occupy London turned a Big Issue seller into the Lord of St Paul’s

Big Issue seller Jimmy McMahon became an icon of the 2011 Occupy London protests. This is his story.

It’s late afternoon on Sunday February 26, 2012. The sun is beginning to set and Jimmy McMahon is standing, shirtless and bearded on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral.

The camp is in its final days with evictions on the horizon after a protracted battle, both legal and physical, to keep the longest-running Occupy protest in the world going.

Jimmy has been a part of the movement since the occupation began in October 2011 but his links to St Paul’s go back much further – he’s slept rough there for a decade.

But this time things are different. Jimmy has just returned from the Land Registry office in Croydon. In his hands are documents laying claim to his ownership of the land underneath St Paul’s Cathedral.

Meet Jimmy. A rough sleeper. The Lord of St Paul’s. And a Big Issue vendor.

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Press photographer and journalist Paul Davey captured the iconic photo of Jimmy on the steps that day as well as another one where he raises his arms in an iconic Christ-like pose.

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“It was kind of bizarre in that he started taking off his clothes and I thought, ‘He’s gonna go strip naked here,’” recalls Davey.

“But, to me, when he stuck his arms out I knocked off a few shots there because it just looks a little bit like a crucifix type thing with the church in the background. I thought it would be quite a strong image and I think it is, looking at it now.”

Jimmy died in June 2020 at the age of 56 after a long struggle with alcoholism. Published last year, The Big Issue’s tribute described him as “kind-hearted and a real character” during the 10 years-plus he spent selling the magazine.

But there was much more to his remarkable life.

Back in 2011, Jimmy was welcomed with open arms to the Occupy camp from the beginning and worked in the kitchen on the site, playing his part in keeping the occupation going as the months went on.

Protesters have fond memories of Jimmy. Ronan McNern, who acted as the press spokesperson for Occupy London, remembered Jimmy as a “doer not a talker”.

Fellow Occupy veteran Jamie Kelsey-Fry recalled Jimmy’s humour. He said: “It was interesting to see how he thrived. Because he was so loved by everybody.

“With rough sleepers, people act as if they’re invisible. And yet Jimmy was not only visible, he was loved and he was taken seriously.”

As for Jimmy himself, he found a home in the St Paul’s camp.

Speaking in The Occupied Times of London – the Occupy London newspaper produced at the time – Jimmy spoke of his fondness for the camp community.

“I asked for a tent and was given one,” he said. “There’s a community here. I have welcomed these people to my home and they have welcomed me. There’s people I can sit with, eat with and have a conversation with. It’s the most human contact I’ve had in 10 years.”

But it was in the final days of the occupation that  Jimmy really made his mark.

The legal battle over whether the occupation at St Paul’s could continue was a protracted one that had rumbled on throughout.

On January 18, 2012, Judge Keith Lindblom ruled in favour of the Mayor Commonalty and the City of London to put an end to the camp, giving the green light to evict Occupy members from the camp.

But the activists appealed, the general assembly at the heart of the camp crafting legal arguments and submissions in the freezing cold on the concrete of St Paul’s as a group.

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Occupy members dug in. The legal action was blasted as “more extreme and more draconian than was necessary” at a Court of Appeal hearing.

The appeal was finally thrown out on February 22 after Lord David Neuberger – who, as Master of the Rolls, was the second most senior judge in England and Wales – ruled there was no significant evidence.

Stephen Moore was the fifth applicant for an appeal in the Occupy camp. A former bailiff, then 40, who had grown disillusioned with the financial system he was a part of after the crash of 2008, he was a member of the UK-branch of Anonymous that had become part of Occupy.

While the legal avenues to keep the camp running looked to have been exhausted, Moore was not done yet.

A supporter of Occupy had tipped off Moore that cathedrals such as St Paul’s were not registered on the Land Registry. In fact, confusion reigned at the time over who exactly owned the land that had been occupied throughout the protest.

Now was the time for a last roll of the dice – either to keep the protest alive or to play a prank on the establishment.

Speaking to The Big Issue 10 years on, Moore said: “We spotted this little loophole and some other stuff about King Charles I and we told the BBC about it.”

The “stuff about King Charles I” was a 40-page document from 1638 which, protesters claimed, saw the monarch bequeath the land on which the cathedral stood to the people of London.

A search on the Land Registry found the land was up for grabs, Moore said. The race was on to ensure someone could claim ownership of it. And who better than Jimmy?

That’s what Moore told the BBC in a news report at the time. He said: “I think it’s only fair and right that someone who has been living on the steps of St Paul’s for 10 years should own it.”

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Moore headed down to the Land Registry office with a BBC camera crew but found out the office had moved to Croydon, so off went Jimmy to claim ownership of the land, resulting in Davey’s iconic photos and Jimmy’s time in the sun outside St Paul’s.

“I filled all the forms in. I did all the paperwork,” said Moore, recalling the cross-London scramble. “It was just a little joke. I was trying to wind up the establishment using their own rules.”

In the end, the claim to the land fizzled out, according to Moore. Bailiffs and police evicted protesters from the camp two days later, by which time tiredness had taken its toll and activists had fragmented with different agendas and demands.

That led to inaction which saw Moore walk away. “Everybody was trying to take ownership of it,” he said, ruefully. “And so I just threw my hands up and said, crack on with that. They messed it up. Nobody actually ever did anything.

“The Land Registry were awesome. They wrote back to us at a care-of address we had in South London, and actually told us what parts of the form we needed to correct. I was all up for doing that because I could see the error that I made. But I just got tired of it and I walked away.”

This is not the first time that Jimmy’s story has been told. In the years that followed the occupation, Jimmy was interviewed for around nine months by Tim Price, a Welsh writer and playwright.

Those interviews became Protest Song, a one-man play that ran in London’s National Theatre in December 2013.

The play tells the story of Danny, who was sleeping rough in London before becoming embroiled in the Occupy movement. Danny was brought to life by none other than the actor Rhys Ifans and, while the story is a composite of several rough sleepers, Jimmy’s story looms large among them.

“We’d meet regularly and talk about Occupy, sometimes not about Occupy. We’d just go for a walk, hang out, have lunch, go for another walk,” says Price.

“He knew all the best places in London to hang out for free without being bothered. He introduced me to a whole new map of London. We’d be walking and deep in conversation and I’d look up and I wouldn’t know where the hell I was and he’d always know exactly where we were.

“The streets were his home and he spoke to everyone on the street as if they were friends. As I got closer to Jimmy I got to see a different side to him, the Jimmy who struggled with his demons, and on a bad day he could be challenging company.”

Jimmy made an impression on the writer but the world of the theatre also made an impression on Jimmy. It was a window into another world that he relished, just as Price welcomed the view into Jimmy’s life on the streets.

“Jimmy was there most nights and watched the show about two or three times, but what he enjoyed was the after-show drinks,” adds Price.

“Jimmy absolutely loved wandering around the bar with a drink in his hand introducing himself to people. He’d have his arm around Rhys talking to Primal Scream or some other rock stars and he was just in his element.

“He was at his happiest surrounded by people. He got to know Rhys well and his girlfriend at the time, Anna Friel. I think Jimmy got Anna’s number, which was typical of him, and they’d speak on the phone.

“Jimmy taught me that all anyone ever wants is to feel listened to. Whenever people feel like they have been heard with respect, the pain they are in becomes a little more bearable. I’ll always be grateful to Jimmy for that insight and the time he gave me.”

Occupy London gave Jimmy a chance to be treated as an equal and to have a voice in their people’s assemblies – a voice he had been denied by wider society.

While the attempt to claim ownership of St Paul’s failed to avert the end of the occupation or take Jimmy from rough sleeping to lordship on paper, in the eyes of his peers back at the camp he was immortalised for his part in the plot.

Moore recalls: “When he came back to camp that day, he really was the Lord of St Paul’s, he was Lord Jimmy, King Jimmy. He was like a rock star.”

This article is taken from the latest edition of The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach local your vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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